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Pursuing a Promotion: How to Manage the Moving Goalposts

By Jason Harrell, DTCC Managing Director, Head of External Engagements, Operational and Technology Risk | 5 Minute Read | December 12, 2022

My grandmother used to say, ‘Closed mouths don’t eat!’

The same can be said about promotions. As an executive, I have often been asked the question, ‘What must I do to get promoted?’

My career journey has taught me a lot about what to do and what not to do when climbing the ladder and here’s a little of what I’ve learned. It can be frustrating to get vague direction from our employers which can make getting a promotion to feel even more elusive and unattainable.

When employers are not clear with the steps necessary to obtain a promotion it creates confusion, and frustration, and ultimately forces you to think about how to attain promotion through other means (i.e., another job). Creating a plan throughout the year will help you have more time to make big career decisions.

You should consistently (at least quarterly) have a conversation with your supervisor so that they know you want to be promoted. This conversation should include specific goals or skills that you need to develop to be promoted.

Pursuing a promotion requires you to learn and understand the requirements and also the culture of the organization. Having the qualifications and experience is not always enough. Cultural barriers and biases do play a significant role in career advancement.

Dispelling Myths

While there are many myths that I can share, these are the three I see most often when talking to men and women of color.

1.  If I work hard enough and demonstrate my skills then this will automatically lead to a promotion.

My parents taught me that if I work twice as hard and was twice as good then (and only then) would I have the opportunity to advance. What I have learned is that demonstrating this type of excellence is only part of the path to promotion.

2.   Everyone wants to be promoted

This is the implicit belief that often happens to us as men and women of color. It follows from our belief in the following statement. ‘Shouldn’t my boss know that I am trying to advance?’ The truth is that there are people who enjoy doing their specific role, and who are not looking for upward mobility. To be crystal clear, there is nothing wrong with those who have decided that their current role provides fulfillment. However, if you are trying to advance and believe that your employer should just know this, you are killing your own opportunity.

“To be crystal clear, there is nothing wrong with those who have decided that their current role provides fulfillment.”

3.  Company Loyalty is always rewarded by promotion

As men and women of color, we can be unquestionably loyal to our place of employment. Unfortunately, at a certain point, we must be realistic about our employer’s commitment to promoting us. Those that know me have heard me say at some point, ‘Promotion is not a lifetime achievement award’.

While having institutional knowledge is a plus, duration at the same company doesn’t put you at the front of the promotion queue.

Promotion Builders

Be willing to do the work

While working twice as hard won’t always lead to a promotion, being willing to work on the right things will increase your chances for promotion. Keep an open mind on those things you need to work on and seek opportunities to display your improvement. This may include developing new skills or volunteering for special projects.

Network, Network, Network

It is important to form relationships both inside and outside of your team. First, this will provide a greater perspective on how your work fits within the larger organization. Second, it creates connective tissue between yourself and the organization. Third (and most importantly), you never know where your next opportunity will come from. Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. Quite often, lucky people generate their own good fortune.

“Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”

Stay Open to Outside Opportunities

As men and women of color, we can be so focused on the world in front of us that we fail to recognize that sometimes the best opportunities are flying right by us. The great thing about exercising the first three pillars in this section is that we are making ourselves more valuable.

You Are the Talent!

Remember, companies want talented individuals. It is the hungry ghost that fuels all high-performing organizations. By developing yourself, you make yourself more valuable and that may be recognized within your team, within other parts of your organization, or in some instances, outside of your current organization.

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Jason Harrell DTCC Head of External Engagements, Operational and Technology Risk, CISM