The Art of Getting Promoted

Drew over at Objective Wealth has a nice article on Do You Deserve a Promotion Next Year? I took a look and it’s all sensible stuff. In particular, I wholeheartedly agree with Drew’s critique of common wrong ways to look at this

However, do you deserve a promotion next year? And if so, on what basis? If your answer is either: “because I need it for the money,” or “because I’ve been there longest,” or even “I don’t want <whoever> to get promoted and become my boss,” then you might like to check your premises…

Don’t get me wrong, I have great admiration for Gore Vidal’s pithy summary of the human condition

It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail[ref]Quoted by Gerard Irvine, “Antipanegyric for Tom Driberg,” [memorial service for Driberg] (8 December 1976)[/ref]

The problem is that being jealous of other people dries you up inside and makes you a bitter and twisted sourpuss that isn’t pleasant to work with, so you don’t get promoted for that reason alone. Life’s a bitch, n’est’ce pas? It’s a common problem. It’s based on two bad assumptions, or maybe premises in Ayn Rand’s parlance –

  1. Life is fair
  2. The world is as you see it

I should make clear I’m talking about jobs and promotion in the permanent staff of an organisation, for the simple reason that I’ve never worked in any other way. Contractor applications are probably a bit different, but I don’t know what promotion means in that context.

First, a little history aside

There’s also a third cultural assumption, which held for many jobs until the early 1990s. That is that pay and grade are directly and closely linked. In the past this was the case – at the BBC I was a grade 2N5P and I’d know what anybody else on the grade was earning, subject to variations in overtime and London Weighting where applicable, again, the latter was on a standard scale. Similar principles held when I moved to The Firm until the mid 1990s.

In any marketplace information is the key to power, and companies rediscovered this in the 1990s. By splitting base pay into pay ranges and an elective ‘bonus’ they were able to reduce the information available to their workforce, and the general demise of collective bargaining meant that grade and pay were no longer closely coupled. Your pay now becomes the integrated sum of incremental payrises and any bonus – firms have various byzantine rules on pay bands but certainly for The Firm the pay bands overlapped so it was perfectly possible for an old hand on a lower grade to earn more than a new starter on a higher grade. It also reduced pensionable pay as bonuses crept up to be about 5% of typical pay – thus reducing the pension liability by 5% too 😉 Of course, this wasn’t presented as a way of screwing down pay, but as ‘rewarding outperformance and managing underperformance’.

Anyway, back to the main thread. Let’s take a look at those assumptions

Life isn’t fair

The evidence is all around you. All too often the good guys are crushed under the wheels of the bad guys’ steamrollers, the bad guys often get the girls, and in general the meek don’t inherit the earth, they get carved up and ground into the dust. Your Momma lied when she insinuated into you that life was fair, and you still can’t get over the betrayal…

The world isn’t necessarily as you see it

Tough one, this. I was that sourpuss for too long, because dammit, my world was all about me. Well it is, isn’t it – if you say your world isn’t about you then you are probably being economical with the truth. However, the world isn’t all about me, and a wise and experienced engineer took me to one side and said basically ‘this isn’t about your technical skils. You have two choices in front of you. One is you can be all pissed off about not getting a promotion and you will be right, you do deserve better, but it shows in that sour puss of yours and cynical demanour[ref]I have paid this gift forward a few times at The Firm since then. In at least one case the signal was heeded[/ref]. The alternative is you can get on with doing a good job, and here is a hot tip in your shell-like.

Your greatest chances of influencing your pay upwards are in times of transition

Whereas all I was seeing is ‘I’m not getting what I deserve, those other guys weren’t as smart as I was, S’not fair’.  I was smart enough to listen up, ask myself if his view of the world was not more accurate than mine, and having done that I sought self-knowledge. As an INTJ I am self-referenced so not a team player, and for various other reasons a primadonna to boot. I was able to get away with that because I had talent, and in particular I was a generalist which is good in a research facility that is full of specialists. But it wasn’t cost-free.

