The Real Reason High Performers Fail to Get Promoted
To achieve the true success you need to zone in on the things holding you back.
I hated the idea of coming in early, working late, constantly worrying, busting my tail for a year, all in hopes of maybe getting a promotion. It felt like such a gamble. Sometimes, it paid off. Other times, I left the office red-faced and full of fury.
Putting my own delusions of grandeur aside, I’ve seen incredible performers get burned at the altar. Here’s why.
An infertile environment
During one of my last corporate interviews, I went to the headquarters of the Home Shopping Network.
This is what greeted me as I pulled up:
I paused in the parking lot and marveled: it looked like a mirror of heaven. The clouds flowed through the perfect reflection, briefly trapped, before being released back into the sky.
Yet inside, HSN looked like an earthquake struck and everyone evacuated.
Mouses dangled over tables. Extension cords were ripped from the wall and dropped to the ground. Clumps of chairs were pushed together as if to form a barricade. The massive office was hauntingly vacant and quiet.
Eventually, I asked my interviewer, “So I noticed there’s a number of empty desks?”
He smiled and said they were simply “realigning” the company to be more efficient and that everything was fine.
I didn’t buy it. On my way out, I talked to the security guard downstairs. He laughed when I told him the interviewer’s explanation. He said, in a gruff voice, “They cleaned house. Amazon is kickin’ their ass.”
This was not a place I wanted to work. Through experience, I’ve come to believe a business can’t have a good culture or opportunities if its finances are in the sewers.
Just remember: no matter how good you are, the company’s health overlaps everything.
There are hard ceilings on certain job titles and companies freeze raises all the time. Sometimes there just isn’t a role available. Managers usually can’t make up a new job title for people, particularly if the company is hurting.
Cursing your lack of upward mobility at a sinking company is like cursing the ocean for having water.
The newness factor
Colleges do a terrible job of preparing us for the workforce and navigating large organizations. It’s understandable. Most professors have minimal private sector experience. To them, everything is about data and research.
There should be a career week where you learn about a dozen jobs, and what their daily tasks actually involve. For me, studying finance was far removed from being an actual financial analyst.
Corporate has a steep learning curve. Most fresh hires, no matter how ambitious or talented, need to wait longer than expected for a big raise.
So to you college students reading this, don’t go banging on your boss’s door, asking for a raise after three months. It doesn’t work like that. If you walk on water, you’ll need to walk across an ocean to prove your value.
But it’s good to be restless. It signals you’re ambitious. Keep that fire.
They don’t actually want a promotion
I frequented our company gym during lunch. It was a sort of employee watering hole, where you got dirt on people and the state of affairs at the company. One gym friend, Todd, a programmer, was fantastic at his job. He made $95,000 a year (which is great for Tampa).
I asked, “Why don’t you go for management?”
Todd replied, “Look at Joe (his boss). He’s miserable.”
I nodded in understanding. Todd never left his office and always had dark circles under his eyes.
Every department was emailing him about problems. His phone rang at all hours. He had to fire otherwise nice people who had families to support. The extra $10K-$15K was incredibly taxing.
Every company I worked for had this ugly purgatory in middle management. People seemed trapped, spinning their wheels either to keep up or fruitlessly chase the C-suite.
And on some level, you don’t want guys like Todd being promoted. He’s great at building code. It’s good for the company. The moment he’s a manager, there’s a line of people outside his office, waiting for their turn to drive him nuts with stupid problems.
They don’t understand how to sell themselves
Most bosses don’t pause to dig into your stuff to see what above-and-beyond reports you’ve done. They’re usually too swamped.
I’ve seen great performers who kept their heads down, which is good in some sense. But doing so failed to represent how smart and capable they were. They got passed over for inferior candidates, people who knew how to play the game.
Lean forward, speak up when you have an issue or know an answer. CC people on your emails. Being assertive is proven to boost paychecks. Improve processes. Don’t just add more rules and things that people have to do. Find ways to combine two steps into one.
Getting promoted isn’t just about what your boss thinks of you. Your boss already knows if you’re any good at your job. That’s the easy part.
They have to sell that promotion to their peers and higher-ups. If those people have never met you, or seen any of your work, it makes that big raise tougher to sell.
There’s a phrase in corporate, “Be a leader before you have the title.”
Act the part. Show concern for the organization. Rise above and demonstrate maturity, proactiveness, and competence. That means jumping on problems, learning new systems when others don’t, and not goofing off on social media at the office.
Our value is hands down — and officially — defined by how replaceable we are. Make yourself hard to replace.
One secret to getting a promotion (or not)
My friend works in HR for a Fortune 100 company that, like its competitors, attracts a densely talented roster.
A common problem is that one department will have too many all-stars, and there are only one or two promotions to give.
One of my friends was a programmer at Google. He did great there on his reviews but he wasn’t flying up the ranks as fast as he’d hoped.
He recently moved to Georgia to be near family and immediately said, “Man, the programmers here aren’t nearly as good as they are in Cali.”
Since arriving, he’s been quickly landing huge promotions, being the big fish (he’s a VP now).
It illustrates the problems with overly competitive environments, and the flocking of talent to big tech companies. Superman wouldn’t be that Super if he was surrounded by other supermen.
Yes, working with smart people is amazing. Yet it’s worth asking the question, “Do you really want to compete with a bunch of Ivy Leaguers?”
It’s your job to do what’s best for you. And if a company doesn’t appreciate you as they should, you hold the ace card — you can leave.
Business is a rough-and-tumble world that chews people up and spits them out. Work hard, be kind, and stay ethical.