Path to Promotion

May 05, 2020

“In this world, you’re either growing or you’re dying, so get in motion and grow.”
– Lou Holtz

Life is about growth. We often see our professional journeys as a ladder, going from one step to another, constantly moving forward. As soon as we land our job, we’ve got our eyes on the next promotion. If we’re not growing we’re dying, right?

The issue for young professionals is that the path to your next promotion isn’t taught in school. In fact, it’s often the opposite process of how you succeed in school. It’s not memorizing facts on a notecard that you’ll forget the day after your final exam, it’s a strategic plan to improve your craft and your perception with decision-makers. It’s an art and a science.

I get asked all of the time by ambitious sales reps how they can get to the next stage of their career. Here are a few things you can control and get started on right away.

1) Attitude and Effort

First and foremost, you need to bring a great attitude and effort every day. These are two things that are absolutely 100% always in your control. There’s no excuse for being deficient in either of these traits and if you are – don’t even think about a promotion.

Tactically, this means being the first one in and the last one out. It means staying positive through the inevitable ups and downs of sales (and life). It means taking time outside of work to learn something, whether that means reading a book, listening to a podcast or networking with other salespeople. It means attacking problems with potential solutions, rather than complaints. Control what you can control. You control you.

2) Hit Your Numbers

This should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway. You need to create a consistent track record of hitting numbers. Scratch that. You don’t want to only hit numbers, you want to push far beyond them, and call into question what is even possible. Raise the bar for not only yourself, but the whole organization. Whether you’re tasked with setting meetings, making a certain number of calls or have a revenue quota, you need to be at [or at least near] the top of the leaderboard. Be so good that they can’t ignore you. **Note – this does not mean you go into leadership. It’s just about getting promoted in general.**

3) Be A Leader

Silicon Valley management legend Bill Campbell said that “your title makes you a manager, your people make you a leader”. You can become a leader before a title indicates you are one.

There are a few tactical ways you can do this. You can spend time helping out the stragglers on your team with questions (your boss will thank you). You can be the person that actively participates in team meetings and takes [and shares] great notes. You can be the person that tries new prospecting strategies and shares the results with her peers.

There are also the intangibles of being a leader, being someone that people want to follow. When you walk in a room, do you brighten it up or do you suck the light out of it? You can work on those traits by the way. Contrary to popular opinion, more great leaders are made than born.

4) Make Your Intentions Heard

You have the intention to get promoted. Make that heard: first to yourself. Write it down in a notebook, rip it out and put it somewhere you’ll see it often. Re-write it every morning and every night. This isn’t a wish, it’s a goal.

Then, have a conversation with management. Treat this as a sale, because it is. Come prepared to share why you’ve earned the promotion, why you’d be a great fit, and what you have already done to prepare for the job. They’ll likely push you off for a quarter or a year or “sometime down the line.” You want to get as specific with them as possible. You want to get a clear give and take. If I do X and Y, then I’ll have a Z job. If you get that clarity, you have a plan and you need to work like hell to accomplish it.

Note: There is a major difference between being someone who knows what they want and works hard to get it and someone who sulks and complains because of how ‘unfair” it is that their promotion hasn’t happened yet.

5) Begin Learning

I remember a scene from the “Brady 6” documentary following the early years of Tom Brady’s career. His friend tells a story of him and Tom playing catch at a wedding. As he asks Tom about being a backup during his rookie season on the Patriots, Tom begins unconsciously throwing the ball harder and harder, until he begins to hurt his friend’s hands with the football’s velocity. All he said was “when I get the chance, I’m going to be ready.”

He was preparing. He didn’t know when it’d happen, but when his predecessor Drew Bledsoe got knocked out of a game with an injury, Brady stepped in. And he never looked back.

The best time to learn was 10 years ago, the second-best time is now. Pick up a book, listen to a podcast, check out some events with great speakers. Whether your goal is to become a badass salesperson or sales leader, there is more content available than you could ever consume. Begin learning now so that when the time comes, you’re ready.

6) Make Your Boss’ Life Easier

Ryan Holiday calls this the “canvas strategy” that great leaders like Benjamin Franklin and Bill Belichick have followed historically. They helped to propel the path of their boss so that they could follow in his or her footsteps. The end goal is to clear the path, create a “canvas” for your superior to paint their picture on. Here’s an example:

One of my old bosses absolutely hated sales forecasting. It was done in a spreadsheet and 1:1 conversation with each rep. Most reps were massively disorganized and the process was a nightmare, causing him to lose his mind every other week. He had a temper. So when it was my time to forecast with him, my numbers were pristine. In and out in 5 minutes. It seems like such an insignificant thing, but there were a dozen of those little pet peeves that I adamantly avoided. In turn, I became his right-hand man. As he moved up in the company, so did I.

Find the things that your boss hates to do, the things that frustrate them (we all have them), and make them easy. You won’t get promoted for this but you can easily not get promoted for not doing it.

7) Get Involved Outside Of Work

If you’re not doing this already, it’s time to wake up. It’s 2020. Make sure you have a presence on LinkedIn. Try out a side hustle. When I was younger, my side hustle was buying and selling real estate. Not only did it help me financially, but I learned more about business and selling outside of my normal job. I’m pretty certain it also helped me sell into this category later in life.

More recently, I wrote a book, was consulting with start-ups and created Surf and Sales; all while working as the SVP Sales full-time. Once the income I was making at my side hustles matched that of my “job”, I felt secure that if I left the job and went all-in on my own business, I would be just fine. That took years of work but the ROI on what I’ve earned and learned is beyond anything I expected.

Start now, you’ll thank me later.

8) Patience

It’s not just a song by Guns n’ Roses. Salespeople – especially my millennials out there – are (rightfully) known for being impatient. We want it, and we wanted it yesterday. It’s a super hard lesson for us to learn. I am still trying to learn it. It sucks…but… Learn to be patient.

That doesn’t mean taking the decades long approach of our great-grandparents working in the steel mills, and auto industries [like my grandparents did]. It does mean that you need to get good at playing the game, understanding the players, your own strengths and weaknesses, and evaluating opportunities.

It’s incredibly hard to rush these things, so be aggressive in trying to learn them, patient in reaping the reward of them.

Wrapping Up

As you progress through your career you can let go of the process that helped you out in school. It’s not about remembering facts. It’s about controlling what you can control. It’s about being the best. It’s about playing the game internally and handling perception. It’s about up-leveling your game, being so good that they can’t ignore you.

At the end of the day, it’s a sale. Former FBI Lead Hostage Negotiator Chris Voss put it well when he said that “everything in life is a negotiation”. Your road to a promotion is no different. Provide the results, prove your worth, and make the sale. Follow the above steps and you’ll be well on your way to the next step in your career.


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