A friend recently asked for my advice about landing a promotion.

I asked if he had shared his ambitions with his manager.

He responded, “My work should speak for itself. I don’t like to toot my own horn.”

This is a romantic notion but separated from reality.

I would love for my small businesses to market themselves, finding new customers independent of me.

If only life were that easy.

I understand his line of thinking:

  1. He is not comfortable bragging about himself.
  2. He wants to earn promotions on merit.
  3. Self-promotion can be seen as “playing politics.”

This is noble.

But what if his peers take a more assertive approach?

I see four holes in this mindset:

  1. Inadvertently sending a “disinterested” signal.
  2. Assuming that managers see everything you do “behind the scenes.”
  3. Believing that a fair and balanced process decides promotions.
  4. Ignoring that “self-confidence” is a critical hiring criterion for managers.

Let’s look at each to see why your work won’t always speak for itself.

How Bad Do You Want It?

Desire matters when it comes to your career.

I have mistakenly promoted good people who weren’t sure they wanted the next role.

One individual was a top sales rep and had more tenure than anyone in the office.

Lines formed at her desk because she was caring and patient with her teammates.

She did a manager’s job without the title. But she didn’t want the pressure of being responsible for a team’s results. She also loved her job and didn’t want to give up her individual duties.

I stubbornly persuaded her to take the leap because she was our best internal option. I wanted someone that I trusted in this role.

Notice a trend?

Everything in this executive decision was about what I wanted.

I hoped that she would grow to love this role over time.

I was wrong.

Her lack of confidence was immediately apparent.

She never saw herself as worthy of the role, and her team suffered for it.

We ultimately moved her back to the sales role where she was much happier.

If you need to be sold on the position, you are likely the wrong person.

I would rather promote someone busting down my door with energy than drag someone kicking and screaming.

This is why I appreciate people who assertively push for more responsibility.

Do you want to be a manager?

If so, managers make decisions, confront problems head-on, and are comfortable with conflict.

Don’t shrink when your moment arrives.

Show Me What I Can’t Easily See

When deciding on who to promote into management, executives look at two things:

The tangibles speak for themselves. Any executive can pull a report and see that you finished 1st in sales on a team of twelve.

But #1 doesn’t necessarily get the job.

On the contrary, the top performer can be a very dangerous promotion if they lack the intangibles.

No one wants to work for the self-centered diva who puts herself before her team.

Your metrics only get you into the conversation.

For the intangibles, I have three means of discovery.

  1. I can ask you.
  2. I can observe you.
  3. I can ask your peers.

I learn more about your leadership by observing you and talking to your teammates than by asking you.

If you are a leader, your peers will speak highly of you.

  • Who are the people you help behind the scenes?
  • Do you quietly mentor peers in the office?
  • How often do you sacrifice to help someone else?

What will your peers say about you when the next position opens up?

If you are not sure, you have work to do.

The myth of the panel interview

Between 1981, when Jack Welch took the helm at GE, and 2001 when he retired, GE’s stock value soared from $14 billion to $400 billion. 

The decision to replace this legend was tracked closely for years.

For six years, a group of 23 senior executives in the power, medical, transportation, and finance industries were watched closely like college athletes before a professional draft.

By 1998, the field was narrowed to three potential successors.

In late November of 2000, Jack Welch boarded the GE corporate jet and gave the pilots an audible. Rather than departing for corporate headquarters in New York, they would be headed to Cincinnati.

What he was about to do required such secrecy that even the pilots could not be directed in advance.

They landed in darkness, and in a private room at the corporate aircraft hangar, Welch met James McNerney, the head of GE’s aircraft engine business. Welch’s message: You’re not getting the job.

Welch walked back to his plane, where the pilots thought they would now be going to New York. Wrong again, Welch said: We’re going to Albany.

There, he repeated the same bad news to another finalist, Robert Nardelli, chief of the business that made power equipment.

Jeff Immelt had a similar meeting but got the news he wanted – he would become GE’s next CEO.

No candidate was interviewed in corporate history’s most closely watched and consequential succession race.

And if that decision can be made without an interview panel, what makes you think you deserve one?

You interview with every phone call, report, and interaction with your teammates and management team.

Start interviewing today by doing the job before they give you the title.

Do you believe in yourself?

I once had an open position in our most profitable office.

The team was loaded with talented people, but two stood out as natural successors. In this case, we gave them a chance to do a panel interview.

The slight favorite came to the interview unprepared. When asked about his plans for the office, he seemed distracted and unsure of himself.

He couldn’t articulate why he wanted the job or what he might do.

Our second candidate was the opposite.

She arrived with a plan, laying out her intentions with personnel, process, and goals for the office.

Her confidence won her the job.

Executives spend most of their time making a few big decisions every quarter. It may be allocating capital, filling an open position, or reorganizing the business to adjust to a market correction.

They can’t afford to get dragged into every front-line decision, which is often a symptom of weak middle management.

Executives prefer confident managers who are not afraid to make decisions and own the results, good or bad.

If you can’t demonstrate self-confidence to express your career ambitions, how can you expect to be trusted to make decisions as a manager?

So, How Can I Get Promoted Quickly?

Would Coke or Disney be as successful without marketing? Of course not.

The best products in the world need marketing.

And marketing works best when it educates and shares information we might not already have.

I wrote about how successful people are simply more assertive, as “fortune favors the bold.” Passive and quiet employees rarely move on to more impactful roles.

The friend I mentioned at the start of this article had a long list of teammates whom he quietly mentored.

When asked if they would vouch for him, he responded, “Yes!”

So, I suggested that he ask his manager what skills were required in the next role.

Once she lists what she is looking for, he can respond with, “Great! I’m already doing so much of what you’re looking for. Do you mind if I share with you?”

Then, he can share the impact he’s made on his teammates.

This isn’t bragging.

I appreciate anyone who helps me fill in the blanks as a manager.

If he does not have experience to share, this can be a perfect time to ask for more responsibility in his current role.

State your career ambitions clearly to your manager and lay out your case with evidence.

Take extra caution to share your accomplishments that are not easily measured. Tie your body of work to the requirements of the job you seek, and make it clear that you want to make a bigger impact.

Finally, take some work off of your manager’s desk and do it as well as she would.

Because your work certainly won’t speak for itself.


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