What they don’t tell you about promotions

I always thought life is 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.

imageAt 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 $100MM+ 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.

This is an expanded answer to my earlier one to the Quora question: “What are a few unique pieces of career advice that nobody ever mentions?