Harvard career advisor: 'Getting a promotion isn't just something that happens over a 20-minute meeting'

"So much of career success is the consequence of small things we do every day."

Gorick Ng.
Photo by Nile Scott

The coronavirus pandemic has many people rethinking their career paths. Nearly half, 41%, of the global workforce is likely to consider leaving their current employer within the next year, and 46% plan to make a major pivot in their work lives, according to a January 2021 Microsoft survey of 31,092 workers across 31 countries.

If your pandemic career-reassessment has you looking to make a big move at your current company, start preparing now. "Getting a promotion isn't just something that happens over a 20-minute meeting," says Gorick Ng, Harvard career advisor who specializes in helping first-​generation, low-income college students start and build their careers, and author of "The Unspoken Rules." "So much of career success is the consequence of small things we do every day."

Here are four tactics Ng recommends you try if you're looking to get a promotion.

Determine what success would look like

Start working toward your next job from day one in your current position. "When you first show up in a job, what does success look like?" says Ng. "What do I want to learn? Who do I want to meet? What do I want to have on my resume?"

Ask yourself what's expected of you if you want to show your potential, he says. That's likely to include small things — such as meeting your deadlines, presenting accurate calculations, and writing without grammar and spelling mistakes — as well as bigger achievements. "Is it that I'm expected to lead more meetings to drive my own work? To present in front of other departments?" says Ng. "Knowing what others had to go through can give you the most concrete idea possible of under what circumstances you're ready for that promotion."

Check in with your manager regularly to monitor progress toward your goals, and ask for more of the work you're interested in. Ng suggests framing your asks along these lines: "'As I think about where I can take my career next, I'd love to take on more responsibilities. Is this a conversation that we can be having?' Or 'Am I on track to receive this promotion?'"

Make sure to focus on offering to help, he adds. "Frame this as a collaborative: 'How can I take on more?' rather than 'How can I get promoted?'"

'Navigate your way to a portfolio of responsibilities'

Get a sense of how promotions work at your company. Your company may expect workers to move up the ranks every few years, or you may have to wait for a vacancy. In some cases, you may be able to create the position you'd like to have.

Once you identify the promotion patterns at your company, then make sure you fit that pattern, he says. "If you can create a new need and you can identify what matters most to your organization, you can carve out a position for yourself." 

Frame this as a collaborative: 'How can I take on more?' rather than 'How can I get promoted?'
Gorick Ng
Harvard career advisor and author of 'The Unspoken Rules'

Identifying promotion opportunities yourself is especially important if you're working in a start-up that's focused on growing. "The key to getting a promotion isn't to wait around for someone to offer it to you," says Ng. "It's to essentially navigate your way to a portfolio of responsibilities that you can claim for yourself, and then people start saying, 'Why don't you be director of marketing?' or 'Why don't you be head of growth?'"

'Identify problems that matter' — and help solve them

Demonstrating great performance is about meeting and exceeding expectations, and then doing more. "It's about doing a task and then saying, 'I can do this as well, would that be helpful?'" he says. This way, you're not only setting yourself up for a new job title, but you're also building trust and unlocking more opportunities and the potential for greater responsibilities.

One way to make your special skills stand out is to "carve out your own swim lane," which Ng describes as "looking around and observing problems that have yet to be solved." 

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Video by Courtney Stith

Often, this means observing the priorities of the people above you. "The more that you are in tune with what matters to those who matter, the more you'll be able to identify problems that matter and projects that matter, and the more you'll be able to align yourself with work that matters, and in turn, the more you will matter," he says.

This is how you'll become a greater asset to your company while carving out your desired path. "You'll not only be able to claim more, but you'll also strategically be able to align yourself with work that matters to the organization, and ideally work that you yourself are interested in and want to do," says Ng.

Build your 'workplace capital'

There are three kinds of "workplace capital" you have to build to get ahead, says Ng: human capital (what you can do), social capital (who you have built relationships with), and reputational capital (how trusted you are).

"You're building your skills, you're growing as an individual, you're meeting people as a consequence of putting yourself out there," he says. "By doing a good job and claiming these unclaimed swim lanes and making others look good and feel good, supporting the team, helping the team achieve its goals, you're building reputational capital." 

At the beginning, much of the responsibility falls on you to volunteer and to seek out more responsibilities, says Ng. "But over time as you're building that reputational capital, people may come to you."

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