What They Don’t Tell You About Promotions

What They Don’t Tell You About Promotions
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I always thought life was a game where for the most part, you have to figure out the rules to succeed. In school (aka pre-real-life), the rules are clearly explained for how to succeed. You know when you’re taking a test and what the evaluation metric is. After that, it starts becoming harder to understand how to succeed.

Illustration by Tina Mailhot-Roberge.

At jobs, when you first start working, all you have to do is the work assigned. If you do it well and on time, you get a raise and hopefully a promotion. Eventually though, that isn’t enough and a lot of people find themselves puzzled about what they are no longer doing correct.

The game changes and no one tells you the new rules. I’ve seen law associates get frustrated when they don’t make partner even after they did all the paperwork and litigation right — all the i’s and t’s dotted and crossed. I’ve seen account executives at PR firms frustrated why they aren’t VPs after they get a lot of publicity for their clients.

There are two universal truths I find in promotions no matter what level though they get more and more important the higher you go up. First, the less your boss worries about you, the more he or she values you. Second, the more value you deliver the firm beyond your assigned work, the more likely you’ll get to the next level.

All managers are stretched thin. It’s like being a teacher in a classroom where you have some outstanding students and some challenging ones. You often end up teaching to the lowest common denominator to ensure no one gets left behind. The kids who can self teach or pick things up quickly are the ones who get the least attention and become a pleasure to teach. Employees who don’t need to be managed are the ones managers value a lot.

Not only can managers not spend much time helping people do their job but they actually don’t have as much time as you might think to come up with new ideas or work beyond the day to day and what’s been given to them. So people who can come up with projects and execute on them without direction are ones who are creating value for the firm and not just fulfilling on it.

Every industry has different things that a firm would value. A venture capital firm wants deal flow ultimately and not just due diligence done. An investment bank wants new trading ideas or M&A deals to work on — not just a pitch deck or excel spread sheet made. Law firms need new clients and not just good services to existing ones. Big multinational corporations need new $US100MM+ products or partnerships. Startups need just about everything and can rarely rely on founders to come up with every solution to every emerging problem.

You can get by doing your assigned job well for a while even with titles like managers or directors but generally as you get to VP or higher, you aren’t given exact instructions from your superior and you’re just expected to deliver.

In fact, no one in these industries really ever sits you down and explains that to make it to the highest levels you need to start doing work outside of your day to day work. They don’t tell you that you need to be out there meeting new potentials business or keeping up with industry trends on your own time. They don’t tell you that you need to come up with a project to do your assigned work even better than was originally planned — cause they didn’t have the time to think of something better. They don’t even explain to you in a structured manner “here’s how you go about doing this work” since it’s not your job yet — you’re at best an apprentice who needs to keep an eye out to learn. They just don’t have the time to teach you that.

So if you want to get promoted, keep these things in mind. Your manager isn’t charting your career trajectory because your manager is just trying to keep today’s operations running smoothly. You need to do today’s work, but the more you can deliver on tomorrow’s needs, the brighter your future will be at the firm.

What they don’t tell you about promotions [I Am Victorious]

Victor Wong is co-founder and CEO of PaperG, a San Francisco-based technology startup focused on local display advertising.


  • “the less your boss worries about you”, the more likely you may be taken for granted. Delivering extra value is only worthwhile in environments (manager, culture, etc.) where promotion/recognition is a likely outcome. Maybe you need to make sure your additional contributions are visible to the right people? Certainly not school any more 🙂

    • Also…. “your manager is just trying to keep today’s operations running smoothly”

      That’s a pretty bad manager who isn’t looking beyond today! It means they certainly aren’t looking for you to prove yourself over the next days/months/years to get a promotion!

      I’d say: Get a new job and negotiate a higher pay from the start. If you get another short sighted manager, at least you’re being paid more for the same work! Hopefully you get a good manager who will further reward your skills and knowledge.

    • It’s true what the author says but it’s not all.
      My wife does her job very well and is recognised, but has not been promoted in 10 years-because of the “other” factors. I’ll use Richard (a real person) as an example of the “other” factors.
      Richard gets the bosses visibility.
      Richard says the right words in the right way.
      Richard covers the bosses ass.
      Richard makes the right friends by speaking with the right people.
      Richard analyses what gets the most visibility (vice importance) and focuses on that.
      Richard may be a bit if a used car salesman, but the right people like him…
      No, I’ve never been In direct competition with Richard, but you learn a lot watching a “Richard” 🙂

  • Good article. Few other tips:

    If you want a particular role within a company; you should already be doing it before they “officially” recognize you and give you the role title. Do what ever you can to take on the extra responsibility and make sure it doesn’t degrade your current work.

    If you are looking to move up the chain and move into a manager role; ask your current manager to start giving you some of their LPA (Low Payoff Activities). This allows you to learn more about the job and also frees them up to focus on their HPAs (High Payoff Activities) which makes them look better to their boss. This ties back into my first tip where you should already be doing the job before you get the promotion.

  • One incredibly important thing that is missing here is that more often than not, if you are the top sales person, the top accountant, the top assessor, the top whatever in your department, and the very next promotional step takes you out of the ranks and into management, it would be a major loss to the company because their top person is now off the floor.

    I know people say that it is a poor manager to not recognise the potential of their best person being promoted to management because they will then have a greater ability to impart their knowledge onto others, it is rarely seen this way. All managers see is that they are losing their best person and simply cannot let that happen, so all promotions are blocked. This happens all the time and when their top person (the most attractive to head hunters), leaves for more money and a higher position in another company, they are suddenly shocked and think… crap what do we do now that our best person has left….

    • I was about to write something similar, but you said it better than i could. I’ve seen this happen a lot at my job; instead of promoting someone, the company prefers to hire someone from outside.

  • This article only applies to the private sector not to the public service. I work in public and can tell you now that for every 10 staff lazing about there are approx. 50 staff below and around them doing their work for them and propping them up.

    • That happens everywhere, not just the public service. An incompetent manager is made to look competent by not promoting their best staff so that they continually make the manager look good. The best worker bees are kept down and the over confident but poor workers are promoted to management.

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