The Right Ask at the Wrong Time: 3 Mistakes People Make When Seeking a Promotion

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With the start of a new year, you may be looking to breathe some new life into your career. Perhaps you’ve even begun building a case for why you deserve a promotion — and you may be absolutely spot on about that.

However, in your enthusiasm, it’s easy to overlook key steps crucial to the process. If you want to land a promotion, you’ll need more than just passion. You’ll need a fact-based approach that illustrates your concrete value to the organization. You’ll also need to consider some factors you may not have thought about — like timing and context.

As you prepare to ask your boss for a promotion, start by first making sure you avoid these three common pitfalls in your approach:

1. Asking at the Wrong Time

All too often, people go into promotion conversations without paying attention to the broader context of what is happening at their company. That could prove disastrous, even if your case is sound. For instance, this wouldn’t be a good time for anyone left at WeWork to be asking for a promotion.

Before scheduling a meeting with your boss, take stock of your company’s current situation. Given what’s going on, can you show that your promotion would help the company at large? If not, you may need to wait for a better opening.

Of course, you may find that it’s never the right time — and that’s when you need to start looking for something else.

Let me share an example from my own career: After having been through an initial public offering at MapQuest, I found myself at Organic Online, a highly sought-after agency. When Organic Online decided to go public, I assumed I would be part of the roadshow — but I was told that since I had recently given birth, it wasn’t a good idea. That’s when I decided to start looking for something else. Within months, I resigned to run the North American accounts for Ogilvy Interactive.

2. Focusing on Tasks Instead of Accomplishments

One very common mistake people make when building a case for their promotion is assembling a long list of tasks they’ve completed as proof of their worth. But are those tasks just part of the role you were hired for? Simply doing your job isn’t enough to warrant a promotion — you need to demonstrate that you are capable of going beyond the confines of your current role.

Instead of focusing on tasks, focus on true accomplishments. Now, what qualifies as a “true accomplishment”? Here’s an example: When I interviewed Clive Thompson about his book, Coders, he told me about a woman who dramatically increased the efficiency of her office by automating a process that took a substantial amount of time to accomplish manually. What once took hours every week could now be done in just a few clicks.

Not all of us can expect to have that level of impact, but in general, this is what I mean by “true accomplishment.”

For more expert career advice, check out the latest issue of Magazine:

3. Going It Alone

Out of fear or anxiety, many people just head straight into their boss’s office to ask for a promotion. They don’t stop to get feedback on their performance from their colleagues.

That’s a mistake. If you want to maximize your chance of success, you should use peer support to help frame and package your pitch.

For example, many mid-level managers have terrible people skills, don’t excel at training others, and surely offer little to no encouragement to their employees. If you’re looking for a managerial post, you should first check whether your peers see you as a leader — and if so, how? You can use their feedback to help prove your case to your boss. Even if you’re not angling for a managerial role, it may be helpful to talk with your peers about how you can add value or improve the culture in your new role.

Here’s a story that illustrates the value of turning to your peers for help: When I was traveling in Europe to promote Daily Makeover, a startup I used to run, I would confer with my colleague in order to get (and give) feedback on our pitches.

We were working with L’Oréal, Max Factor — all the big beauty brands — and despite my colleague’s talents, sometimes his words would come out like spaghetti. What I mean is: It tasted good, but I couldn’t untangle it to make it coherent.

While neither of us were advocating for a promotion, we were trying to strike deals for our startup, and having one another to lean on helped make us better at doing just that. We even got to the point where he would look over at me after a pitch and ask, “Spaghetti?” It became our helpful code word.

In fact, whether or not you decide to ask for a promotion, gathering feedback from your peers on your performance is a great way to start the year. It gives you the opportunity to plan ahead, identify areas for improvement, and see how you can get even better. Essentially, there’s a benefit to this process whether or not you move through the final step.

And when you do pop the question — asking for a promotion, that is — wouldn’t you prefer an obvious “yes”?

Jeannette McClennan is founder and CEO of The McClennan Group and coauthor of Innovators Anonymous: Seven Steps to Get Your Product Off the Ground.

By Jeannette McClennan