I know there are many reasons why women fail to get promoted to the top jobs: they’re not adequately sponsored, they’re viewed as risky appointments, some men prefer to promote other men. But I’ve also seen a lot of women stall in their careers because they don’t let their superiors know they’re looking to advance or take a proactive role in steering them. Instead, they keep their heads down, work hard and hope eventually someone will notice and give them a gold star. But promotions don’t drop from the sky. If you don’t ask, you don’t get. That said, whether you’ll be promoted also depends a lot on how you ask.
I once mentored a woman who’d been a director at her company for five years. She wanted to become a VP but her organization didn’t have a VP level. She believed her workload and assignments indicated that her boss already considered her to be operating at the VP level, but she didn’t have a title or salary commensurate with her role, and that really ticked her off. She loved the work, but knew that if she continued to accept the status quo she’d continue to feel exploited and would never get credit for her work. She knew something had to change, but was at a loss as to what to do.
I told her that quietly seething was not the answer. She had to take charge of the situation. I advised her to talk to her boss, but not to be confrontational or make the request about her. If she said, ‘You’re giving me a ton of work and treating me like a VP so I think I deserve the title and salary to match’ (or words to that effect), she wouldn’t succeed. Instead, I suggested she say, ‘I’m happy here. I love what I do and feel really challenged. But I’m interested in advancing in my career and it’s unclear where I can go from this point. Where do you see me having the opportunity to move forward?’
She asked her boss for a meeting and reported back that he’d asked her to envision her role if the company had a different structure, map out what that structure would look like and how she pictured her new role evolving within it. She drew up a proposal, gave it to her boss, he thanked her —and then three months went by. “What am I supposed to do now?” she asked. The exasperation in her voice was palpable.
I told her that after three months it was entirely reasonable for her to request another meeting. This time I suggested she ask her boss to lunch and say, ‘Ron, I’ve given you what I think is a fair amount of time to consider my proposal for structuring the company so that it can be even more successful than it is now. What do you think about my plan? Do you agree with it? Disagree? Do you think it can be implemented? If not, what changes would you recommend?’
I also suggested that she remind him matter-of-factly that she’d been at the same level for five years. To become a COO she had to learn how to do X and Y. If she moved up, she’d be exposed to new challenges, gain new leadership skills, and those skills would give her the tools she needed to help grow the company. Again, I cautioned her against coming across as whiny, resentful, or worse, threatening to quit if he didn’t promote her. (Ultimatums are never a smart move.) I also reminded her not to focus on title or salary at that meeting, but rather on her desire to grow as a businessperson and leader so she could bring new ideas to the company. The time to talk money was after her boss had agreed to the promotion. At that point it would be clear that if she was going to be assuming more responsibility, she deserved to be paid more money. She followed my advice, and six months later elatedly emailed me that she’d won the promotion.
Lest you think women are the only ones who have to learn to think strategically about their career advancement, guess again. Journalist and CNN anchor Jake Tapper has said that it took him decades to figure out that when he wanted a job, the question to ask himself wasn’t how to get the person who had the power to offer him the job how to do it as a favour to him, but rather how he could best offer that person what they wanted. He finally realized he had to figure out their needs first, and then make himself such an attractive choice they’d realize they had no option but to hire him, since he’d make them look better and smarter.
It’s so tempting to look at successful people and imagine they sailed straight to the top, but it never happens that way. All the successful people I’ve ever met have had to figure stuff out and strategize every step of the way.