Here’s a process that works to create and achieve a plan for promotion. It works for any level, and really any career path or field. It also works for any goal at work or in your personal life, and works even better when you cover work and life at once. For now, though, we’ll focus on engineering.

  1. Know your current state: Understand where you’re presently at, and accept it. 
  2. Unpack the goal: Be specific about what it means to you. 
  3. Break the goal down: Plan and take massive action.
  4. Plan for the obstacles: Turn these into strategies.
  5. Iterate: Routinely review your current state and progress, and update your plans.

This process is more like a five-part series, and meant to be consumed over weeks and months. It takes time to straighten out what’s happening and where you want to take it. It’s a very intentional strategic pattern that I use for many different goals. It isn’t the only option, but I like carving time to think deeply, and then having a period of time where I’m executing on it and using my energy to do that best. Otherwise, I’m putting a lot more brain power into ruminating on decisions and potential action items.

There are a lot of valuable resources that cover more tactical steps like “talk to your boss about more opportunities” or “write often and use visuals to show value”. These are fantastic, and there’s room for that in this process (in step 3 specifically). This is bigger, and will help you sort through those details more naturally. This is about how to figure out which of those tactics are best for you, how to decide what path to take, and not burning out yourself or anyone else as you go.

Know Your Current State

Why Bother?

It is important to know the current state you’re in so that you can accurately map the path to promotion. Why not jump right in to setting goals and sorting out next steps? You absolutely can. There’s no rush – anything that is messy about this in your head won’t go anywhere, and it will come up again and again so you have plenty of opportunities to work through it. Your brain will keep coming back to, and sometimes even getting stuck on stories it has rehearsed for years, and it will delay progress. Some common messy thoughts may sound like these:

  • I probably won’t get it.
  • It will take forever.
  • I have no idea what to do. 
  • They won’t think I can do it. 
  • Once I do it, my friends will think I’m different and won’t hang out with me.
  • Look at the folks who got it, they’re way better than I am. 
  • I can’t take anything else on right now, I’ve got too much to do.
  • I have no idea how to figure this out. 

Understanding where you’re at right now (awareness), and fully understanding that this is exactly right where you should be (acceptance) frees my brain. Now I can get creative, I can get started, I can keep going. If I hit a roadblock, I can more quickly figure out a way around it and not get stuck.

Awareness + Acceptance = Power

The automatic part of our brain is good at thinking what it is already good at thinking. When we want to grow and stretch, it tends to snap back to what it knows and is familiar with, the present and the past, naturally pulling you back “to safety”. If you start by taking an assessment and making peace with anything that comes up as you do this, you’ll be able to do it again more easily when it happens again. And it will happen again. If you skip this, when you feel worried or unmotivated or confused, you’ll be more likely to ignore it and distract yourself from it, or flat out deny it and pretend it isn’t a problem, which only increases its ability to come back stronger and stay longer. And ultimately, that thwarts the goal.

The more you remove any judgement of yourself or others, the more you can get creative about how to advance. If your brain is too busy beating yourself up about not being where you want to be, or beating up others or the world for the same, your brain energy will be consumed and less available to finding options.

Curiosity isn’t just good for the world, it’s good for YOU.

How to Understand Where You’re At

Review yourself. Take an inventory. Reflect on what you’re good at now and what you have confidence in. Celebrate it. Notice the areas that interest you as you capture them. This is ultimately what a self-review is for, so make it work for you if your employer uses them. If they don’t, make time to do one periodically anyway. There are many resources for doing these well.

One thing that we want to avoid is thinking that the only way to advance is based on your experience. Confidence is not the only important aspect to consider, and it is not the most important one. Self-confidence is even more beneficial. Notice the differences here.

Confidence
  • Comes from experience
  • Takes practice
  • Applies to specific areas
  • “I’ve done this before, I know I can do it again”
  • Based on the past, based on proof
Self-confidence
  • Comes from commitment
  • Earned when you build a pattern of doing what you say you’ll do 
  • Applies to anything at all
  • “I know I can overcome challenges (obstacles and negative emotions) and figure it out”
  • Displaces self-doubt
  • Reflects your opinion of yourself
  • Based on trust, based on beliefs
Arrogance
  • Comes from fear
  • A lot of judgment of self and others
  • Opposite of self-confidence
  • Denies kindness and growth
  • Based on comparison to others, proving you’re better than they are

If you remember nothing else, remember this:

You can figure anything out. You will hang in there through the bumpiness and clunkiness, and accomplish anything that you commit to – no matter what, no matter where, no matter how long. You can be deliriously happy with whatever you decide. You know what is best for you, better than anyone else. Make time to find your way, and do it with kindness for yourself and for others. There’s zero long-term benefit of putting others down to lift yourself up, so hold your head high, set your bar high, and help others as you go.

