This question originally appeared on Quora.
What are the real reasons some people get promoted and others don’t?
I would appreciate answers based on observation and experience from people with significant management experience that take into account the political dimension of promotion, rather than [adages such as] “work hard and do a good job.”
Answer below by Jason M. Lemkin, partner at Storm Ventures; CEO and cofounder of EchoSign (acquired by Adobe).
I’d like to provide some insights from my experience as a vice president at a leading Fortune 500 tech company and as a reasonably successful startup CEO.
Promotions in the Fortune 500 are indeed complicated, but let me focus instead first on performance reviews — a penultimate step to promotion, and something in my experience that materially impacts compensation.
Here is [what I’ve learned]: Reviews typically go into categories of “high,” “strong,” “good” and “needs to improve,” basically in all big tech companies. (Some companies have a “superhigh” category, but that’s rare.) In my experience, even at Adobe, even as a Fortune 500 leader with 10,000 employees, there are zero politics involved in becoming a highly ranked employee, because it’s so clear who the “highs” are.
The only real issues [in terms of] the politics is the fact that some groups have too many highly ranked candidates (often within the outperforming groups), and some have too few, which warps the curve a bit. Having said all that, it was pretty surprising to me that there were really no politics involved. Now, of course, not every highly ranked performer can get promoted — but promotions are always based on results.
[While experiences vary], I’m going to suggest that once you strip away the emotion, and once you see how “the sausage is really made,” 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 my big tech company experience and my startup experience, here is what I’ve found:
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 managers really need is help — real help — in accomplishing our initiatives. If you can get one of my key initiatives accomplished for me — not talked about, not analyzed, not discussed but accomplished — you are a rockstar.
Work in a hot (or at least warm) area of the company. There’s little need to promote anyone handling end-of-life products (though it does happen).
Don’t schmooze. Just engage and be positive and respectful. Schmoozing [can be] a turn-off. Instead, as you demonstrate leadership, also positively engage with your peers and colleagues outside of your small group. Be as 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 promotion.