The first part of defining your goal is determining what you’re after. The second part of defining your goal is determining the differences between your current job and your target job. The third part of defining your goal is to create a specific plan—a roadmap—to get experience with each of those differences to demonstrate that you’re ready for this promotion.

A CEO tells me what managers look for

A few years ago, I had an opportunity to talk with the CEO of a large public utility company. We met in his office on the top floor of a tall building and we talked for 90 minutes. This was extremely generous of him—think how much his time must be worth—and I wanted to make the most of it.

Our conversation covered a lot of ground, but there’s one question and answer combo that really stands out to me, even now. I asked, “How do you find the people that you promote to be your VPs and SVPs?” I wanted to know the secret sauce for finding untapped potential, for identifying future superstars so that I could get promoted myself, and so that I too would know how to find talent.

His answer was, “I look for people that are already working in and exploring areas outside their own, and I promote them.” In other words, he was looking for people already doing the jobs he needed to fill.

I expected him to use words like “potential” and “future”, but instead he used the word “already”. I learned that business managers don’t generally promote people based on potential, they promote them based on results. They’re looking for people who have already demonstrated that they can do the job. They may have to train them on the specific details or operational duties of the new role, but the major pieces are often in place before the promotion.

In hindsight, this is obvious. Managers are very, very busy people. They don’t have much time to teach people how to do new jobs. They barely have enough time to delegate and manage the business they’re responsible for running. So they’re not looking for potential, they’re looking for value right now.

Do the job, then ask to make it official

From this perspective, a promotion looks a little different. Instead of something that’s granted to you by managers when they think you’re ready, it’s something you do and then ask to make it official.

What does this mean for you? It means that those differences you found between your current job and the job you’re pursuing are things you need to accomplish now to make your case for a promotion later. Those differences—the things you need to accomplish to demonstrate you’re ready for your target job—are your roadmap to getting your next promotion. Now, you just need to start following that roadmap, putting a pin in each new skill or ability as you gain the experience you need to demonstrate that you’re already doing your target job.

If you can do those new things without asking permission, just look for an opportunity and go for it. Of course you won’t always be able to just start doing that new job, so you may need to think of other ways to get experience with your target job’s duties. For example, maybe you’re aiming for a promotion from Consultant to Senior Consultant, and the main difference between those two roles is that a Senior Consultant mentors other Consultants. Mentoring probably isn’t something you can just do, so ask your manager if there are any good mentoring opportunities where you can be useful. “I’m really comfortable with the Consultant role, and am already documenting processes and creating training for new Consultants. If there are any Associate Consultants that need a mentor, I would love to work with them.”

The next step is to build your case for a promotion, and the strongest component of your case will be that you’re already doing that job. When you go to your manager to ask for a promotion using the method in this book, you will say something like, “I looked into it, and I think I’ve been doing the Senior Business Analyst job for the past few months. What else can I do to make things official with a promotion to Senior Business Analyst?”

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