There are plenty of perks to getting promoted. Beyond a salary increase, a promotion typically means more influence on your team, more autonomy, and more control over your day-to-day tasks.
But to get promoted, you need to do more than just perform well in your current role. You also need to demonstrate new skills that will help you succeed in the next role.
Whether you’re an individual contributor (IC) or people manager looking to get promoted, you’re in luck. Here, I spoke with Help Scout’s VP of Brand, Kristen Bryant Smith, to learn what she looks for when promoting both ICs and people managers.
In this post, you’ll learn:
What skills all marketers should focus on when it comes to career growth
What factors you need to demonstrate to get promoted as an individual contributor
What factors you need to demonstrate to get promoted as a people manager
Let’s dive in.
How to Get Promoted as an Individual Contributor or People Manager in 2023
Skills All Marketers Should Focus on for Career Growth, According to Help Scout’s VP of Brand
To start, I asked Smith about the skills all marketers should develop to stand out in their roles.
I’d expected the standard list — strong communication skills, expertise with analytics, or creativity and problem-solving — but Smith started with something else.
As she puts it, “I think storytelling happens on many different levels. It happens with the way you tell the story of your company’s product or services. It happens at the brand level, when you’re expressing what your company offers to the world. But it’s also important to be a good storyteller as an individual so that you can express the level of impact you’re making on the team.”
She adds, “Storytelling matters when you’re writing a blog post or creating a campaign, but it also matters when it comes to reporting on the impact of those efforts.”
This makes sense. To get promoted, your manager needs to express to leadership why you’re deserving and prepared for the next role. And, to help your manager do this, you need to be able to tell the story of your own impact on the team, and organization at large.
The stories you tell when it comes to your projects matters. Consider, for instance, the difference between telling your team, “Our marketing campaign generated 300 net-new leads”, versus telling them, “Our marketing campaign successfully generated 300 net-new leads. More leads means more prospective buyers. Our previous campaign back in July only generated 100 new leads. This demonstrates tremendous growth on our team when it comes to how our campaigns impact revenue.”
See the difference? Storytelling helps you showcase your awareness for larger company goals, and puts your projects into the context of business impact.
Beyond storytelling, Smith also told me, “Another skill that matters is being able to connect the dots as a collaborator. It’s easy to focus on the content of what you’re communicating, but you can set yourself apart by being someone who adds contextual knowledge and listens to others across the business.”
She continues, “Being a cross-department translator makes you invaluable, because you’re the one who is opening up the doorways that people can walk through more easily. You’re a guide for everyone else on the team.”
It should be noted, it’s undeniably easier to be a connector at a company that values transparency and enables each employee to have insights into other team’s objectives and processes. But, if it’s possible at your organization, becoming that translator shows leadership that you’re committed to helping your entire organization reach its goals — not just your own.
Next, let’s jump into some factors you should consider if you’re hoping to get promoted in an IC role.
The Factors That Matter to Get Promoted as an Individual Contributor
There are two factors Smith believes are important for getting promoted as an IC:
Being able to set realistic goals and hit them.
First, let’s focus on being able to set realistic goals and hit them.
Smith told me, “I am far more impressed by someone who sets and hits an achievable goal than someone who sets and misses a far-reaching, not-so-attainable goal. If you don’t hit that big goal, you don’t learn as much as you do when you hit and exceed a more reasonable target. You instead are faced with figuring out if your tactics underperformed or if your targets were off. With more realistic numbers you can establish an informed baseline and hold yourself more accountable.”
Of course, setting goals isn’t as easy as it sounds, particularly if you’re launching a new marketing initiative and don’t have historical metrics to refer back to.
Smith recognizes the challenge of setting realistic goals, but believes it’s a muscle that can be developed over time. As she puts it, “Trying to put numbers on everything is hard — especially when big numbers often feel more inspiring. Get comfortable with quantifying things regardless of their size. Seeing those numbers change over time is how you’ll tell the story of your impact.”
Additionally, as an IC you’ll want to show initiative by reflecting and learning from your goals — whether you hit them or not. You want to be someone who raises their hand and says, “I know we hit our goal. But what was it like to get there? What did we learn?”
As Smith puts it, “As an IC, you need to recognize the power and agency you have over even the smaller-scope items without waiting for your manager to tell you.”
And, equally important for IC promotions: Consistency.
Smith says, “When I think about the ICs I’ve promoted, I think about the people who are very reliable. You know if they’re tasked with something that it will get done and they will deliver. You also know they’ll communicate with you if things go awry and provide updates along the way. Consistent communication and on-time delivery are huge factors to consider when promoting at the IC-level.”
How to Coach These Skills in Your IC
Managers can help coach their direct reports and teach them how to refine their goals in ways that feel reasonable.
Encouraging reflection can help when you’re trying to teach your direct report how to set more realistic goals.
For instance, when you sit down with your employee, you might say, “How can we apply the learnings from this project moving forward?” or “I know you didn’t hit your goals for this campaign. If you could do it again, how might you alter your goals to make them more manageable?”
In terms of consistency, positive reinforcement is key. Recognize when your IC is delivering strong results on a consistent basis, so they know it’s being noticed.
