The secret to getting promoted (hint: it's not about job performance)

Ever wondered what really matters when it comes to promotion? Here's what I've found from 20+ years of sitting on promotion, interview and succession panels.

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Kate recently approached me for career coaching.  She epitomises the typical ‘high potential’, go-getting woman that I have seen time and time again across my 20+ year corporate HR career. Early 30s, with an impressive CV of quick job progression and key work achievements, she is seen as a high-flyer by her large blue chip corporate employer.  Her work output outstrips her peers, her energy and job comittment is second to none, and she is technically extremely competent.  She knows her stuff and her team love working for her.  She had been led to believe that she was the front runner for a promotion to Director – a massive achievement for her age and experience - and was working hard to ensure every work activity showed her as the best candidate. 


But then Kate didn’t get the promotion. She was edged out by an individual, around the same age as her, who was slick, confident, well-connected in the firm, but who in Kate’s mind, was neither as good a leader as Kate nor as competent.  She was left devastated and wondering where it all went wrong. What more could she have done? This set back led Kate to approach me to help her to pick up the pieces and reassess whether she was on the right career path. How she handles this set back will be critical to her future decisions and potentially also her future career success.


I wish Kate’s story was unique. So many of the women I coach are struggling with how to navigate their careers and successfully achieve greater levels of responsibility. Many are surprised when I help them to see that their hard work and strong track record accounts for very little when it comes to promotion. Yes, you read that correctly.  In fact, research done by Harvey Coleman in IBM suggests that performance counts for a mere 10% of our career success.


Harvey’s work tells us there are 3 key elements to career success, captured by the PIE framework:


  • Performance: the results you achieve count for about 10% of success
  • Image: your personal brand - how you are seen and perceived by others – is three times more important than your performance, and accounts for around 30% of success
  • Exposure:  your visibility – who knows you and the quality of your work – is what has the biggest impact, and accounts for around 60% of career success


During my corporate career I sat around hundreds of board tables discussing succession and promotions.  When presenting candidates it is amazing how quickly the conversation would decend to key themes around visibility and profile.  Comments such as “oh yes, I know him, he led the XYZ project last year” or “I don’t know her, and that worries me – if she was that good how come I haven’t come across her?” epitomise Harvey’s findings, that – rightly or wrongly - visibility matters. Performance is rarely discussed as it is taken as a given that the person must be performing sufficiently well in their role to warrant consideration for promotion.


So what does that mean for navigating your career? You still need to do good work, but in addition you need to manage how you are seen and by whom.  Make sure people see your work. Make sure you take the high profile assignments.  Make sure you have a strong network of people who can speak about your work.  And make sure you have a sponsor. Being mentored is not enough. Without someone advocating on your behalf during promotion rounds, mentoring means very little.


Sharon Peake is the founder and MD of Shape Talent Ltd, a boutique consultancy established with the sole purpose of getting more women into senior leadership roles in business. We work with organisations to remove the barriers to women’s progression and we work with individual women, coaching them to achieve their career potential.  For tips and ideas on managing your career please sign up to our newsletter.


Sharon Peake

Coach & Founder, Shape Talent Ltd

I am an experienced coach and career development leader with over 20 years' experience in global blue chip businesses focused on career development for individuals and strategic people management for organisations. I specialise in helping upwardly mobile female managers and executives to achieve their potential, navigate career transitions and ensure a fulfilling and rewarding career. My coaching area of focus is all things to do with careers and ensuring fulfilment, performance and effectiveness at work, successfully transitioning to a leadership role, dealing with confidence and imposter syndrome, making an impact on return from maternity leave or other career breaks, helping navigate career 'junctions' and decisions, considering and making career changes, finding your career 'mojo' and other related topics to help achieve a fulfilling and rewarding career. How I work: As a Chartered Occupational Psychologist I bring a psychological perspective to my coaching, looking at the underlying factors that influence the way we behave and respond to situations. Where it helps the client I can use a range of psychometric assessments to bring greater clarity and self-awareness to patterns of behaviour. My clients describe me as insightful, open, warm, encouraging and focused on ensuring the client’s success.