Today's topic is the question I most often received as an IT manager: "Why can't I get promoted?"
To clarify, I'm talking about real promotions that involve a real change in responsibilities. These would include programmer to analyst, analyst to manager, manager to director and director to VP. I'm not discussing skill-level promotions -- such as programmer to senior programmer and analyst to senior analyst -- that are common in technical fields.
Whenever I got this question, I tried to explain how the promotion decision was made. My explanation was always this: "You never promote somebody who has done a good job. You promote someone who has changed his job."
I don't know who originally said this, but it always made sense to me.
The person who has done a good or even a great job should be given praise and monetary rewards, but he shouldn't be promoted. The business world is littered with great salespeople who failed as sales managers, great engineers who failed as engineering managers, and great IT analysts who failed as IT managers.
The person who should be promoted is the one who has shown not only the ability to do the current job, but also the behavior and the interest that would indicate the ability to do the next job.
Remember, nobody wants to promote someone only to see him fail in the new position. So if you're looking to move up, you need to display behavior that minimizes the perception of risk in promoting you. That is the essence of changing your job: You must show the promoter that you possess the skills to do the next job, thereby validating the decision to promote you.
For example, if you are a programmer and your only interest is to get clear specifications and go off and do the coding, you may not get promoted. But if you ask intelligent questions about why things are specified the way they are and perhaps suggest some alternative approaches that might improve the outcome, you are on the way to being an analyst.
If you are an analyst but have no interest in the political climate of the company, then you may be an analyst for a long time. However, if you demonstrate an awareness and understanding of the company issues that cause certain things to happen, you may be punching your ticket for a manager's job.
If you're a manager and you take the time to understand the financial and strategic issues affecting the company, you're paving the road to the director and VP level.
Of course, there's more to it than that. At each level, there are fewer and fewer jobs, and the competition becomes more intense. No one can tell you the way because there is no one clear path. In some cases, it may be advantageous to take a lateral position to gain some helpful experience. And typically, success stories are riddled with excellent timing and just plain good luck. You will need all of that to put yourself in a position to move to the next higher role if it becomes available.
Here's what I would always tell my subordinates: Your career is in your hands, not mine. Don't sit back and think that advancement will just fall into your lap. You have to take control. You must be able to do your current job well and, at the same time, show that you have what it takes to move to the next job. This is the essence of promotability.
Paul M. Ingevaldson retired as CIO at Ace Hardware in 2004 after 40 years in the IT business. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.