Why Not Getting Promoted Might Make You More Successful

Bored mixed race businesswoman sitting at office desk

By Robin Camarote

I left my last job because I didn't get promoted. Actually, I left because I didn't see a path to promotion--not then and not any time in the foreseeable future. That lost hope is really what made me throw my hands up. Even though on a day-to-day basis I still loved my job, I had to leave.

I'd checked all the boxes. Client work was done well, winning proposals were submitted, and my team was managed with record-low turnover for eight years. And yet, my title remained the same. Throughout this time, my company invested in training, mentoring, coaching, and finding new assignments for me. In fairness, they were trying.

The company had defined advancement criteria that applied to all staff and to each level. I'd call them rigid and archaic. They'd call them transparent and necessary. They also had an elaborate set of unwritten advancement practices. I'd call these political and arbitrary. They'd call them history and culture. Either way, we were both stuck.

Here's why:

  • Weak leadership support: I had fantastic bosses throughout my tenure, and each one was both complimentary and encouraging. However, the bottom line was that there wasn't much enthusiasm among them for promoting me. All the leaders senior to me on the organization chart had run through the same advancement gauntlet. The prevailing attitude seemed to be, "Hey, I paid my dues and made it. The best eventually will, too. That could be you if you hang in there a little longer." So, I was on the receiving end of little sympathy and even less motivation among the leadership to change a process that they felt worked for them and believed was an essential filter for the business.

  • Wanting to do it my way: I've always wanted to have and do things my way. You could ask my younger sisters, but please don't. The stories they'd tell you would be unflattering and probably grossly exaggerated because no one in our family can just stick to the facts without adding color commentary. Anyway, I observed what other people were doing to get promoted, but I still stuck with my ways--being selectively compliant with administrivia, occasionally fussy about corporate policies, and inflexible when it came to what assignments I would accept. Actually, reading this I'm thinking it was a miracle I wasn't fired. In short, I was doing a lot of things right--but not perfectly and certainly not completely.

  • Other market forces: Advancement opportunities in certain types of businesses are highly correlated with market conditions. When business is good, people move up. When business is down or flat, they stay put or are let go. Simple and very true for federal management consulting. My timing was off in terms of the market. The last half of my eight-year period was in a down cycle in federal management consulting. I won't dwell on this as a reason because none of us have as much control over this as we'd like to think, but it's not terribly instructive to rely on business cycles as an excuse.

After two years of internal debate, I left my company in 2013 and became an independent consultant and a subcontractor to them. Overnight, the staff and team I'd been so intently focused on growing became my clients. Some of the senior leaders from my firm became mentors. Others remain LinkedIn contacts and, who knows, with any luck our paths will cross again. That decision has put me on a path for more success than would have bee possible if I'd stayed put.

The sting of getting passed over for a promotion made me more successful because it forced an important decision. Am I willing to do whatever it takes to earn this elevated title? Or, is there something else out there for me. Either way, I had to do an honest self assessment to figure it out.

So, if you find yourself in a similar stuck situation, conducting a self-assessment like this one covering a broader range of promotion criteria can provide insights into the underlying reasons why you're not getting promoted and whether or not moving on is right for you. The typical corporate annual assessments focus on performance alone, and performance--how well you're doing the job you have today--is just one piece of the puzzle.

As you think about where the disconnects might be between your view and those in the positions to make promotion decisions, you also have to look for perception gaps:

  • Image: How well your appearance, conduct, and reputation align with the company's view of the best of the best

  • Exposure: How well you are known up and across the organization- one's internal network (and the reach of that network)

Other factors to reflect on include attitude and market conditions--you have control over your attitude and the ability to assess and analyze the market. Lastly, recognize that promotions--especially the higher you get in an organization--aren't decisions made by a single person. To promote you, your boss needs to gather support and buy-in from a number of peers and superiors up the chain. Although this part of the promotion equation can seem daunting, it is also an opportunity to work together, with your boss, to make this sales pitch as seamless as possible.

By proactively assessing yourself against these factors, you can put together a promotion game plan- or a graceful exist strategy. Either way, laying out a plan empowers you to take control over your career and individual path to success.

For more, check out Inc.com's Raises and Promotions channel.