The Promotion Game; How to Justify a Climb up the Ladder

I wish promotions were doled out in an efficient and logical manner, automatically rewarding those that work hard and are truly deserving of moving up the ranks.  I wish all managers were well versed in career coaching and people management to properly get their employees where they need to be for success (sadly many are put into people management roles that are simply ill equipped for this responsibility, but that’s for another day).  Unfortunately, we are not in that reality.  For most, you will need to be your own advocate and justify the role you want as part of your overall career plan.

I’ve gathered some of the key elements that should go into an effective promotion pitch to your boss.  While none of this is a science, but this will certainly help you put your best foot forward.

I should also note that I am skipping the existential ennui of “what do I want to be?” and “what does my career path look like for me?” in this article.  There are many resources out there to aid you in finding your passion, and I am sure somewhere down the line I’ll walk through my own journey to that discovery.  All of my below points assume that you have arrived at a role/title that is in alignment with your trajectory and we will work from there.


Look around your company for equitable levels.  Do others have the title and role you’re going for?  Doing your best to not be a complete creeper, find out how many years of relevant work experience they have.  Try to objectively look at how they compose themselves at work and identify soft skills that they thrive at that you know you could work on.  I say tread lightly in this area, as you can quickly devolve into a jealous mentality, wondering why this person got where they are and you have not.  Look at it from an objective lens and know that this is to help you get to that level as well.

If there are no others at your company with the level you want, do some research online.  Find similar sized companies in your industry and look at job postings for the role you’re after.  Pay particular attention to years experience and skillset to see if you’re already there, or if perhaps you need more time.  I’ll caution that this isn’t to hold you back from still going for it, but it can be a neutral voice in assessing where you stand.


Incorporating quantifiable metrics in addition to soft skills and years of experience will make your case more objective.  Find a metric that you can consistently track over time to illustrate an increase in workload, productivity, revenue, profit, etc.  Procurement Specialist?  Track the number of POs you process. Technician?  Track the number of tickets you close.  Are you in Sales?  There are a wide array of metrics on your deals that are likely already being tracked and you should be able to pull from your company’s system as well.


Did you fix a broken process or implement a new one?  Keep track of that, and better yet, quantify what the improvement was (going forward, identify a metric ahead of the implementation to keep track of to illustrate improvements).  Does your new process save time? Money?  The more impact the better (obviously).

Beyond rolling out something, I encourage you to document your wins.  Did a project come in on time (or early)? On or under budget? Did you save the day on a tense situation with a customer?  No item too big or too small should be neglected in what you pull together.  Once you start approaching your meeting with your boss feel free to tailor the list down to some of the larger items, but keep that total running list, it’ll boost your confidence regardless.

The New Role

Outside of your prior accomplishments justifying a better title, what responsibilities would you take on in this position? Some companies are very liberal with title bumps and this definition isn’t necessary, but others do expect you to take on more if they promote you. Look through the above comps and pay close attention to the job descriptions. Are there elevated tasks you could add into your pitch that you will take responsibility for with this promotion? Note that.

Of course, perhaps you already went above and beyond and started taking on all these tasks ahead of a formal promotion. If that’s the case, be sure to indicate that and try to pull out the job description you were hired on to fulfill, showing that you have now surpassed the expected responsibilities of that position.

The Meeting

Give your boss at least a week’s notice that you’d like to discuss your career path at your company.  This gives them some time to think through their own thoughts, and, nothing is worse than being blindsided on this type of conversation.  If they are a great people manager invested in your success, they will come to this conversation with some thoughts to make it more meaningful.  That’s a big if though.

In all likelihood you will not have an answer immediately after this initial conversation.  There will probably be feedback on your performance and things you need to work on that will get you to the level you are asking for. 

Follow up after the conversation summarizing your conversation with a quick note.  This will probably freak out your boss, that you’re documenting this to get agreement in writing (which you are, lets be honest).  This is important though to stave off amnesia that your boss may have down the line on the conversation and be done from a passive perspective that should hopefully calm down an anxious manager.  Send over the documentation you put together as an attachment and indicate your follow up is to get them this detail.  At the same time, acknowledge any feedback they had on things you should focus on.



I appreciated our conversation earlier regarding my career path, specifically my interest in pursuing a [JOB TITLE] position.  I wanted to follow up and send over the supplemental details I referenced on the call regarding my work performance to date.

I also appreciated the feedback you provided and I plan to work on [INSERT ANY MANAGERIAL FEEDBACK PROVIDED FROM MEETING].



And there you go.  A simple email that can capture your conversation in a relatively non-confrontational way.