I made one particular mistake when I joined The Firm from the BBC. I told the truth when they asked me what my previous salary had been. Don’t ever do that. Unless it is a fixed scale payment independently verifiable, consider inflating it by a believeable amount, up to about 20% (how much probably depends on the type of job). [ed you should probably take into account Paul’s comment below on the information carried in your previous P45] I would have started at the Firm on the next pay grade had I done that, and this tactical mistake cost me an awful lot of money, because it took me a while to learn the art of getting a promotion. A third of my career there was on the first pay grade, then I learned some of the following, getting promoted three times, without moving department either 😉

So, what do you need to know about getting promoted?

In the case of the first interview on entry (or to shift department to one where few people know you), remember that it isn’t about the facts, it’s also about the feeling. A company is a political machine. It’s about people. Yes, companies have tied themselves all up in knots with competency based interviewing and all that bullshit, so you need to learn about the STAR technique, but as this site acknowledges tacitlyIndeed, if an interviewer likes you, he may be more tempted to prompt you and push you along than if he has bad vibes about you‘.

People hire people, not competencies, and the unwritten questions they ask themselves are

  • do I like this person?
  • Can I get on with then?
  • Can I imagine working alongside them?
  • how will they fit into the team and get along with others?

They’re looking for reassurance and upbeat positivity. Tell them it’s a wonderful world, any problems were surmountable etc etc. Remember, everybody pretends that it is all about the facts and an interview is evidence based. They are lying shitbags, because the politics is just as important. Fit in. Share their values as well as bringing some of your own. If you are an awkward bastard, a maverick or exceptionally talented then be careful – people find it harder to hire people who are extremely different from their own view of themselves, even if that is exactly who they need. This obviously applies to your putative line management – the personnel droid if any will be there to curb any obvious departures from the script.

Once you’re in, if you want promotion it looks to me that your best bet is to shift department or line manager. Although I have never got promotion that way, other than moving company, I saw enough other people do it in the early part of my career with The Firm. However, I liked what I did, and was working on other aspects of life so though I observed it, I didn’t use the information. Although I didn’t get promoted over this period, I observed some interesting techniques for those that did. Names have been slightly changed to protect the guilty 😉

The Bob Rainer Doctrine.

This guy was a very talented guy in his own right, but he identified early on that how you are thought of at work isn’t all about the facts. It’s about the performance – performance as in circus performance, not performance management 😉 He’s drive through an ambitious project with a major deadline, and occasionally there would be some great crisis just before the deadline. He’d pull an all-nighter, often solving the problem just before the major demonstration of the project to some important Big Cheese. This does two things for his image in front of the Big Boss –

He is seen as talented, proactive, and a problem-solver who does whatever it takes to deliver. As a side benefit the rest of his team who made the project happen fade to grey in the background. He is the knight in shining armour, and also an key person they could never dispense with.

The key thing to note is that not all problems are unforeseen 😉 It took me a long time to realise this. This one is sheer genius. It does require a talent in a narrow and essential niche, but once you have it then you have the boss eating out of your hand and a rep for brilliance and dedication to the cause. It’s all about the politics and the performance… You need drama – Bob was talented enough to get most of these projects out on time without the histrionics. But a bit of drama now and again did no end of good for his image, and because the problems he’d ‘fix’ were deep in the technicalities it was hard for observers to work out what was happening.

The Boss sees the dedication and the fix – once it’s fixed the fault doesn’t matter, and they’re not smart enough to trace it anyway 😉

The John Beckers Doctrine

Another showman, this fellow had a talent to sparking up high-profile projects and promising the earth. He also had a particular personal magnetism for many people, though the Ermine wasn’t susceptible, and embraced the latest management fads because he had done an MBA in night school so he knew the lingo in the early 1990s when this sort of this was all the rage. The Firm had been an industrial research facility where technical and scientific knowledge had been prized. Anybody who has mixed with suchlike knows that geeks are not showmen, and Beckers who had a pretty decent technical awareness but as a showman was a lion among pussycats.

He kicked off many of these projects probably knowing they wouldn’t come to anything in the long run, but had a fantastic talent for moving on while the project was still in its ascendancy and passing it on to a newly promoted sucker who would try and move heaven and earth to make it work. Very occasionally they’s succeed, but generally wouldn’t.

