Don’t ask for a promotion–ask to solve a problem

Thomas Barta TryThisBlog
By Thomas Barta
Last updated: November 28, 2017

Too many executives ask for promotion based on tenure or their employer’s generosity. A better approach is to help solve a real company problem.

Not long ago, I spoke at a large international technology conference. The hall was crowded, full of tech-savvy marketers. After my keynote, a young guy kicked off the Q&A by saying: “I’ve been a brand manager for two years. My reviews are good. So I’ve asked my boss when I’ll be promoted. But she wouldn’t say. What should I do?” When he finished, the audience spontaneously applauded. The young marketer had obviously hit on a hot topic.

I was perplexed. Throughout my career I’ve promoted hundreds of people. And while I realise in many companies the promotion process can be a bit of a ‘black box’, promotions mostly follow simple principles – principles this marketer obviously didn’t know. In fact, from someone whose day job it is to understand customers and create compelling offers, his question struck me as naïve. But the applause had confirmed people in the room share similar concerns. Time to peel the onion.

“If I were your boss,” I said, “you’d have just given me a reason not to promote you. Let me tell you why. And, more importantly, let’s think about how you can make your boss an offer she can’t refuse.”

Why give you a promotion?

Let’s start with the basic target group insights. For our book, The 12 Powers of a Marketing Leader, Patrick Barwise and I did some large-scale career research. We found there are three important promotion-triggers:

  • Reason 1: The promotion solves a problem. Perhaps the leader needs someone to fill a larger role. Perhaps she wants a person to stick around and not leave, or has committed to developing the next generation of leaders, and so on.
  • Reason 2: The leader is passionate about developing others and enjoys seeing people thrive. Often, these leaders scout opportunities for a select group of followers and push people up. In return, some expect loyalty and mutual support in the future.
  • Reason 3: The firm has a fixed promotion schedule. If a leader doesn’t believe a promotion is merited, she effectively has to prove why not. In extreme cases, like at McKinsey, this means ‘up or out’.

The need to solve a problem is far and away the most common promotion trigger, especially higher up inside the organisation. There may be regular promotions – from trainee to assistant, for example – but nobody gets bumped to CMO unless this solves a real company issue.

I looked back at the marketer who asked me the question. “So, where does your promotion fit in?” I asked. “Reason number 1, 2, or 3?” I could see the wheels turning.

You can always trust the system or hope to be on someone’s radar. There’s a better way. Make your bosses an offer they can’t refuse.

“I’m not sure what problem my promotion would solve,” he said. ”We don’t have a fixed schedule. My boss isn’t the biggest people person either. But it’s still unfair. I’ve done good work for two years.”

“So if none of the key promotion-reasons apply,” I said “what you are hoping for, then, is luck or mercy.” The young man nodded.

Here’s the thing: hoping for a promotion because you’ve been around for a while is like hoping for sales because your product has been in existence a long time. Tenure-based promotions may exist in old-style bureaucracies, but not in 21st-century marketing organisations. You’ve got to come at this in a very different way.

Lead on resolving a big issue

If your organisation doesn’t see the need to promote you, show that need. Prove how you could help solve a big company issue in a new role, and all eyes will be on you.

For example, Mark Addicks, the former CMO of General Mills, wasn’t pulled into his role. In fact, when he joined as a marketer, General Mills didn’t have a CMO. A few years into his job, he developed a plan for how General Mills should rethink marketing for a digital world and offered to lead the transformation as the company’s first CMO. He got the job.

If your organisation doesn’t see the need to promote you, show that need.

Another example: Harriet Green, former CEO of travel firm Thomas Cook, wasn’t headhunted. Instead she cold-called the chairman and made the case for how she’d turn the company around. She got the job.

When it comes to making a career move, successful leaders don’t take chances. Instead they figure out how the company can leap forward, and throw their hat into the ring.

So here’s how you can make your case for a promotion:

  • Define the big issue you want to tackle. How could your firm enter a new market, run better campaigns, create better products, save costs, act faster, or become future-proof? You’ll often need powerful numbers to prove your point.
  • Create a real action plan. What exactly would you do in month one, year one, and so on? It’s not enough to sketch out the big idea. People will trust you more if you’ve thought through the actual steps. It’s also important to be honest about what skills you bring and what you will learn in the new role.
  • After you’ve explained your plan, offer to lead the execution. Now you aren’t just selfishly asking for a promotion. Instead, you are showing that you’re dedicated to helping the company succeed and that you’re keen to lead the cause.

You can always trust the system or hope to be on someone’s radar. There’s a better way. Make your bosses an offer they can’t refuse. Show a big issue the firm needs to tackle. Then volunteer to get your hands dirty.

(From my Marketing Week column).