Boss Lady

10 top tips for how to get a promotion


How do you get your next promotion, especially if you’re a woman in a man’s business world?

Julia is the VP of a global corporate giant. Astute, intelligent, focused, clear and there’s no doubt in my mind that she’s a great leader.

I’ve heard amazing things about Julia and her ability to achieve unsurpassed business results in her region without negatively impacting others. With 500 people in her team she has the uncanny ability to remember names and take the time for a conversation. In the lead up to our meeting today I have heard a variety of people say “I really don’t know how she does it” and one of her peers said “She’s our brightest star in the leadership team”.

Julia and I sit down to lunch in a busy cafe. There’s a lot of noise and I can see that she’s a little uncomfortable. After a nervous giggle, Julia immediately opens up “I really don’t like crowds. Oh, I’m fine one-on-one but I don’t enjoy the rush-hour of lunch. I’m actually quite introverted by nature.”

This conversation immediately had me wondering how she manages every day in the busy corporate world managing a team of 500 and having to travel all over Asia Pacific. I soon find out that there’s much more than work in her life, with three children, a working husband, aging parents and part-time study to boot. Yes, I’m also starting to wonder how she does it all.

I also remembered that famous phrase, “If you want something done, give it to a busy person.”

“You know, I don’t think too far ahead,” she said. “I plan each day and just get on with things. I don’t let minor distractions get in my way.”

” I never had aspirations for leadership but I truly feel that this is why I’ve received promotion after promotion. I get stuff done. I have so many other responsibilities outside work that I don’t and won’t compromise on. That’s what makes me great at my job and I also want to be a great role model for young women who have aspirations to ‘have it all’ – that’s the family and a rewarding, challenging, satisfying career, too – without losing it all.”

An hour into lunch Julia was much more comfortable and shared a few secrets about some changes going on at an executive level. It turned out that her boss was being relocated to set up a new division for the business in Europe. “Are you putting yourself forward?” I asked without any hesitation.

“Oh, no. There are others more suitable, more qualified and more experienced than me”

“Are you serious? After all that I’ve heard about you leading up to today, what do you have to lose Julia?”

“It’s just that I’ve only been a member of the exec team for 3 years. I really need more mentoring and development before putting myself up for a role like this.”

This was a tricky moment for me. I was out for lunch, referred by one of Julia’s colleagues. We had known each other for an hour and yet I could feel an anger welling up in me. An anger that doesn’t come along very often but when it does it’s always something that I have to act on. So I did.

“Julia, instead of telling me why you shouldn’t put your hand up for the promotion, tell me about the three attributes that would make you a great applicant for the role.”

It was no surprise to me that what I learnt next was that Julia actually had not three but five important attributes: her history with the business, her technical expertise, her strategy development and execution experience, her engagement survey results and established global customer relationships.

Julia decided to return to the office and find out more about the role and the application process.

As I walked from the restaurant, I thought about all of the “Julias” that I meet. Several every month. Outstanding women (and men, too, but mainly women) who are overshadowed by the people who put their hands up, send in resumes, and follow through.

I continued to ruminate over the following days which prompted me to share some simple and important tips for your next promotion because the hard scientific facts are that we need more women in leadership. It’s great for business. It’s great for profitability. It’s great for the economy. So, here we go:

1. Make an appointment with yourself

Get away from the office for a few hours and think about what you’re working towards and why. Don’t get bogged down in the “I can’t”, “I shouldn’t, couldn’t” mindset. Write about your working life 5 years from now. Write it in the present tense. Describe the culture, people, office, role, responsibility, industry, the hours, travel, activity, results, a typical day. Share a story. Don’t overthink it. Just write from the heart, with knowledge of both your skills and desires.

2. Make a plan

Determine the gap between where you are now and where you want to be five years from now. What do you need to be doing in the next 12 months to get you on track? What about the next month? This week?

Take a micro-action on your plan every day. The reason I say micro-action is that you need to do something everyday that keeps your goal front of mind. It could be as small as making a conscious effort to listen actively throughout an otherwise tedious meeting through to having a curly conversation with a colleague. Plan to take some action every single day.

