You may not be doing anything wrong, but there is definitely something you don’t know. The path to promotion is different in every company, so you need to learn more about how that process works in your company.
It might not have anything to do with you
In many cases, there is simply not an available position into which to promote you. Companies have limited resources and tight budgets, and they can’t promote everyone. The first question you should ask is whether your company is growing. If your company has a lot of open positions – you can check for postings on the company website and online sites like Indeed, LinkedIn, and ZipRecruiter – then it is probably growing. If there aren’t open positions, or you haven’t been introduced to a new employee in a while, then it is probably not growing. It is much easier to get promoted in a company that is rapidly growing. If the company is not growing, then you will need to wait for your immediate manager to leave in order for a position to become available. In some organizations, the wait can be quite a few years.
Even if your company is growing, it might not be growing in your department. For example, most companies have growth opportunities in revenue-generating positions like marketing and sales, or in competitive fields like software development, while they have quite a bit less opportunity in support roles like finance, accounting, and customer service. If the people who are being promoted around you are in different functional areas then you are, then it may not be about you, but about your role.
Your expectations may not be reasonable
It can take several years between promotions, and this timeframe increases as you get later in your career. A promotion from worker to manager might take 6-12 months, but a promotion from director to vice president is more likely to take 6-10 years. Most employees never make it to vice president at all. Zippia estimates that there are 107,918 vice presidents in the US (Zippia, 2023). Given that there are about 258 million adults in the US (Ogunwole et. al., 2021), that means that only four 1/100ths of a percent of the adult population makes it to vice president. That’s about one in every 2,400 people. So, you may need to be a little more patient, especially if the promotion you seek is into a senior management role.
You may be missing a critical credential
Some positions require a particular credential, either for regulatory reasons or in order to have credibility in the role. For example, many senior management roles require an MBA, or at least a Master’s degree in a relevant field. This may not be just a box-checking exercise. It may be that the person in the role is expected to be able to conduct a particular type of analysis or use data analytics strategies that are standard content in MBA programs. If the job description for the role you are hoping to win includes hard credentials that you do not hold, you may not be eligible for promotion into that role until you secure the credential.
You need more information
Since every company’s path to promotion is different, it is important to get information about how your company operates, so you can figure out what is preventing your promotion. It may be something that isn’t about you (no available positions, it takes more time, you need a particular credential), or it may be very much about you. You may not be performing up to the expectations of the organization:
You’re not producing what your boss wants
It may be that what you are producing doesn’t meet your boss’ expectations. Although it would be ideal if your boss simply told you that, in many cases, it’s hard to obtain this feedback. Many managers are conflict-avoidant, so they will start to work around you, rather than giving you the information you need in order to improve. If you don’t receive much feedback, try asking your boss for feedback when you hand in your next deliverable. Ask some questions: Is there anything I could have done better? Is there anything I can do to improve my work? See if you can get some information that verifies that you are producing what your boss wants. Amii Barnard-Bahn in Harvard Business Review suggests telling your boss that you are setting your annual goals as a pretext for asking these questions:
- What could I have done better on project XYZ last week?
- In your experience of working with me, what do you think I can do to establish my presence and become more visible to senior leaders?
- How can I get better at bringing my ideas to the larger team?
- What do you think is a strength that I need to leverage better?
You need to take charge of acquiring the feedback you need in order to improve, so use whatever approach works for your boss.
You’re misunderstanding the company culture
There may be something you are doing that doesn’t fit the company’s culture. For example, maybe you are really serious, but everyone else in the company likes to joke around. You may send signals that are damaging your position at the company. The only way to learn how to improve is to watch others and ask questions. Pay attention to the people who have been promoted around you. Watch how they behave. See if you can find some patterns that are common among those who have been promoted. Can you emulate them?
There is someone who is blocking your advancement
Sometimes you develop an enemy in a company, and that person can work to impede your progress. This can be especially challenging if that person is significantly higher than you in the company hierarchy. If you determine that someone is actively working against you (and has the power to impede you), then it is time to find a better working environment.
If there is something that you are doing that is impeding your progress to promotion, then that behavior is likely to continue to be a problem if you go somewhere else. If you receive constructive criticism at one company, and then you receive the same constructive criticism at another company, then you can be certain that the feedback is true, and you need to work to improve in that area.
Sometimes it isn’t fair
It is common for an employee who is frustrated about not being promoted to complain that their treatment isn’t fair. They may blame it on prejudice (against their race, gender, nationality, sexuality, immigration status) or on nepotism, but the theme is that it’s not their fault, and it isn’t fair. In some cases, it really isn’t fair. Injustices occur in the workplace, just as they occur everywhere else.
However, before you determine that your situation is an injustice, first try to find a mentor to help you gather more information. Look for a leader in the company that you like — someone who seems to have influence, who always seems to be moving forward — a winner. Find some time to ask that person about mentorship. Say that you’d like to move up, and you think you need a mentor. Most senior managers like to be seen as mentors and will have a desire to help. At the least, that person may refer you to a more appropriate mentor. If you get a chilly reception, then that’s a sign that the senior people in your organization do not support you, and it’s time to search for an environment where they want to invest in you.
In the end, whether or not you are promoted is a decision that will be made by someone else. It is outside of your control. It may be helpful to spend a little time thinking about why the promotion is so important to you and whether you might be able to meet that goal in some other way. For example, if you want the promotion because you want a specific title (like vice president), then why not start your own venture, where you can be the President/CEO? You can take back your power by finding a path to your dream that doesn’t require someone else’s approval.