Unpack the Goal

Get specific about what the promotion means to YOU, and keep focused on that. Unpacking implies that it will be a lengthy chore, and it could be. This isn’t only repetitively reciting “I am essentially a {title} or could be a {title},” though that’s good, too. Even better is having recurring thoughts like “I’m someone who shares what I’ve learned with others so they can add to it and learn,” “I’m able to use <technology XYZ> to create solutions for our users,” and “I make decisions quickly and get things moving.” Finding these thoughts that fit what you want to be will help power you through as you go.

Build out your bigger picture, and consider doing this holistically for all areas of your life, not just work. Here are some sample exercises that could help:

  1. List 25 or more words you would want people to use to describe you on your last day.
  2. Write a page or more about how you will feel and act after you get promoted/reach your goal.
  3. If you had to design the perfect job for you, what would it entail?
  4. What makes a good leader? What makes a great teammate? A fantastic <title>?

If you want to dig deeper, consider these questions as well:

  1. What will be the same when you are promoted? What will be different?
  2. What options are negotiable, like location and timeframe, and what ones are not?
  3. How will you need to change to be promoted?

This is another investment of time, and similar to earlier with looking at our current skills and interests, why bother? Why not just get going? You can. The idea is to hack your brain where you can and front load the heavy effort rather than spreading it out as you go.

Another exercise worth taking is looking at why you want a promotion. Early in my career in tech, I was fortunate to work for a company (Keane, Inc.) that was generous with bonuses, raises, and promotions. I was honored, but when I hit a point where those dried up, it made me question if I was doing something wrong. When I thought about my next promotion and why I wanted it, I would usually snap to, “Well duh, because I deserve it, and then I’ll get paid what I deserve, too.” And it is absolutely true that we deserve it and the money. In fact, we’re worth infinitely more. Even when we are a bit of a mess, it’s still true. Even when we’re learning. Especially when we’re learning. However, let me illustrate how that line of thinking was working against me:

Thinking “I should already have this”, would lead me to feeling disappointed. When I was disappointed, I would read and scroll, vent to friends, procrastinate figuring out next steps, hold ideas back that weren’t well developed yet thinking they weren’t good enough, not even come up with new ideas, watch what others do that I could copy but not copy them, … and I didn’t grow.

Alternatively, when I started thinking “I am going to make this happen”, I felt committed. I came up with a plan, focused on ideas, volunteered to help with different things, created many proposals–some of which were accepted, overcame rejection in a way that I repeat and use to not block myself from putting myself out there, I sought feedback and looked for more areas I could help, and it mattered to me more than folks I worked with, … and I was able to make a case for promotion. I did it in a way that didn’t require sacrificing my personal life. This isn’t to say that there’s anything wrong with thinking,“I should already have this”, but it wasn’t sustainably powering me to take action.

Notice the difference between commitment and interest. Previously, I was certainly interested in being promoted, but I wasn’t committed. Once I was committed, the rest got easier. And incidentally, that helped me better understand another point about, considering the matter of time. In fact, time doesn’t matter. Let me repeat this: TIME DOESN’T MATTER. You don’t need to do it before you turn 37. You don’t need to do it this quarter. Are you committed to it or not? Sure, we use dates for goals a lot, and they are generally important. But if you don’t get promoted by the date you set in mind, does that mean you’re a failure? Does it mean it’s time to give up? No. Dates are a hack to help keep us motivated and coordinated, not a catalyst for self-punishment. I address handling disappointment below, though, because it’s bound to come up as we improve.

Break the Goal Down

Honing your decision making prowess is not only good for advancing your career, it is good for harnessing your life.

This is what most people dig right into, and if you’re like most, this is the part that seems exciting because you’re getting ready to take action. It can also be the most challenging and require the most energy to stay in, and if you find yourself in that situation, you may want to go back to the first two steps again.

Next, you are going to build a list of all the steps you need to take to get promoted. How do you know what steps to take? Simple. You decide what you want to get better at, and what it is going to take to do it.

Do you know what makes a good decision? Is it based on how it turns out for you or others? Is it the option that many people agree make sense? No. A good decision is one you are comfortable with your reasons for making. You know what will work for you better than anyone else. Honing your decision making prowess is not only good for advancing your career, it is good for harnessing your life.

It makes sense to include tasks that will also benefit the teams and customers you want to work with. It may make sense to include tasks that don’t directly benefit them, either, or will benefit ones in the future. Remember that as many people as you ask for input, you will get at least that many different ideas and opinions. Do some homework, make a plan and get started. Be sure the plan also reflects the current state assessment you did, so you can pick next steps that are accurate for where you are at. When asking folks, make sure they remember you’re building your case for promotion, and also frame it around your specific goals and ideas as much as if not more than theirs.

If there are role requirements, remember that you don’t have to meet each and every requirement. You can also make up some and highlight those. Take time to process any that you feel you’re insufficient in, and determine if it is an area you’d like to develop, or if it is even something that is needed in your circumstance.

