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Ricardo Luevanos
Ricardo Luevanos

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Why Your Promotion and Raise are Taking Forever

This article was part of The Rising Dev newsletter issue #3, published on Mar 1, 2021.

I was inspired to write this after following this Twitter discussion initiated by @duretti.

@duretti asked a very fair question about a widespread occurrence in tech regarding promotions and raises. She was also kind enough to follow it up with an informative blog post, Unintended predatory delay is still delay, where she dives into the topic a bit further—it’s a good read; you should check it out.

The Twitter discussion and blog post got me thinking about and reflecting on my own experience with promotions and raises. I’ve been on both sides of the table regarding promotions and raises, and I’ve had to play the waiting game. And as a manager, I’ve asked others to wait.

The Variables Delaying Your Promotion or Raise

What follows is a brain dump of the variables that affect the timing of your promotion or raise, as I experienced myself or through others. Not all of them will be relevant to your company or situation, but I’m willing to bet some combination of these will affect your rise if they haven’t already.

You’re Not Ready

This will be valid multiple times in your career. Ideally, someone is having the tough conversations with you about this—usually your manager. You should be having at least a couple of conversations a month around goal setting and prepping for your next move.

The four stages of competency apply here. You want to aim for eventual mastery by identifying and addressing current skill gaps. With the proper support from good managers and teams, you can build out and execute against a plan.

It’s ok not to be ready yet, but you need to validate progress from outside of yourself. If you’re not getting the feedback and input you need to make improvements, find out why.

A Case Needs to Be Built

In some form or another, the case for your promotion or raise always needs to be built and presented.

If you’re in an established company with a fair process and good managers, the justification or case for your promotion or raise has been in progress already, as part of your regular goal-setting efforts and as part of ongoing conversations about your progress and impact.

Unfortunately, it’s often the case that the due diligence and proof gathering for your promotion or raise doesn’t start until you speak up. Start early!

There Are Budget Constraints

This will always be true to some extent, either due to budget cycles or budget limitations. Organizations aren’t always trying to get in your way, but optimizing, doing more with less, is a staple of efficiency, something we as engineers have top of mind. It’s possible to over-optimize, to leave folks under-rewarded for their impact, for far too long a time.

In some cases, engineering managers are given a pool of money to support promotions and raises, meaning only a few will pass. In other cases, the company grew so quickly that the annual budget allotted is already being surpassed, triggering a cutback and reduction in certain areas, including promotions and raises.

In other cases, managers failed to plan for growth properly. It was a blind spot for some reason, and they now find themselves in a position of asking others to wait until budgets are re-negotiated.

There Are Policy Conflicts

Believe it or not, some companies have policies around how long a person should have worked at the company before being considered for a promotion or raise.

One company I was at had a 12-month rule regarding new hires. No promotions or raises were allowed unless you had worked for the company for at least 12 months. If you’re stellar at your job and a quick riser, this one is incredibly frustrating.

I’m not sure what the justification for it is, but a good manager will advocate for you anyways. Sometimes the squeaky wheel is heard.

Your Company Shifted Into Wartime Mode

If your company is struggling to survive, it’s in wartime mode. In wartime mode, a lot of things get reprioritized, especially anything that relates to money.

With Covid-19 dominating much of 2020, you can bet that folks who were on track for receiving promotions or raises were asked to wait, assuming the company was doing well enough to avoid laying them off.

Many factors can shift a company into wartime mode, from mismanagement to stiff competition. It’s an unfortunate variable and something to keep top of mind. In my experience, most folks don’t know whether or not their company has shifted into wartime mode—do what you can to find out.

A Foundation for Success Is Not Yet in Place

In a healthy organization, there is a balanced ratio between role levels to ensure adequate support for growth. Ideally, you have someone to learn from (higher than you) and someone to mentor and coach (lower than you), more experienced peers to help you through your growth, and an excellent manager to help you manage your career.