And if they’re not consistent, have conversations to uncover why they’re not meeting deadlines. Is there a lack of communication or other process inefficiencies that is leading to these inconsistencies? If not, perhaps your IC needs more training so she can become more efficient at her job and deliver the right materials more frequently.
Next, let’s explore what you need to develop to get promoted on the manager-level.
The Factors That Matter to Get Promoted as a People Manager
Being a good manager requires empathy, strong listening and communication skills, and the ability to provide strong, clear feedback.
But beyond that, there are four factors Smith looks for when considering whether her people managers are excelling in their roles and ready for the next step. These include:
An ability to navigate ambiguity and translate it effectively.
Providing role clarity to each of your direct reports.
Thinking on longer timelines.
One of the biggest factors, in Smith’s opinion, of a strong people manager is someone who can effectively navigate ambiguity and translate it so they’re not passing ambiguity down to their team.
As she puts it, “It’s your job to translate ambiguous information into something that is actionable and helpful. You’re a filter for your team. They need to look to you to get answers — not more questions.”
She adds, “Good managers can come in and hear the loose, longer-term themes from the executive team, and then translate them into strong quarterly plans for their team.”
In her opinion, that’s why hierarchy should exist in the first place: So people can think on different timelines. The executive team needs to look one year or even five years out, but director-level needs to focus on quarter over quarter.
Which leads me to my next point: If hierarchies exist so people can think on different timelines, then it makes sense that people manager growth happens when you can demonstrate you’re officially thinking on a new, longer timeline.
For instance, as a people manager, rather than saying, “I’m working on this project, and it’s going really well,” you could say, “I’m working on this project right now, but I really think we need to start thinking about other similar projects a couple of months from now.”
“Initiative is huge,” Smith told me. “You need to suggest new plans, and tie them back to business outcomes. How can you hear the context of what’s going on across the business — what the sales team is excited about, what’s coming from the product roadmap — and use it to prioritize what you have control over? That’s what sets people apart and starts to move them up the ladder.”
Another critical trait of a people manager who is ready for a promotion? Being able to provide role clarity.
Smith says, “Your direct reports deserve to know how your expectations vary from project to project. How do you ensure they understand how they’re being measured with each project they take on?”
There’s nothing worse than starting a new experiment or project and realizing your manager has no idea how she’ll measure your success. To demonstrate you’re ready for a director-level, you need to show you can pivot with your employees as their roles shift while clearly communicating your expectations of them no matter the context.
And, finally, Smith emphasizes — how you treat people matters. “You need to be able to hear 360-feedback and make sure your actions line up with your company’s values,” She says. “You need to be an empathetic leader and adjust things accordingly if your employee is struggling or dealing with something outside of work. No matter what, I’m never going to promote someone who creates a toxic environment for their team.”
How to Measure These Factors in Your People Managers
While this is all well and good, it can be incredibly difficult to define and measure these factors in your people managers. On a daily basis, how do you know they’re translating ambiguity effectively? And how can you ensure they’re providing role clarity, or being an empathetic leader?
Let’s start with measuring their ability to translate ambiguity. For Smith, it’s simple: How much back-and-forth is required during quarterly planning?
She told me, “If the [back-and-forth] loop of communication to get alignment with your directors is small, then it’s because your director knows how to effectively translate what you’re asking into direct actions for their team.”
In short: If your director can sit in leadership meetings and take those larger-picture goals and distill them into actionable, specific plans for her team — then she’s good at distilling ambiguity. If not, then she might need more coaching or development before she’s ready for a promotion.
Skip-levels and employee feedback surveys are additional opportunities to learn how the managers on your team are performing. Ultimately, these surveys can help you discover whether your managers are leading with clear guidelines and empathy.
Finally, let’s explore what leaders get wrong when they consider promoting both ICs and people managers.
What Leaders Get Wrong When Thinking About Promoting ICs or People Managers
A promotion doesn’t just mean an employee is performing well in their role. It also means they’re ready and able to take on more responsibility beyond their current role.
Smith provides an example for this. She told me recently, her team was defining the difference between a content writer and a content lead. They determined a content writer is a role in which everything the writer creates is planned by someone else. Alternatively, a content lead is someone who starts to plan out additional content that will perform well with the intended audience.
“As a manager, it’s important to understand what an expanded role means. It’s not just, ‘You checked off everything you were supposed to do this quarter … So I guess you’re getting promoted’,” Smith says with a laugh. “It’s more about defining what the next role means.”
Additionally, it’s vital as a leader you understand what your team loses when you promote a senior individual contributor to a people manager. As Smith puts it, “When you’re evaluating the jump [between IC and people manager], you might assume that what the senior IC is doing will remain the same, but it shouldn’t. They shouldn’t be required to write the same amount of posts, for instance, when they become a people manager. So how are you setting expectations around that shift?”
She adds, “People who are really great senior ICs are raising the bar of quality for whatever program they’re owning — but having a great quality bar doesn’t make you a great people manager. So what are we doing as managers to develop out the people management skills?”
Ultimately, getting promoted isn’t something that happens overnight. Ideally, you can leverage these tips — along with having effective career growth conversations with your manager — to begin demonstrating your readiness today.