Success has many fathers but failure is a bastard. Always put at least one neck between yourself and a cratering project 😉

So how did I get promoted? Well, the dot-com boom happened in the late 1990s and The Firm was a TMT[ref]Technology, Media, Telecoms[/ref] behemoth – well in the UK at least.  Every so often it gets its tail up and tries to take over the world, usually in some random collection of acquisitions. However, genuinely exciting things were happening in the TMT space at that time. A key thing to know about getting promoted is

It is a lot easier to get a raise or taken on with a good salary in economic booms

After the talk from the old boy I had become far less of a sourpuss, plus it didn’t matter so much. It was the dotcom boom I was going to be earning more from trading shares than working, like every other bugger from the shoeshine guy at Liverpool Street Station onwards[ref]As you may guess, it didn’t turn out that way. Through a combination of good luck and hopefully some better judgement, I have probably clawed back that loss now[/ref]. I went through the application system a couple of times, got knocked back, and then my then boss pretty much created an opening requiring exactly my skills, after I applied for a job in a different department, making use of the observations. He pretty much insisted I apply for the other job even though I didn’t have the right skills because it allowed him to apply pressure to the bigger cheese. You have to play the game, y’know.

The other two promotions were also as a result of roiling change. A deeply nasty piece of work started at a high level in The Firm and began to outsource a lot of work to cheaper areas, funnily enough to a firm I believe his wife had a stake in. In the upheaval a divide opened up between technical talent and project management, which was being expanded to manage the highly increased outsourcing. I came out on the technical talent side and once again it was all about who you know. Everything was up in the air and I had cause to be very grateful to my then line manager, who faced with a choice of two grades to place me figured the higher one was a no-brainer as it didn’t cost him anything. There was no interview for that job 😉

Then, in a stroke of luck a couple of years on, the nasty piece of work decided that there should only be six levels between the lowest management grade and his level, so it was time to de-layer. I still recall the haunted faces of some of the departmental managers who he made apply for the reduced number of their own jobs. Rumour had it his selection criterion was based on asking them to cite the weakest points of their peers he was going to interview next, kind of like a new twist on the Prisoner’s Dilemma. The guy was a genius, and showman in his own way too, he talked a great game, and haired an awful lot of new people who had coincidentally worked with him in a previous stint at an investment bank. I got another promotion out of that delayering, because I had enough critical experience and the Firm had paid off many of the people with technical skills through voluntary redundancy schemes. You don’t need technical skills if you are going to outsource all of it 😉 Until you do need it…

Nowhere have I addressed the issues raised in Drew’s description of how you should go about getting a promotion

The correct motivation, and justification, for achieving a promotion needs to be based on your desire to continue your upward journey of achieving your values; by using your mind to engage in creative work, develop your character and sustain a productive purpose over a long period of time.

I’d actually be narrower than that. The reason a company takes someone on is just the same as any other asset, though there is a lot of baggage that comes with employees that doesn’t come with, say a milling machine or a logic analyser.

A company takes you on because it believes that getting you do do their job will enable them to make more money in the long run that if they didn’t employ you[ref] remember the cost to a company of employing you on the permanent staff is about two to three times your gross salary, in terms of employer taxation and providing facilities[/ref].

As it is, they don’t really give a shit about your desire for self-actualisation and whatnot. Tesco don’t really care about the love poetry of their shelf stackers, they want those tins of beans moved and stacked on the shelves ASAP.  Companies pretend to care about their employees because unlike the milling machine humans are complicated beasts and you sometimes get better performance out of them by addressing their non-work issues. In the very distant past I recall The Firm doing some elements of this, it was a fun place to work in the early days and the BBC’s Television centre also had its own esprit de corps.

When I started work thirty years ago companies were also a lot smaller and more paternalistic, and even FTSE100 firms were often run by skilled individuals who knew the firm and may have risen within rather than the transient career CEOs we have now, whose allegiance is often first to their bank balance and then to the company. The earlier sort of organisations were far more fun to to work for than the rapacious vessels for the career CEO’s ego that we have now. How we as shareholders stayed asleep at the switch for so long as to let this dreadful state of affairs happen I don’t know, as it wasn’t just the fun for the employees that disappeared. A significant amount of the value made in a firm seems to be getting thieved in CEO pay looking at stock market performance since the dotcom bust. Anyway, the upshot of it is that a company employing you is all about the money.

