What’s the right way to ask for a promotion in product? (E.g. Senior PM to Director)
Short answer: A year before your hoped-for promotion, ask what results you need to deliver to be promoted. Focus on results & the skills/behaviors you need to demonstrate to be a "culture carrier."
Have a conversation with your boss a year before that hoped-for day. Ask, “What do I need to deliver to be promoted?” Then ask these follow-up questions to encourage a thoughtful conversation:
What results would you like to see?
What new skills or behaviors should I develop?
Am I a “culture carrier?” Do I embody the company’s values? Against which values am I strong or weak?
Is there anything more I can do to contribute to the company’s success?
Will there be an available, Director-level role? What is it?
What timeframe for promotion seems reasonable to you?
Companies promote individuals that deliver results, embody the company’s culture, and have an accelerating impact on its success. The goal is to create a list of goals that, if you achieve them, will naturally lead to your promotion. If your boss is your advocate and you achieve your objectives, you shouldn’t have to ask again.
But things rarely work this way. There are many “gotchas.”
Promotions are political
Promotions are often “bundled” around a specific time — halfway through the year or at year-end. I think promotions should happen when you deliver the results and that “out of cycle” promotions and pay increases are acceptable but most HR and finance partners want to standardize the process and timing. Consequently, promotions occur later than you hope.
Companies want things to be fair, so there are many exec-level discussions to determine who gets promoted. There’s also back and forth about how many Directors the company should support, which is why I ask whether there will be an available Director-level role for you. (Teams worry that too many Directors or VPs in a company devalue the role.) It’s hard to get executives from different functions to agree.
Promotions celebrate company culture
Culture describes who you hire, who you fire, and who you promote. Promoting an individual to Director is a statement that the candidate embodies the company's culture— that the candidate’s skills and behaviors are consistent with each of the company’s values. That’s why I ask the questions about culture and values.
Given all of the above, it’s helpful if other leaders know you, understand what you do, and know the results you deliver. It’s good to have informal meetings with other leaders in the organization so you can get to know them and vice-versa. A “skip-level” meeting with your boss’s boss makes sense, too. While you hope your boss is an advocate for your promotion, it’s good to double-check.
What do you talk about in these meetings? Keep it casual. These are “get to know you” meetings. Ask lots of questions to understand their role and get a better sense of how you might contribute to the company’s success. They’ll eventually start asking you questions.
Don’t bring up the promotion topic— trust that your boss is handling this. If you’re always asking about your promotion, there’s a danger you will be labeled a “gunner” who cares more about yourself than the company. Companies value employees who are “company first.”
Why do you want a promotion?
Be careful what you wish for. Sometimes folks work doggedly to get the promotion then realize they hate the job. I call this the “Cat who works very hard to get in the fishbowl, but now wonders why” phenomenon:
Why do you want a promotion? Money? Prestige? The opportunity to manage others? Unpack these issues. Most folks assume that to make more money, you need to manage lots of folks, but this is not always the case. I once promoted a Director to VP at Netflix even though they only had one report. The person was a “culture carrier,” delivered extraordinary results, and their role was definitely “VP worthy.” Do a little thinking to ensure you don’t become the cat in the goldfish bowl.
There were times in my career when I consciously leaned forward and others when I leaned back. My wife and I had long conversations before I accepted a promotion to SVP Product at The Learning Company. (At the time, we had two and four-year-old daughters.) Years later, I turned down an offer to be a startup CEO. I was confident it would be too much to juggle and I was convinced that I would be a sucky CEO.
Should you talk to other companies?
If promotion conversations are dragging, it’s good to talk to other companies. It helps you establish your personal market comp— the amount a company is willing to pay you to join their company.
Compensation is tricky, as most folks are highly secretive. But in the course of your career, it’s good to compare notes with peers. For decades, I have asked my peers, “How much are you paying entry-level product managers? Director-level product managers? VPs? CPOs?” Folks are surprisingly open once they realize the conversation benefits them, too.
Should you take the next step and pursue Director-level jobs at other companies? If you have the time, and it’s an exciting opportunity that you might say “yes” to, go for it. The upside of this is you practice your job-hunting skills, and you might get what you seek. The downside is it sucks up your time as most folks get promoted within their own company.
The reason for this? Hiring companies don’t like to take on two dimensions of risk at the same time:
The first dimension of risk is whether you will be a good fit at their company.
The second dimension is whether you are ready for the expanded, Director-level role.
You’re more likely to be promoted within your own company.
“Looking around” can accelerate the promotion
There are cases where an employee gets an offer from another company, lets their boss know, and is quickly promoted. A few years ago, a Director-level engineering pal at Netflix called me with a dilemma. He had gotten an offer for $150,000 higher total compensation (salary plus options) for a new role at Google, but he loved his Netflix job. I told him, “It’s ok, tell your boss about your offer, and Netflix will match it. You have helped him to establish your personal market comp.” The next day he called me to tell me his boss had bumped his comp by $150K. Today, he’s a VP at Netflix.
Netflix famously has its “Keeper Test.” You are coached to ask your boss the following question: “If I told you I was leaving the company to work for a competitor, how hard would you fight to keep me and try and convince me to change my mind?” If the answer is yes, all good. If the answer is “no,” there’s something wrong. Netflix actually encourages folks to “look around” as this gives them insight into market comp. Netflix has also embraced “open comp,” where Directors and above know every Netflix employee's total compensation.
The ideal situation for promotions? The company wants to invest more in an area, looks around, and decides you’re the best person to take on the role. Or, your boss leaves the company, and you receive a battlefront promotion. In both cases, it’s helpful if you’ve got talented folks who work for you that are ready to fill your role. This is why it’s good to work at high-growth companies and be a highly effective recruiter and manager of other product leaders.
My favorite mistakes
It’s natural to become impatient. You’re convinced that you are ready, but others are dragging their feet. I understand. But please don’t do the following:
Don’t ask for more money because your “expenses went up.” This has nothing to do with your personal market comp and makes you sound naive.
Don’t ask, “How is the promotion going?” at every meeting. It’s annoying and makes folks wonder whether you can think “company first.”
Be patient, and if you run out of patience, go shopping for a better job elsewhere.
The best promotion conversations happen a year before the promotion. You establish what you will deliver to be promoted with a strong focus on:
being a culture carrier, and
hiring, managing, and developing talent who can replace you when you’re promoted.
With luck, the final chapter won’t be you asking for a promotion. Instead, it will be your boss letting you know that you are now a Director. It’s an exciting moment for you, your boss, and the company. I think it’s worth the wait.
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