If we want to move onwards and upwards in our careers, we need to climb the ladder. It may seems like it’s a long game of politics but that is not always the case. There is usually an element of fogginess and it’s not entirely transparent how the promotion process works, so what are the real reasons that people get promoted or not?
Jason M. Lemkin, CEO and Co-Founder of Echosign which was acquired by Adobe and then worked as a VP in Adobe provides some insights into the process from his personal experience as found in his Quora Answer (Thanks to Jason for letting us share this answer).
I’d like to provide some insights from my experience as a VP as a leading F500 tech company, and as a reasonably successful start-up CEO.
Promotions in the F500 are indeed complicated, but let me focus instead first on Performance Reviews, 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 Cos. (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 (x) my Big Tech Co experience, and (y) my post-20-50 employees in a strong start-up experience, to get promoted, here are my learnings:
1. 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 ishelp — real helpgetting our initiatives done. If you can get one of my key initiatives done for me — not talked about, not analyzed, not discussed, butdone — you are a rockstar.
2. Work in a hot or at least warm area of the company.
No need to promote anyone in the EOL’d (End of Life) products — though it does happen.
3. Don’t schmooze. Just engage and be positive and respectful.
Schmoozing is a turn-off. Instead, as you Demonstrate Leadership, also 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.
4. 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.
5. “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.
6. (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 can make. Don’t give it more than one extra year, but assume it will take one more cycle than it should.
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.
8. Working Hard and Doing a Good Job Is Insufficient.
Again, promotion in Big Cos 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 / observations in the BigCo. I’d say all but the second point also apply to start-ups too.
I know some companies are much more fracked up than this. But I think / hope maybe 50% of the well run ones work just this way.
Taking your work to the next level means setting and keeping career goals. A career goal is a targeted objective that explains what you want your ultimate profession to be.
Defining career goals is a critical step to achieving success. You need to know where you’re going in order to get there. Knowing what your career goals are isn’t just important for you–it’s important for potential employers too. The relationship between an employer and an employee works best when your goals for the future and their goals align. Saying, “Oh, I don’t know. I’ll do anything,” makes you seem indecisive, and opens you up to taking on ill-fitting tasks that won’t lead you to your dream life.
Career goal templates’ one-size-fits-all approach won’t consider your unique goals and experiences. They won’t help you stand out, and they may not reflect your full potential.
In this article, I’ll help you to define your career goals with SMART goal framework, and will provide you with a list of examples goals for work and career.
Instead of relying on a generalized framework to explain your vision, use a tried-and-true goal-setting model. SMART is an acronym for “Specific, Measurable, Action-oriented, Realistic with Timelines.” The SMART framework demystifies goals by breaking them into smaller steps.
Helpful hints when setting SMART career goals:
Start with short-term goals first. Work on your short-term goals, and then progress the long-term interests. Short-term goals are those things which take 1-3 years to complete. Long-term goals take 3-5 years to do. As you succeed in your short-term goals, that success should feed into accomplishing your long-term goals.
Be specific, but don’t overdo it. You need to define your career goals, but if you make them too specific, then they become unattainable. Instead of saying, “I want to be the next CEO of Apple, where I’ll create a billion-dollar product,” try something like, “My goal is to be the CEO of a successful company.”
Get clear on how you’re going to reach your goals. You should be able to explain the actions you’ll take to advance your career. If you can’t explain the steps, then you need to break your goal down into more manageable chunks.
Don’t be self-centered. Your work should not only help you advance, but it should also support the goals of your employer. If your goals differ too much, then it might be a sign that the job you’ve taken isn’t a good fit.
If you want to learn more about setting SMART Goals, watch the video below to learn how you can set SMART career goals.
After you’re clear on how to set SMART goals, you can use this framework to tackle other aspects of your work. For instance, you might set SMART goals to improve your performance review, look for a new job, or shift your focus to a different career.
We’ll cover examples of ways to use SMART goals to meet short-term career goals in the next section.
Why You Need an Individual Development Plan
Setting goals is one part of the larger formula for success. You may know what you want to do, but you also have to figure out what skills you have, what you lack, and where your greatest strengths and weaknesses are.
One of the best ways to understand your capabilities is by using the Science Careers Individual Development Plan skills assessment. It’s free, and all you need to do is register an account and take a few assessments.
These assessments will help you determine if your career goals are realistic. You’ll come away with a better understanding of your unique talents and skill-sets. You may decide to change some of your career goals or alter your timeline based on what you learn.
40 Examples of Goals for Work & Career
All this talk of goal-setting and self-assessment may sound great in theory, but perhaps you need some inspiration to figure out what your goals should be.
For Changing a Job
Attend more networking events and make new contacts.
Achieve a promotion to __________ position.
