I’d like to provide some insights from my experience as a VP at a leading F500 tech company, and as a reasonably successful startup CEO.
Promotions in the F500 are indeed complicated, but let me focus instead first on the performance review, which is a penultimate step to promotion, and something in my F500 experience that materially impacts your compensation.
And here is my learning. Reviews go into High, Strong, Good, and Needs To Improve basically in all Big Tech companies. Some have SuperHighs, but that’s rare. And in my experiences, even at Adobe, even at a F500 leader with 10,000 employees, there were zero politics in becoming a High. Because it’s so clear who the Highs are.
The only real issues, the politics, is the fact that some groups have too many High candidates (often the outperforming products), and some have too few, which warps the curves a bit. So it’s actually harder to be a High in an outperforming group than an underperforming group.
Having said all that…really, no politics. This was pretty surprising to me.
Now, of course, not every High can get promoted. But even the promotions, while not always the decisions I might make or you might make, were always based on results.
I know some of you will say your experience is different, but I’m going to suggest once you strip away the emotion, and once you see how the sausage is really made, that it’s probably the same in any growing tech company of any scale that has solid, experienced management.
So now, how to get promoted? In both my Big Tech Co. experience and my post- 20-to-50 employees in a strong startup experience, here is what I learned about what it takes to get promoted:
- Demonstrate successful leadership. This is what everyone is looking for. Everyone. Someone to take and carry the load. As long as you have an experienced boss, they will take notice. Because what we all really need is help – real help getting our initiatives done. If you can get one of my key initiatives done for me — not talked about, not analyzed, not discussed, but done — you are a rock star.
- Work in a hot or at least warm area of the company. No need to promote anyone in the EOL’d products, though it does happen.
- Don’t schmooze. Just engage and be positive and respectful. Schmoozing is a turn-off. Instead, as you demonstrate leadership, positively (never negatively) engage with your peers and colleagues outside of your small group. Be critical as needed, but always positive. Naked criticism will get you worse than nowhere; it will get you in the cellar. Your peers’ feedback, even if just informal and word-of-mouth, is critical to your promotion.
- Don’t sell up. Yes, I know selling up sometimes “works” in big companies, but it doesn’t really get you promoted, and really it’s a sign you are weak. Focus instead on selling down, and selling across. On getting your colleagues to follow your ideas and insights. That’s how you demonstrate true leadership.
- “Dress” for success. I don’t mean that completely literally (but yes, dress a little better than the rest, it can’t hurt). I mean act and carry yourself like someone that cares. That always goes the extra yard. Never look at the carpet, or yawn. Never be late to a meeting — ever. Always be positive, give constructive feedback, but never destructive feedback. Never be cocky, but be confident in what you know is correct.
- (Try) to be patient. Even if you do everything right, there can only be so many promotions. It may take another whole year. This isn’t politics per se, but companies of any size have a finite number that they can make. Don’t give it more than one extra year, but assume it will take one more cycle than it should.
- Ask. Ask your boss how and what it will take to get promoted. If you don’t ask, you probably won’t get. Just be ready to get some tough feedback when you ask, and be ready to grow, change, and learn.
- Working hard and doing a good job is insufficient. Again, promotion in big companies and tech companies of any scale is about leadership, and in many cases, management. You’ll get well paid if you work hard and do a good job. You just won’t get promoted all that far.
Just my learnings and observations in the BigCo. I’d say all but the second point also apply to startups too.
I know that some companies are much more fracked up than this. But I think and hope that maybe 50% of the well-run ones work just this way.
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