As you are coming up with all the steps needed to be promoted, here is another useful formula:

Ideas + Massive Action = Results

Massive action means doing a lot of activity to produce value–artifacts and outcomes that didn’t exist in the world before you created or contributed to them. These are proposals, designs, code commits, communications. There will be many failures and some successes. Contrast this with passive action where you are doing things like researching, studying, and learning. You need to balance creating and consuming. The more value you generate, the more you’ll be rewarded and sooner you’ll be promoted. It takes a steady stream of investment and experimentation to continue to generate value over time. 

Many will remind you that it is the responsibility of your manager to lead career development discussions and shape the plan. And for sure, part of what I evaluate my managers on is if they are having these conversations and what the outcomes of them are. However, do not wait. Do not wait for your manager or your mentor or your peers or the industry. Look to them and hold them accountable while you also keep working on it intentionally. You can come up with many options at any level, whether or not your manager is a participant in the process, and you can figure out how to develop your career successfully. It could even make you a better promotion candidate in the process.

Tip: Remember to “be the role.” More often than not, you get promoted when there’s little perceived risk of not meeting expectations of the role. Don’t hold back leveling yourself up (for anything ever) thinking you’ll get promoted when someone is willing to take a chance on you, and then you can work on it. This is a trap I fell into before, where I thought, “leave it to the seniors, that is their job and I’m not a senior so it’s not expected of me.” Mind you, there’s nothing wrong with doing that, it just isn’t pushing you to level up, either. What will help you is repeatedly creating, finding, and doing things to demonstrate capability and commitment. Even if it is just to yourself.

Plan for the Obstacles

Factoring in time to think about potential roadblocks you will encounter and the strategies to prevent them and handle them if they do happen will help make your plans more successful.

  1. List every potential obstacle you can imagine hitting as you work your plan to be promoted.
  2. For each one, what steps could you take to minimize the likelihood of them happening?
  3. What steps can you take for each if they do happen?

There are also a couple of general obstacles that are almost guaranteed to come up. 

Discomfort

It’s a fact that the price of growth is discomfort. And consider the opposite: if you want to stay comfortable, you aren’t going to grow. Have a plan for handling discomfort, ideally one that doesn’t cause more harm than good (I see you, donuts). Getting all your fears and worries out, and processing them will stop them from holding you back. It will put you in a position to head right into them, through them, and ultimately get past them. Fast forward your growth.

Disappointment

There are plenty of chances that things will not go as you expect them to go. Occasionally, you are going to get feedback that stings. You’re going to be focused and working hard, and then you might not get an expected result. You’ll have carefully made plans, and then a circumstance changes and you need to adjust.

Be Ready for the D&D

What we don’t want to do is have the fear of discomfort and disappointment keep you from trying or continuing. This is essentially guaranteeing failure and bringing the hurt forward to now, in an attempt to avoid failure and future hurt.

To take steps to avert the fear of discomfort and disappointment, try this exercise:

  1. List things that you’re currently afraid of failing at.
  2. What do you think would be horrible about failing?
  3. If your fear is about what other people might think, in what ways would they be right? Is it ok for them to be wrong about you? 
  4. Can you commit to believing whatever you want to believe about yourself, no matter what?

To have a plan to process discomfort and disappointment, come up with your emergency kit, if you will. I have these three steps I pull out whenever I’m struggling and getting stuck.

  1. Allow the feeling. Figure out what emotion it is, and focus on how it feels in my body.
  2. Download my thoughts. Tease apart facts from my stories, so I can slow my brain down and process what’s happening without judgement.
  3. Figure out what I want to do, if anything. Does it matter? What kind of person do I want to be? How committed am I? What next steps will I take?

Final Thoughts

As a mother in tech for over 17 years now, I’ve had a wide range of emotions thinking about how my path compares to many of my peers, and if I did it right by my family. If I could go back and advise my younger self, here’s what I would tell her:

  1. You’re only competing with yourself. Stop comparing to and racing with others – it only brings you down, and doesn’t help anything. Have your own back, and figure out a path for others to follow instead of following theirs.
  2. Don’t only focus on work. Work is one aspect of your life, and make sure you look at all the roles you want to serve, and balance them to serve your aspirations best. I give you permission to reject that your career is what defines you. Aim to be defined by everything else, and have a PS line at the end with your career title.
  3. You won’t damage your family. Your job is to love them and teach your children. Know that their experience will help shape them, and they deserve the opportunities to grow, and that you’re the perfect family member for them as you are. Don’t use that as an excuse to not aim to be the best family member you can be, instead use it to relax into the role more so that you can.
  4. Stay strong. Your physical, emotional, and spiritual health is paramount to develop. If you stumble, don’t fret. Keep picking yourself back up and starting again. Consistency wins, and pauses don’t mean you’re inconsistent.
  5. I love you. You’ve got this. Have fun with it. Thank you, and see you in a few!

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