Get a raise.
Plan and take a vacation this year.
Agree to take on new responsibilities.
Develop meaningful relationships with your coworkers and clients.
Ask for feedback on a regular basis.
Learn how to say, “No,” when you are asked to take on too much.
Delegate tasks that you no longer need to be responsible for.
Strive to be in a leadership role in __ number of years.
For Switching Career Path
Pick up and learn a new skill.
Find a mentor.
Become a volunteer in the field that interests you.
Commit to getting training or going back to school.
Read the most recent books related to your field.
Decide whether you are happy with your work-life balance and make changes if necessary. 
Plan what steps you need to take to change careers.
Compile a list of people who could be character references or submit recommendations.
Commit to making __ number of new contacts in the field this year.
Create a financial plan.
For Getting a Promotion
Reduce business expenses by a certain percentage.
Stop micromanaging your team members.
Become a mentor.
Brainstorm ways that you could improve your productivity and efficiency at work
Seek a new training opportunity to address a weakness.
Find a way to organize your work space.
Seek feedback from a boss or trusted coworker every week/ month/ quarter.
Become a better communicator.
Find new ways to be a team player.
Learn how to reduce work hours without compromising productivity.
For Acing a Job Interview
Identify personal boundaries at work and know what you should do to make your day more productive and manageable.
Identify steps to create a professional image for yourself.
Go after the career of your dreams to find work that does not feel like a job.
Look for a place to pursue your interest and apply your knowledge and skills.
Find a new way to collaborate with experts in your field.
Identify opportunities to observe others working in the career you want.
Become more creative and break out of your comfort zone.
Ask to be trained more relevant skills for your work.
Ask for opportunities to explore the field and widen your horizon
Set your eye on a specific award at work and go for it.
Career Goal Setting FAQs
I’m sure you still have some questions about setting your own career goals, so here I’m listing out the most commonly asked questions about career goals.
1. What if I’m not sure what I want my career to be?
If you’re uncertain, be honest about it. Let the employer know as much as you know about what you want to do. Express your willingness to use your strengths to contribute to the company. When you take this approach, back up your claim with some examples.
If you’re not even sure where to begin with your career, check out this guide:
Lying to potential employers is bound to end in disaster. In the interview, a lie can make you look foolish because you won’t know how to answer follow up questions.
Even if you think your career goal may not precisely align with the employer’s expectations for a long-term hire, be open and honest. There’s probably more common ground than they realize, and it’s up to you to bridge any gaps in expectations.
Being honest and explaining these connections shows your employer that you’ve put a lot of thought into this application. You aren’t just telling them what they want to hear.
3. Is it better to have an ambitious goal, or should I play it safe?
You should have a goal that challenges you, but SMART goals are always reasonable. If you put forth a goal that is way beyond your capabilities, you will seem naive. Making your goals too easy shows a lack of motivation.
Employers want new hires who are able to self-reflect and are willing to take on challenges.
4. Can I have several career goals?
It’s best to have one clearly-defined career goal and stick with it. (Of course, you can still have goals in other areas of your life.) Having a single career goal shows that you’re capable of focusing, and it shows that you like to accomplish what you set out to do.
On the other hand, you might have multiple related career goals. This could mean that you have short-term goals that dovetail into your ultimate long-term career goal. You might also have several smaller goals that feed into a single purpose.
For example, if you want to become a lawyer, you might become a paralegal and attend law school at the same time. If you want to be a school administrator, you might have initial goals of being a classroom teacher and studying education policy. In both cases, these temporary jobs and the extra education help you reach your ultimate goal.
You’ll have to devote some time to setting career goals, but you’ll be so much more successful with some direction. Remember to:
Set SMART goals. SMART goals are Specific, Measurable, Action-oriented, and Realistic with Timelines. When you set goals with these things in mind, you are likely to achieve the outcomes you want.
Have short-term and long-term goals. Short-term career goals can be completed in 1-3 years, while long-term goals will take 3-5 years to finish. Your short-term goals should set you up to accomplish your long-term goals.
Assess your capabilities by coming up with an Individual Development Plan. Knowing how to set goals won’t help you if you don’t know yourself. Understand what your strengths and weaknesses are by taking some self-assessments.
Choose goals that are appropriate to your ultimate aims. Your career goals should be relevant to one another. If they aren’t, then you may need to narrow your focus. Your goals should match the type of job that you want and the quality of life that you want to lead.
Be clear about your goals with potential employers. Always be honest with potential employers about what you want to do with your life. If your goals differ from the company’s objectives, find a way bridge the gap between what you want for yourself and what your employer expects.
By doing goal-setting work now, you’ll be able to make conscious choices on your career path. You can always adjust your plan if things change for you, but the key is to give yourself a road map for success.