Another View: The promotion game

Mimi Browing

A few weeks ago, a young woman I mentor expressed her dismay at not being selected for a promotion she clearly thought she deserved.

She spoke of her experience, education, technical expertise and outstanding performance. Yet the promotion went to someone she felt was less experienced and a mediocre performer.

Why did this happen, and what could she do to be more competitive for future promotions?

These questions are as easy to explain as the mysteries of the galaxy. It helps to know that there are both explicit and implicit aspects to the promotion game. Everyone pretty much knows the explicit rules. The trickier aspect is the implicit rules. Here are some factors to consider:
  • Explicit game rules. The federal government and most private companies have guidelines for moving ahead. Some are more detailed and specific than others, but ground rules exist and most employees know them. These typically include specific procedures and formats, demonstration of management and technical competencies, a solid performance record and a due diligence component. In addition, most large organizations have procedures to compare and rank candidates.

  • Implicit game rules. When the smoke clears and the winner is announced, there are often indications of why the person was chosen. Top management sometimes wants fresh blood (preferring an outsider to an incumbent) or the opposite (the most bureaucratic or unimaginative person in the office). Familiar, comfortable buddies are often the preferred candidates.

  • Explicit competition rules. The most important rule is to have the basic professional and managerial credentials. Next is a credible r'sum'. Equally important is performance, since outstanding appraisals and references are critical. It also helps if you know the organizational culture and the people with whom you will be working. Typically, a known star performer has an edge over an unknown star performer from elsewhere.

  • Implicit competition rules. These are the hardest to discern. Frequently, they boil down to management's preference for insider or outsider and the absence of any personal details that could derail a candidate. Such derailers include being too political or aggressive, having a negative attitude, being untrustworthy, being unable to adapt to change, having poor interpersonal skills, and lacking written and oral communications skills. There's not much you can do about management preferences, but you can control and change these traits.

  • What advice did I give my young colleague? I suggested she revise her r'sum' to emphasize results rather than responsibilities. Since I knew the executives and the person selected for the job, I could also tell her that she was too progressive for the current team. They were comfortable with the status quo and did not want innovation.

    Lastly, I suggested she curb her overtly ambitious behavior and become more engaged in her organization's social networks. Even if she follows my advice, the next promotion is not guaranteed. But she has definitely made herself more aware and competitive.

    Mimi Browning is a former Army senior executive who is a principal at Booz Allen Hamilton of McLean, Va. She can be reached at browning_miriam@bah.com.

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