This article will probably land a few more emails in my inbox over the coming weeks and months, but here we go.
The more conversations I have with design leaders, individual contributors, and even design managers, the more I am reminded how much of what I know today as a manager are things nobody told me as an individual contributor. I wish I did.
I have been generally pretty lucky to have managers that understood my value and rewarded me for my work. I know this is not necessarily true for everyone reading this. Whomever you report into, the advice below should be useful nonetheless.
Asking for a promotion is uncomfortable for both the individual contributor and the manager. It's asking to be recognized and rewarded. I'd argue, however, that it should be the norm. Always remember that nobody cares about your career as much as you do.
Understand your motivations
In my conversations with team members over the years, most people know they want a promotion but very few thought deeply about why. Knowing why you want a promotion helps you have a more constructive conversation with your manager, especially if you’re asking for it.
There are many different reasons to want a promotion. Generally, it’s either one or more of the following four:
- Financial reward: a promotion that doesn't come with a raise isn't really a promotion. That said, think about this for a second. If you were given a higher financial reward at the same level, would you still want the new title and responsibility? Do you want a promotion or do you want an adjustment to your compensation? Sometimes these are tied together but other times they're not.
- Better title: sometimes it's about the title. A new shiny title might open doors for you in your career that your current title doesn't. This is true both within the organization as well as outside of it as you advance your career in your industry.
- Larger scope: do you want the ability to lead larger projects and teams? Have bigger impact on the organization? Are you bored of your current scope and want to be challenged?
- Getting recognized: this is one of those reasons that is in the back of everyone's mind all the time but is rarely spoken. Wanting to get publicly recognized for the work you’ve been doing is normal.
Objectively, are you ready?
I found that many people are surprised of the expectation around a promotion. Being ready for the next level meaning having performed at the level for sometime. A few months at least.
In my experience, measuring how ready you are is actually tricky. People generally default to one of two extremes: either thinking they're ready when they're not, or waiting too long before claiming they're ready. Neither one is optimal.
Take a hard look at what you've achieved and how far you've come since your last promotion and compare your work to your and the organization’s expectation of the next level. Write your progress down. Split it into four different areas:
- Craft: how far have you improved your craft? How are you a better designer, engineer, or product manager than you were few months or years ago?
- Driving for outcome: what projects have you driven to completion? How have you helped the organization continue to move forward efficiently?
- Leadership: how are you a better leader than you were before? This is especially important if the position you're getting promoted to is a leadership position. Write down the changes you've championed, the people you've mentored, and the teams you've led.
- Scope: this is important as you grow in your career. Has your scope changed or is changing? Are you now leading products instead of features? Are you leading product lines or end to end experiences instead of specific products?
Go through the four areas above and write down the gaps between your current performance and accomplishments, purely on each one of those areas, in comparison to the need at the next level.
Don’t fall into trying to determine if you’re at the next level from the point of view of your manager. It’s okay to focus on your point of view as you go through this exercise.
Understand your constraints
If you think you’re not ready, ask why. Sometimes the reasons are not about your skills or abilities but more about the opportunity you’ve been provided or the tools you’ve been given. Being constrained by a project or a team might prove to be more of an issue than the skillset you need to advance to the next level.
Not having the right opportunity to showcase your skills or the tools to help you advance forward might be the true constraint preventing you from advancing forward.
Remember, even if it is not your fault, it’s still your problem.
Understanding your constraints allows you to have an honest and direct conversation with your manager on changes they might need to make to ensure you're afforded the opportunity to either grow, or prove your abilities.
Have the conversation with your manager
If you believe you're ready, or close to being ready, have the conversation with your manager. If you believe you're not, have the conversation anyway and make it clear it's about what you need to do to get there.
Walk them through your thinking, your expectations, your motivations, and your constraints. Have an honest discussion with your manager about places they can help you to unlock opportunities to grow.
Most people wait to see if they're getting promoted "this coming cycle". Don't. Set expectations and ask for it. Sometimes, your expectations are misaligned, it's good to know this is the case much earlier than after the cycle has come and gone.
As you talk to your manager, set a clear timeline of your and their expectations. "Keep doing what you're doing" doesn't cut it. Your goal shouldn't be to have your manager guarantee a promotion. Most managers cannot. They can, however, make sure you are aligned on when they'll make a recommendation.