Promotion: how long should I wait for one?

Bita has been working in her current organization for 3 years. She asked, “How much longer should I wait before I can expect a promotion?”

Time to promotion varies considerably by industry, organization, and individual employees. But generally, in the industry Bita was in, I said she should shoot for 2 years.

Why 2 years? Because a promotion earlier than that wasn’t likely without a roadmap to get there.

You need a crystal clear roadmap to your next promotion. Without it, you’re floating around aimlessly, hoping for lightning to strike.

A roadmap will answer all the critical questions to achieving a promotion.

  • Who is(are) the decision maker(s)?
  • Where do I currently stand?
  • What are the requirements of the higher position?
  • How do I fill in the gaps to achieve the promotion, and how is that measured?
  • When can this be achieved?

A roadmap is specific to an individual employee. While the requirements of the higher position are certainly important and applicable broadly across the organization, is it only one piece of the puzzle. Where you stand today, and what you need to do in order to be in the running, are the other critical components.

If your organization can’t give you a specific, individualized roadmap to promotion, brace yourself: You are NOT going to get promoted.

If all you ever get are generalities in response to what it takes to get promoted, then one of two things is happening:

  1. Your manager is not experienced enough to know how to give a specific, individualized roadmap of this kind to their direct reports. In this case, it doesn’t bode well for having your manager support you in your goals on the job. Their inexperience, lack of time or attention, or inadequacies hinder your growth and advancement.
  2. They do not see you as leadership or senior management material. In short, there are are no plans to promote you at all.

The second one is harsh, but it’s the truth. The bottom line is that if an organization sees potential in you, if they see an opportunity to have you play a role in higher levels, they’d be able to communicate promotion opportunities to you in specific ways. After all, they wouldn’t want to lose someone who has potential!

But the reality is, people are not great at giving others bad news. And people are conflict avoidant. So instead of telling you that they don’t envision you in leadership roles, they give you the runaround instead. They give you a lot of general information that doesn’t tell you exactly what you need to do. They don’t specify the metrics they’re using, so you’re doing what they ask, but not reaching some mysterious threshold. Maybe they encourage and praise you, but there’s always ONE MORE THING that you have to work on before being promoted. In that case, it feels like there’s no end in sight!

Even if you think you can convince them that you are ripe for promotion, good luck! You still can’t do it without a specific roadmap. The roadmap details the measurable gaps you have closed relative to the duties and responsibilities of the position you’re shooting for.

In the absence of a specific roadmap for career advancement in your current organization, it’s time to either get comfortable exactly where you are, or jump ship.

I’m going to come back to the 2 years I quoted Bita earlier. If she’s been in a role for 3 years without a roadmap, but she is able to develop one going forward, then 2 years is a good amount of time to get there. Of course, the roadmap will determine the ultimate timeline for her. But it’s unlikely that she would be stumbling along with no clarity for 3 years and then suddenly find promotion imminent within the year. It’s also a judgment call to stay if the promotion takes longer than 2 years to become a reality. If it’s 3-4 years to promotion, it might be best to move on to another organization. She can see if starting with clarity from Day 1 at the new company will help her get a promotion within 2 years.

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