The Waiting Game

Companies are funny. They typically have a promotional cycle once or twice a year that most promotions wind up being lumped into.  Depending on the timing of your conversation it may be some time before the next round of budgeting, but hopefully your manager will give you some insight into what that process is and provide you some transparency.  I encourage you to continue your dialogue as you meet with your manager to get a status (or provide updates on what you’re working on), but I would not ask about it every week.  It gets incredibly depressing to keep asking and be told “no updates”.

As you wait, keep an eye on what’s going on with others in your organization.  Are there a lot of one-off promotions happening out of cycle?  Ask your boss about it.  I have been told numerous times that each one of these darlings were snowflakes that broke the promotion cycle mold and they absolutely needed to happen but the promotion you put in for needed to wait with the rest of the batch.  Those one-offs also likely happened at the result of an ultimatum (see my thoughts below on that subject).  Enough of those will likely break your spirit. 

I can’t tell you how long is the right amount of time to keep playing this waiting game (again, depending on the cycle it could be 6-12 months), but I can tell you that if your promotion is drawn out or continually delayed this is a red flag and you should contemplate looking elsewhere.   Good news though, you already have a set of metrics, process improvements, and accomplishments that can serve as the base of your updated resume.  Also hopefully the next company has a bit more of established career path and promotion from within policy.    

The Ultimatum

It will be tempting to throw a hail mary and threaten to leave if they don’t promote you.  This will likely get you the quickest results possible but to me it comes at a cost.  First, you will be the ultimatum guy (or person) to upper management.  They will look at you and remember that you forced their hand, held the productivity of the organization hostage with your threat of leaving.  That leaves a bad taste. You likely will not get promoted again after that, certainly not through another ultimatum.  At this point you have already indicated that you have looked elsewhere and have been on the brink of exit, which can only lead to trust issues at that point.

Beyond just management, your co-workers will know because there’s nothing employees love more than office gossip.  Some may laud your courage; others will resent you for it.  There are people across the organization in your same situation, trying to justify their promotions through their prior work performance and career aspirations.  I can assure you that they are likely awaiting the next promotion round and being advised that there are no off cycle promotions, only to see someone else get it through this hostage situation.

I’ll wrap this up by saying, if you are at the point where you are comfortable threatening your management with an exit if you don’t get promoted, it’s likely time to exit. 


My Layoff Stories; From Laid Off to Being Left Behind

I had other topics I slated to post this week, but the ongoing news of the layoffs in the tech industry made me take pause.  I have been on both sides of the fence; I have been laid off and I have been someone “left behind” in the aftermath.  While I think the anxiety of losing your income and job far exceeds anything else, the impacts of staying on after a layoff can be significantly impactful as well.

Each situation was unique and I’ve learned more about myself every time.  Below I highlight those experiences and some takeaways from both sides of the fence.

Laid Off – 2009

In 2008 I started my first job out of college for a consulting company, technically it was for Technology Risk but most of the work was IT SOX Compliance.   

I was three weeks onto the job and my company did their first round of layoffs.  I was not part of this round and I honestly didn’t know any of those that were.  I hardly knew anyone there.  I received my first assignment and did not think much of how my company was faring.

In the next few months there were two more rounds and by the third one I was numb to news as many companies were making cuts as we were deep into the Great Recession .  I was in the middle of a longer assignment and felt secure in my position, but I had started to realize that perhaps IT SOX Compliance was not my passion in life.

Almost a year to the day there were murmurs that it was time for round 4 of layoffs.  I was on an assignment and didn’t think I’d be in that round.  That denial only lasted a few hours as I had received “the call” later that day.  Since I was on assignment at a client, I was asked to come into the corporate office the next day.  There was a pit in my stomach at this point as I knew what it meant, but I just calmly asked if I should bring all company equipment in (why yes as a matter of fact).  And thus it was official: I was selected to be laid off in the fourth round.

My last day wasn’t dramatic, I don’t remember much from it.  I wasn’t passionate about this line of work and was ready to figure out what I wanted in life.  It was time.

I spent the next few months applying to jobs online that leveraged my prior experience and also attempted breaking into more non-standard opportunities.  I had always felt called to more creative pursuits but never went for it, so I took a stab at getting an internship in the film industry.  That didn’t pan out (you actually need experience of some kind to get an unpaid internship), but after a few months I did get an offer for an IT Executive Assistant position for an entertainment company.  It was an almost 50% pay cut but the jobs were not exactly plentiful at this point.

While in hindsight I probably could have held out for something closer in salary to what I was making, I don’t regret it. I learned a lot in that position and it became a stepping stone in my career.

Left Behind – 2014

Two jobs later I was in a PMO group in an IT department, also in the entertainment industry.  I had been there three years already, and while it was a rocky start, I eventually found a good spot overseeing the department’s yearly budget and procurement function.