Good companies are always working towards maintaining a balance that provides an opportunity for folks ready to move up, but it won’t always be the case that this balance exists.

I’ve been in situations where promotions to Sr level were delayed until we hired experienced Sr staff to help them in that role. I’ve also seen delays while waiting to hire junior or mid-level staff to ensure proper succession planning, knowledge transfers, and backfilling to replace those who move up.

If your promotion can upset the balance, and negatively impact other people or the company, expect delays.

Your Company Has an Unhealthy Culture

Perhaps the most frustrating of all, this one ranges from the mildly biased up to the ugliest. It’s unfortunate, but some humans will make every attempt to stop your rise because of the way you look or sound, or because your preferences don’t align with theirs—it’s just plain hateful and shouldn’t be something we need to look out for, but it’s real.

If you’re in the wrong place, folks will hold you back. Worse, you will get positive feedback and the impression that you are on your way, only to find yourself waiting a little bit longer.

Other companies have the best intentions and genuinely want you to succeed, but they haven’t implemented or sustained a culture that focuses on people and their career goals. Nor have they trained or conditioned their managers to properly coach and mentor others.

Under these circumstances, you’re swimming upstream when it comes to making change happen, especially the kind of change that rewards you for your impact.

Do your best to assess the situation you’re in, and move on if you need to and are able.

Your Company Lacks Process

I’ve seen this at both newer companies and older ones. Where the process for promotions just isn’t structured well, or at all. In some cases, it was a complicated process to understand for both managers and individual contributors.

For managers, this has the unfortunate effect of making promotions feel like one-off efforts. The current promotion proposal won’t follow steps similar to the last one, making the whole thing a very unpredictable endeavor.

In cases like this, a delay is due to the lack of transparency around how things truly work, making it difficult for managers to understand where the leverage is.

Your Company Is Re-leveling Titles and Salaries

This is often an occurrence with earlier-stage companies that are growing. These companies have changed salary ranges and role levels to remain competitive, so some folks have been hired at a lower salary or title than others along the way.

It’s often the case that your promotion or raise, though well deserved, is a lower priority for the company while they work to re-level others and get them caught up.

Your Company Is Going Through Leadership Changes

It sometimes happens that there are ongoing changes at the executive level within your company, and newly incoming execs want time to review and approve any proposed promotions or raises put on the table before their arrival, not unfair.

It’s prudent for execs to want to get their heads wrapped around recent decisions, or proposed decisions, before letting them be completely finalized. This can put potential promotions and raises on pause for a bit.

I’ve had the unfortunate experience where the promotions I was advocating for within my teams were delayed up to 9 months purely because of leadership changes. Two interim c-level leaders delayed the process by six months before a final leader was brought in, who finalized decisions three months after that. It was very frustrating for me but incredibly frustrating for those waiting on their promotions.

Start the Promotion or Raise Discussion Now

Here’s the hard truth, even if you’re at a great company working with a great manager, who both have your best interest at heart, your promotion will take time. Start the conversations well before you are ready for that promotion or raise.

Remember that the next level, the next title, is not a target you hit all of a sudden; it’s something you trend towards. You want to have all the momentum you can before the opportunity presents itself.

Consider this list, are these true or false?

  • You’re aware of the skills and experience required for you to succeed in the higher role, and you understand how the promotion process works within your company.
  • You’re performing at the next level consistently, as confirmed by your manager and others.
  • Your manager is aware of your promotion goals and is a sponsor in helping to make them happen.
  • You’ve spent the last 6-12 months working with your manager to fill any remaining gaps in your current role.
  • You’ve spent the last 6-12 months working with your manager on identifying your strengths/weaknesses for your next role and goal planning to level-up.
  • You’re already performing the next role informally at least part of the time.
  • You’re coaching/mentoring another who is performing your current role informally at least part of the time.

If all of the above bullet points are true, your promotion is likely around the corner; at least, I would bet money that is the case. If most of the above are false, your promotion is likely 6+ months off; I would guess at least a year off.

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