Movin’ on up

Think you’re doing everything right at the office and can’t figure out why you haven’t been promoted? Here’s why you might be at a position — and salary — standstill.

Cheryl Yue had been working as a senior associate in the audit and insurance group of PricewaterhouseCoopers in Vancouver for almost four years when her mentors at the company brought up the possibility of a promotion. Most associates at PwC know they’re likely to move up to a management position about five years into their tenure, but Yue’s boss and other senior team members thought she could handle the responsibility earlier — something she was surprised, though pleased, to hear.

“You don’t really know what you’re ready for when you don’t know what the next job on the ladder is,” she says. “I think you rely on your mentors to help you see things that you don’t see in yourself. Early promotions weren’t super common at the time, so I took it on like a challenge. I thought, ‘Let’s see if I can do it.’” Though her bosses had approached her, Yue didn’t look at the promotion as if it was a done deal. Instead, she built a case that she could handle a more demanding role by taking on more manager-level responsibilities — without pulling back from her associate-level tasks. “That year was hard; I’m not going to lie. There were long hours. I had to prove myself,” she says.

It turns out, that was exactly the right approach. “One of the things employers look for when considering people for promotions is a positive attitude,” says Bob McIndoe, HR consultant for the Human Resources Professionals Association based in Toronto. “That means someone who has a can-do attitude, enthusiasm, someone who’s self-motivated and has a commitment to the organization. Those are the key things that go into a manager’s decision.”

But what if you’re doing all those things, but still didn’t score the promotion you know you deserve? Maybe you know you’re not working hard enough, or that your boss just doesn’t like you, but there’s another option to consider: you might inadvertently be sabotaging your chances. Experts say the mistakes folks make when going for a promotion tend to fall into four categories. Read on and find out if one of these reasons could be halting your crawl up the corporate ladder.

YOUR ATTITUDE

There’s nothing wrong with asking what you could be doing to grow within the company — and in fact, that’s something you should be doing, says Danielle van Jaarsveld, associate professor in the organizational behaviour and human resources division of the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. “I think people need to be proactive. They need to be responsible for their career. And they need to understand the career path within their organization and push their manager to give them that clarification during the performance review,” she says. But there’s a fine line between assertive and aggressive behaviour, and it’s one you should never cross. Don’t assume you’re entitled to a promotion, don’t apply for jobs beyond your skill set just because you feel like you should be there by now and definitely don’t hector your boss about upgrading your title.

Action item: Follow van Jaarsveld’s advice and tell your manager you want to grow within the company, then follow through by showing that you’re ready.

Lynn Honsberger, an Ottawa-based partner at national accounting and business advisory firm MNP, agrees. “You don’t want to step on your manager’s toes, but you do want to be proactive by assuming a bit more responsibility here and there and doing things without having to be told,” she says.

YOU’RE THE WRONG FIT

While most firms have a clear management structure and performance review schedule that helps demystify the promotion process, there’s still a certain alchemy that determines who gets promoted. That’s the elusive “right fit.” Being a hard worker who delivers results is a must, but it’s not enough. People have to like working with you too.

“Anyone ready for a promotion at MNP has demonstrated growth in technical and interpersonal skills,” says Honsberger. “They’ve demonstrated they can coach staff to help them improve their performance in a positive way, communicate well and develop good relationships with people around them.”

Action item: If you suspect you’re not making the impression you should be, talk to your manager and even your colleagues about it, says McIndoe. But be selective about who you talk to. “You need someone with experience, who has moved in the direction you want to move and who is able to articulate helpful responses.” Then ask for a check-in with your boss and find out if you’re creating an impression that’s less than positive. “If you’re not comfortable or aren’t sure you’ll get an appropriate answer from your manager, talk to HR. This could be considered aggressive, but if you’re aware of the possibility of assertiveness being misread, the probability diminishes greatly because you’ll likely choose your words more carefully.”

YOUR TIMING IS OFF

When you make your case for a promotion, do so when it’s appropriate. Accosting the boss on his or her way to the restroom isn’t going to garner you favour. Neither is bringing up advancement following the loss of a significant client or after you’ve done a mediocre job on an assignment.

Action item: Schedule a chat with your manager. It’s best to directly ask, “When is a good time for a personal discussion about my future with the company?” Come armed with a significant achievement or milestone (think spearheading a major project or solving a head-scratching problem) to bolster your argument. Show quantitative results and be persistent, but gracious. If your boss tells you you’re not ready yet, ask for clear feedback on how you can get ready, then work to improve your performance and bring the conversation up again six months down the road.

YOUR CAPABILITY IS IN QUESTION

Let’s face it, you might not be there yet. But, Honsberger says, that may not be your fault. “If you don’t have a good assessment of your capabilities and you’re not self-aware enough to realize that you’re not ready, that’s a problem,” she says. “I think it’s important that the firm take some responsibility. Has your manager been giving you the right information? Has he or she discussed your aspirations and where you fit?”

Or maybe you are ready, but your manager doesn’t know it, says van Jaarsveld. “For some people — I see it more in women than men in general — there’s a real reluctance to self-promote and find ways to talk about your accomplishments that you are comfortable with. But that’s one way to take responsibility for your promotion opportunities. If you’re doing good work but only you know about it, you’re not going to be promoted.”

Action item: The best way to overcome this deficit, whether it’s real or perceived, is to start taking on responsibilities beyond your role. Ask your boss what you can take off his or her plate, then nail it. That approach is exactly what worked for Yue. Her hard work paid off and she was promoted a full year before many of her peers. Since then, she has switched companies several times — she le PwC three years after making manager to join fashion brand Aritzia, then jumped to athletic wear startup Kit and Ace before landing at Lululemon, where she’s currently manager of the global risk and advisory services. After a year and a half at the company, she’s started thinking about her next goal: a director position. And she’s putting the lessons she learned when pursuing her first promotion to work at her current gig too. “The thing that really sticks out for me is the ability to prove yourself,” she says. “You can’t get a promotion if you keep doing the same thing, even if you’re great at your job. You could be hitting it out of the park, but you have to be able to demonstrate that you can perform the responsibilities of the next level up too.”