Getting — Not Regretting — Your Next Promotion

Promotions are a nearly universal aspiration in the workforce. A public decree that you are advancing in your career, they come with more: more money, more respect, and more opportunities. Those who pursue promotions at all costs, however, discover they can also come with less: less work/life balance, less fulfillment, and less happiness.

By Sarvenaz Myslicki, SWE Editorial Board Chair

Seeking a promotion? Self-reflection and steadfast preparation are essential to earning a promotion that is right for you. Therefore, not only is it important to ask, “How do I get my next promotion?” but also, “How do I not regret my next promotion?” Follow these steps as you consider the why, how, and when to ask for that promotion.

CREDIT: Sorbetto

Step 1: Know yourself

First things first. Before anyone else can know what your aspirations are, you need to define them yourself. Build a habit of self-reflection that allows you to gain a deep understanding of your values, motivators, and desires. Only then can you pursue the types of opportunities that will bring you long-term fulfillment.

Step 2: Explore your options

Once you are armed with these insights about yourself, you are ready to explore your options. Consider paths across various departments, companies, and even industries, not just the most common next step for someone in your current role. Keep the door open externally even if you are content where you are. You never know what unexpected opportunities you might find!

Step 3: Prepare yourself

External “promotions” can be approached like any standard job search. Unlike a lateral position, though, you may find that companies aren’t as open to taking risks on candidates who do not have prior experience in a role. To combat this, be sure to frame your resume and interview responses in a way that demonstrates your readiness at the next level.

Internal promotions are not as straightforward. Companies have a variety of approaches when deciding whether someone is ready for an internal promotion. Some ask candidates to submit a written packet or portfolio, while others require assessments or panel interviews. Some companies require multiple levels of approval, and others leave the decision to the direct manager. Whatever the case may be at your company, it is critical that you know your department’s process long before you are ready to pursue your promotion.

Step 4: Share your intentions

Do not be shy when it comes to your ambitions, but know that timing matters. You’ll want at least a six- to 12-month head start in communicating your aspirations to your manager. An early conversation can help your manager position you for success and allows you to proactively take on the type of work you need to prove your readiness. However, you should be an established, high-performing member on your team before you bring up promotion goals. Talking about a promotion when you’re still relatively new and have yet to prove yourself may not leave the best impression on your manager.

Step 5: Be promotable

As you (and your manager) work to identify and close any skill gaps standing in the way of your promotion, keep these two tips in mind:

  • Once you close your skill gaps, you need to market the fact that you have these new skills to those who will have a say in your promotion. You can do this through formal demos and presentations or more informal updates.
  • It will be hard for your manager to “let you go” if your team cannot function without you in your current role. Make sure you are not the only person on your team who understands the details of your system or knows how to do a critical task. As gratifying as it is to be needed by the team or be the hero who knows how to fix everyone’s problems, your goal should be to develop a self-sufficient team.

Step 6: Avoid getting “stuck”

Managers do not always respond to promotion goals in the most supportive manner. Be wary if your manager replies in either of the following ways:

  • They deny your request for a reason that is “out of their control” and unrelated to your capabilities, such as budget restrictions, promotion freezes, or no open opportunities.
  • They use stall tactics such as “you just need a little more time” or “by the next promotion cycle, you should be ready,” while failing to provide any tangible skills or experiences you need to gain during that time.

It is important to recognize these situations as they can leave you “stuck” in a role that you have outgrown. Your options in these cases are to wait or to expand your horizons and consider searching for opportunities not bound by such constraints.

Step 7: Transition wisely

Now, let’s assume you got the promotion. Congratulations! It likely took a lot of hard work getting to this point, but the hard work is not over. Don’t let your excitement keep you from ensuring the following takes place:

  • Clearly define your new role. Promotions don’t always come with clear job descriptions the way formal job postings do. In these situations, you should ask for a job description to be created or create one based on your understanding of the role. Ideally, be sure your new manager reviews and finalizes your job description before you officially accept the role. Otherwise, you might end up with a random assortment of responsibilities you didn’t sign up for.
  • Make a clean transition. This is easier if you are switching teams, as long as your prior responsibilities are well-documented, and your team can operate without you. If you are promoted within the same team, your proximity may result in your prior role’s not being backfilled quickly or at all, especially if you continue performing your previous tasks in an attempt to be helpful. Set a firm boundary between your prior and new roles to ensure you are not left with double the work.
  • Create a plan for your first 90 days. It is normal to feel overwhelmed when starting a new role. A 90-day plan can help you structure your time and set you up for success. A critical part of your plan should be identifying your new support system. You should expect to ask for help from this trusted group early and often.

Good luck!

Sarvenaz Myslicki (she/her) has been an avid SWE member for more than 10 years. She has held leadership positions at the section and Society levels and currently serves as chair of the editorial board. A vice president of engineering for American Express, Myslicki holds a B.S. and an M.S. in computer science, as well as an executive MBA.