Sep 9, 2022 | Advancing Your Career

How do I get experience managing people, so I can get promoted?

Q. Dear Zenagos, I work in marketing and have been promoted steadily throughout my career. I’m at a Director level now and the next level is VP. One of the requirements for VP is to have a track record in managing people, but I can’t get my boss to give me people to manage – not even one person. What should I do to gain the experience? I like my company and I’d rather not leave.
–David
When you get excuses for why you can’t be promoted, you need to corner a manager whom you trust and find out the real story. It may really be true that if you acquire management experience, you will be on the fast track to VP. Or, the truth may be something else. It may be that there are other deserving candidates who are in line ahead of you. It may be that a new VP spot won’t open up for years, if ever. It may be that there is another leader in the business who doesn’t want you to become a VP and is blocking your promotion. Before you go to the trouble of figuring out a way to get management experience, do what you can to be sure that management experience is really the issue.

It often happens that an employee is highly valued as a Director, but is nonetheless considered “not VP material.” When this occurs, the issue is usually behavioral. The Director is highly productive, but is considered “unpolished” or “annoying.” The Director may be very knowledgeable and capable, but unable to resist blurting inappropriate things in front of senior managers. Or, the employee may say nothing at all in meetings, which is also a problem. Or, the employee may tend to publicly speak out against company positions. In order to get promoted to VP, you need to be good at your job, but you also need to be considered a polished leader who can represent the company and will support hard decisions.

If you decide that acquiring people management experience really would address the issue, but you will not be given the opportunity to manage people at your current company, then think outside the box. Can you volunteer to manage the summer intern program? Can you volunteer to mentor the new hires in your department? Have you tried creating a budget that shows that you could double your output and productivity if you had a direct report? Can you volunteer to manage people or projects at a local nonprofit? Turn over all possible stones.

If you have really tried everything and made no progress, then you have a more focused choice:

1. You can choose to stay and not be promoted.
Since you have made the request to have direct reports and have not seen action, you should assume that your request cannot (or will not) be met. It is possible that you could force a change by getting an offer from another company and using it as leverage to convince your current company to give you people to manage. However, it is safe to assume that if they could (or cared to) accommodate you, they would already have done it (or given you a timeline for doing it). So, forcing the issue will most likely just force you out of the company.
2. You can leave to find an opportunity that will give you people management experience.
It is true that most VP positions (but not all) do require management experience. Taking a position at another company that includes direct reports will improve your resume. However, it will not guarantee you a path to VP at the new company, either. Even if the new company says you will be “considered” for VP, this is a common promise. After you have gained a few years of management experience, see where you stand.

Before you decide to leave a company you like, ask yourself how important it is to be a VP. Are you willing to work for a boss you don’t like and/or at a company you like less well than your current company? If you are, then it’s time to make the move.

You might also be interested in: My boss says I do terrific work; why don’t they promote me to VP?

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