After a year working as a human resources manager, I thought I was ready for a director-level promotion. Or, more accurately, I was worried that continuing to perform tactical HR responsibilities that could be easily outsourced wasn’t a sound long-term career plan. So my goal was to do more strategy work in the field of HR.
The only problem? I had literally no idea what that meant. So I enrolled in a 12-month program alongside other HR professionals with the goal of figuring out how we could bring more strategic thinking to our jobs.
After I finished the class, I set out to prove how “strategic” I was, but it was an epic failure. I tried helping the sales team out by offering our clients lower-cost benefit options, which sounds like a good plan, right? Except I didn’t think the execution through, and the change in our benefit plans led to some upset employees, including (unfortunately) our company’s president.
Soon, I saw another opportunity to prove my strategic savvy. Our team’s turnover had ticked up, so I suggested that we assess our culture and create an employee value proposition. This time, I got it right. Our business has been named one of its city’s best places to work for 10 years running.
Unfortunately, I still didn’t get the HR director role, and I didn’t get that year-one promotion I was looking for. It wasn’t until a few years later that I realized what was really holding me back: I never asked for what I wanted. And because I didn’t ask for what I wanted, when I was finally promoted to vice president—a higher role than the one I originally had in mind—I had to go through a tough adjustment period.
Attaining a new role is all about asking questions. Before you pop the big question, you need to ask yourself and your boss a series of smaller ones. I didn’t know how to ask those questions when I was looking for a promotion. Now, I help my employees ask them whenever they’re ready for new responsibilities. Here are a few to get you started:
Related: 5 Ways to Pursue the Job You Want
Why do I want this job?
Although I should’ve had better communication with my boss, my biggest mistake was not asking myself why I truly wanted the role. At the time, all I saw was the shiny title and the safety of a director-level role. Not exactly the right motivation.
Challenge yourself to list three reasons the responsibilities of the new role are better than your responsibilities now. If you can’t answer this, you have homework to do. How are you going to convince your boss that you’re ready for a promotion if you don’t know why you want it yourself?
Because I never asked myself why I wanted that job, I didn’t know what I should do in it that would allow me to excel, and it was a tough adjustment when I finally got promoted to vice president. It took a while for me to figure out. Now, when employees ask me how they can get a promotion, I tell them to start with this question.
Why am I not ready for this role?
Identify three skills or competencies that you’d have to develop in order to be successful in the job you want. For each, find a way to escape your comfort zone. Beyond growing your skills, you’ll show that you can handle the discomfort of a new role with grace and confidence.
For example, when I was hoping for the HR director role, I wasn’t a confident public speaker. I knew I would need to build this skill before I could speak successfully in front of employees, clients and the community. At the time, I was a member of a local professional association, and I was approached by the board of directors to consider becoming president. I accepted the offer, knowing I’d be speaking in front of hundreds of members on a monthly basis. It was nerve-racking, but it was also the training plan I needed.
Working in HR, I’ve met plenty of people who expect their company to train them. Even if you’re not ready for a promotion, creating your own growth opportunities helps you stand out and show your boss that you’re ready to talk about it.
What are the skills that would cause me to be overlooked for a promotion?
Now you just need to identify your training plan. Ask your boss for help if you need it, or talk to other leaders about how they built new skills and added value to the company.
After doing this, I ended up borrowing one idea—about partnering HR with marketing—to create an employee engagement campaign that included a company culture video that’s still used as part of our sales strategy. I found out where I needed to learn something new, and I went out and learned it.
When you ask this question, be prepared to hear anything and, above all, prove that you’re willing to do the work. Point out the homework you’ve already done to shore up the shortcomings you identified earlier. At this point, your boss should be engaged in the conversation, sharing suggestions of his own and willing to set up a growth plan.
What does success in this role look like within the first year?
When that promotion opportunity does come up—hopefully once you’ve made some progress on your growth plan—it’s time to ask your boss this question. Listen for not only the role’s responsibilities, but also the level of commitment necessary to be successful.
Take some time to think about whether you can accommodate the position’s requirements and whether the position fits your idea of life balance. If you’re having this discussion, your boss probably sees that you’re serious about developing the skills. Next, you need to decide what you’re willing to sacrifice. For example, you might learn that the role would require you to work weekends. If you’re a parent, would you be willing to give up that time with your son or daughter?
My first year as vice president would have been much easier if I’d asked this question up front. Now that I have a little more authority, I’ve implemented this idea in our performance management programs so that each newly hired or newly promoted employee has a way to ask and find out exactly what’s expected of them.
Remember, your boss wants you in the right role as much as you do. Don’t despair if you don’t get the promotion. The perfect fit can take time, and your boss knows that. As long as they know what you want and how hard you’re willing to work for it, they’ll help you find it.
Related: 6 Tips to Make Yourself Promotable