3. Build your network

Now this is when a lot of women respond to me with a deep sigh and hunch of the shoulders with a response something like “I just don’t have time. I’m not a networker. I don’t like asking favours.” I’ve heard every excuse. But here’s the thing – and read this a few times: your next opportunity is going to come to you through your networks. You next business referral, your next sale, your next invitation and yes, your next promotion.

How do you build a network? One person at a time! And, it’s not about asking and taking, it’s about helping and supporting others. The most important people with whom you need to build your network are those who will assist you on your journey? How can you help them? Soon enough, they’ll help you, too.

4. Learn to play politics

Oh, and here we go. This is around about the time that the majority of women will shut down completely. But you can’t skip this stuff.

Take note of the people doing the job that you want to do one day soon. They know how to influence an audience. Influence colleagues. They make a point of making their views known, to the people that matter, at an appropriate time.

Leaning how to navigate your way along the bureaucratic path to better is a skill. A skill that you can develop day by day. Why bother? Go back to point 1. And here’s the first tip to playing politics – Don’t take your work so seriously. Lighten up. Have a bit of fun. A lot of the time it’s a game! A serious game, but a game nevertheless.

5. Back yourself, because nobody else will.

Backing yourself is about being true to your ambitions – every day. I have a wonderful client who used to have a very short fuse. She was frustrated that so many ‘nuf nufs’ were getting promoted around her.  She was working hard, long and diligently but had the habit of shooting herself in the foot every time the pressure was turned up. Once her sights were set on promotion, she developed strategies to mitigate the risk of exploding under pressure. And, she took up boxing to get rid of some stress and angst!

Backing yourself means in every area for your life. Look after the most important person.

6. Get feedback

You’ve probably noticed that very few people will be courageous enough to provide feedback about your limitations. But you have to ask. And, even when you ask they will be reluctant. Invest in some tools to help you better understand the way in which you’re perceived by others. The one person who will give you open, constructive feedback is your boss. Share your aspirations and ask them to let you know the three gaps between where you are and where you want to be.

And then go about working in those gaps with your micro-actions every day.

7. Treat the set-backs as learning

When you miss out on a promotion or an opportunity to take the lead on a project don’t just suck it up and get back to work. Act immediately. Ask for feedback on the areas in which you need to improve – and work on those areas every day. By the way, when asking for feedback, remember that you have two ears and one mouth. Use them in that proportion. Don’t defend yourself. Take it. Use it. Make a plan. Once you’ve corrected any weak areas, go again.

8. Get a mentor or coach.

What’s the difference? A mentor assists you with your learning goals while a coach is more task and action oriented. Share the gap between where you are right now and where you want to be. Ask for their feedback, guidance and suggestions. Meet regularly and share your successes and challenges along the way.

9. Mentor others in the business

Offering to support others on their journey is a wonderful opportunity to pass on your learnings. It also develops your leadership skills in ways that you wouldn’t have otherwise realised. Seek out someone who you see a lot of potential in. Let them know. Offer them the opportunity.

10. Put your hand up

And, the most important point – the one that Julia is now familiar with – is to put yourself forward.

You can’t catch a fish if your line isn’t in the water.

When a job comes up that you’re interested in, go for it. Don’t justify all the reasons why you won’t succeed, throw your hat in the ring. The great thing about putting yourself forward – regardless of the outcome – is that leaders in the business will notice you and your aspirations to further yourself. And what’s that worth? Could be a lot!

Getting back to Julia, she has now applied for the role. What excites me is the ripple effect that actions like these have in organisations. And, most importantly, regardless of the outcome the application, the process has been great for Julia, her confidence and her wider sphere of influence.

So put your hand up and your resume forward. No one else is going to do it for you!

And while you’re at it, inspire others to do the same.

About Soozey Johnstone

Soozey Johnstone is a writer, thought leader and advisor to senior executive teams. She is the author of I Am The Problem, outlining nine key obstacles that lead to business success – and why some businesses grow and prosper while others fall by the wayside. #IAmTheProblem @soozeyJ