The company struggled to adapt to a more digital landscape.  It took three years of employee gripes before anyone got a raise, those first three years I hadn’t even seen a cost of living increase. It did not appear to be thriving.

One day, as I was sitting in a meeting discussing implementing a new ticketing system, one by one my PMO colleagues (and boss) were taken aside by HR and told they were being laid off.  I remained in my own meeting, although I could hardly focus at that point.  Three hours later HR came by and told me the layoffs were over and I was being kept on.  I was the only one left.

I stayed another 10 months and at that point the PMO processes were abandoned and my sole focus was on budget management and procurement.  It was steady work that didn’t require much thinking and I had no idea what I wanted to do. It was a pretty lonely time there, I was just floating in this cubicle island, a small reminder to the rest of the organization of the team that used to be here.

After a few months of treading water I decided it was probably time to go. I wish I could say I made a concerted effort to think about my career path, but I still didn’t know what I could go for. I had settled nicely into a PMO role and those were the positions I went for. It took a few months but I eventually got a position in a PMO closer to the revenue side of the house.

Left Behind – 2019

Fast forward 5 years at this new company.  I had been promoted several times and enjoyed having a taste of operations work while still in a PMO function.  Over time there were challenges for the organization, revenue was impacted, and we had hired a large number of resources across the company.

Rumors of layoffs had been coming up for months, which did not surprise me.  I saw how our function was performing, how sales had been decreasing, to me it was an inevitability. Our team was roughly 13 by that time, with several reporting up to me.  While we were a large group, I did not think we would be hit that hard.

It was December and a cryptic company-wide meeting was on everyone’s calendar.  The CEO came on, read a brief script and said we would be divided into two groups, those staying on, and those being laid off.  I quickly found out I was being kept on and was relieved, but I then started to go around and pulse check on my team.  All but one that reported to me were being laid off.

By the end of the day our overall team was down to just four.

I stayed, but I also started casually looking at jobs elsewhere.  I was not getting a whole lot of interest and so I turned to focus on the decimated wasteland that was our organization.  By the middle of the year I was put in place to oversee the team, a natural progression for my career, but a tremendous challenge.  How could I keep this group motivated when I myself was still reeling from the events 7 months ago?

During this time I had a better idea of what I wanted my career to look like.  I communicated that to management and put in the effort to learn more about the business to support that trajectory.  While I was motivated on the one hand, on the other I constantly struggled in advocating for additional resources we badly needed at that point, reminded that this was now the second PMO team I was in that was gutted.  I took on a lot of work myself and could never get myself out of the day to day to progress my own career.

I naturally got burnt out and realized that I was doing a disservice to myself, my team, and the company.  I put more time in on my job search, and in ten months’ time I was weighing multiple job offers, one of which I accepted.

Recommendations if you Find Yourself Here:

If you’re laid off:

  • Take a moment (or two) to rest.  Following that rest period, take some time to reflect on what transpired and what you want for your future.
  • Lean into your LinkedIn network.  A theme in my career is that I never really utilized the connections I’ve made to seek out opportunities, which is a mistake.  My job search time probably would have been a fraction if I had only used my network more.
  • Block out time for your career daily.  Spending all day everyday combing job postings is not going to do you any favors.   Allocate 2 hours per day for your job search (updating your resume, applying online, finding networking events, etc).
  • Move for 20-30 minutes a day.  If you are fortunate enough to be able to go outside, go outside.  If you have limited space and no gym, there are thousands of resources on YouTube for free workouts you can do at home with little equipment.
  • Continue (or find) social activities. Getting out of the house and engaging socially helps both connecting to a potential network connection, as well as supporting your mental health.

If you are left behind:

  • Take some time to grieve your colleagues.  No, they have not died, but it can be a traumatic experience in that these people that were once around you day in day out are now gone.  Being kept on is a complicated mix of sadness, relief, guilt, confusion.  All of your emotions are valid and working through those will help you in the long run.
  • Build your emergency fund.  Not to be doomsday here, but many companies don’t have just one round of layoffs and it’s important to have a safety net.
  • Assess your career trajectory.  Are you in the place that will get you where you want?  Is your day to day still satisfactory?  Review what your workload has become now that the company has reduced its workforce.  This is a great time for a reality check on whether this is what you want to do the rest of your life as well. If not, you are still making a paycheck while you establish a plan to pivot your career path another direction.
  • Expand your LinkedIn network.  Add your colleagues (both still there or let go), these are people that can attest first hand to the quality of your work.  More companies have referral bonuses and so these people are incentivized to help you out, should you start looking.
  • Update your resume.  Even if you aren’t planning to leave, take some time to update your resume.  By the time you get to the point where you want to start looking, having to set aside time while you may be burnt out can be a hindrance.