And your performance at making money, unfortunately is usually only visible in hindsight. Take my career. If I double my pay on leaving and multiply by the 23 years I worked for the Firm[ref]That’s not tripling it but then I experienced career progression so I didn’t enter on the same pay scale[/ref] that is probably a reasonable estimate for how much The Firm would have been better off it it hadn’t had an Ermine on the books. Did I deliver?

It’s hard to say. On about two occasions, I can say that I’ve saved The Firm about a million pounds, but what I can’t say is whether someone else might have stepped up to the plate instead. The most recent was the Olympics – in the end if you are going to negotiate with suppliers you have to have some knowedge of what you are buying else you risk paying over the odds. It was a surprise to at least one supplier that The Firm still had any CATV engineering experience left, despite one of their guys telling them – he used to work for me 😉

There was another occasion where I got a payrise that was bigger than the payrise from any promotion. It was where a bunch of guys were going to do some project in Asia and I was called in to share some CATV knowedge. I was overcommitted at the time so I tried to duck out a few times, but was eventually nailed. I listened at the meeting, and this didn’t have a hope of flying. So I stood up, said so, and pointed them in the direction fo another bunch of people in The Firm that were doing a well-trumpeted project in a similar space. I pretty much said for God’s sake talk to these guys – my experience on this is stale but they are doing it right now and you might be able to hitch a ride. I thought I’d get hammered for that but the line manager thought it was fantastic. Mind you he was the same guy that tried to run me out of the Firm the year later when it had a near-death experience so you can’t count on glory lasting. Oh yeah, the year. FY 2006/2007. Even coal shines like gold in an economic boom. And I probably did save them a shedload of money by telling them where to go…

Earlier projects – well industrial research doesn’t always make you money, though sometimes it stops you diving down ratholes. It is harder to split my contribution off in those earlier days because I was part of a team. More importantly, however, at no point was it so clear that I could have said –

you should promote me so that I can make/save you £££££

because an Ermine is an opportunistic hunter… That’s the whole problem of the dreary competency based blah blah blather. Opportunity makes the man. I am not a sound designer, but in my time at the BBC I created several sounds for TV games shows of the time. Why was it me, a lowly engineer, surrounded by a citadel of far superior musical talent? It’s because I saw the opportunity to program the A/D converter of a BBC microcomputer and thus kick off a sound automatically at the press of a button on the set[ref]I know this is trivially easy nowadays, but in those analogue days you’d have had to run up a tape deck or a cart machine and that’s just not quick enough to respond for a game show. There were no Arduinos, MP3 players and even CD was a rarity[/ref]. Obviously the first demo was a 1kHz tone like a censor bleep but then I offered production something a bit better. I did it just mucking around with the program, since I didn’t know anything about granular synthesis or other stuff. I did make a convincing bell by modelling the physics but it’s easy in that case 😉 Nowhere in a competency based interview would I have been able to say

“I can make your shows better by sonfiying your show objects so you don’t have to drop those FX in during post”

though that’s probably the most lasting effect of my time there 😉 And that is why a rationalist approach to getting promoted may be sub-optimal. The opportunities of the future are voiceless in the here and now. If I were hiring, I would hire a good, adaptable individual and give him the tools, and the basic instruction ‘have at it’ and let’s party on the spoils of war. I wouldn’t look for competencies, I would look for originality and lateral thinking.

I don’t think it is a total coincidence that with the procedural bullshit that we have ended up with as a hiring rationale, firms are finding it harder and harder to recruit good people and are increasingly going the contractor way. Accepted there are other good reasons that make contractors and consultants more attractive in today’s business environment, but the way interviewing is meant to work sucks now. You cannot achieve good by eliminating anything that might be bad.

So, to summarize

  • It’s about politics as much as facts and capabilities
  • Points of change (job, department, company) are the opportunities to better yourself
  • a nice booming and overheating economy makes it a lot easier. Sorry about that…
  • Showmanship matters – the world loves a performance. Peo0ple believe in people, not facts. How it’s done matters as much as what is done.
  • Don’t stand out too much. People hire people that look a bit like their own image of themselves

So that’s my thoughts for the Winter Solstice at the darkest night. Looks like an epic fail on the end of the world, too 🙂