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Promotion Matrix
Why You Didn’t Get
That Promotion
by John Beeson

Included with this full-text
Harvard Business Review
The Idea in Brief—the core idea
Article Summary
Why You Didn’t Get That Promotion
Decoding the unwritten rules
of corporate advancement.
Reprint R0906L
Why You Didn’t Get That Promotion
page 1
The Idea in Brief

Decisions about who gets promoted can
seem mysterious and arbitrary. Stellar
performance reviews and a strong track
record—and you still get passed over.
What’s going on?
• In most companies feedback is vague
and confusing—sometimes intentionally,
so as not to demoralize. It’s up to you
to ferret out the real reasons you’re not
getting the job.
• For example, think twice when you’re
told you need to work on “leadership”
or gain more “seasoning.” These can be
code words masking more specific concerns,
like a failure to demonstrate strategic
thinking or an inability to delegate.
Why You Didn’t Get
That Promotion
by John Beeson
harvard business review • june 2009 page 2
Decoding the unwritten rules of corporate advancement.
You’ve been passed over for a key promotion
despite stellar results and glowing reviews.
You’ve asked where you’re falling short, but
the responses have been vague and unsatisfying,
leaving you angry, frustrated, and unsure
of how to get ahead. Promotion decisions
seem arbitrary and political. What’s going on?
In most organizations, promotions are governed
by unwritten rules—the often fuzzy, intuitive,
and poorly expressed feelings of senior
executives regarding individuals’ ability to succeed
in C-suite positions. As an aspiring executive,
you might not know those rules, much
less the specific skills you need to develop or
demonstrate to follow them. The bottom line:
You’re left to your own devices in interpreting
feedback and finding a way to achieve your career
That’s what happened to Ralph Thomas, the
vice president of operations for Smith & Mullins’s
industrial products division, the company’s
largest operating group. (All names and
identifying details in this article are disguised.)
He wasn’t blindsided by the announcement
that Kelly Ferguson had been promoted to senior
vice president and general manager for
corporate markets—he’d been informed the
week before. But Ralph had been a contender,
and this was the second time in four years he’d
missed out on a division GM job. The first
time, Smith & Mullins had hired an outsider
who later left the position for a major role at a
rival firm.
Ralph always had excellent performance reviews.
His 360 results indicated that people
loved working for him, and as far as he could
tell, managers across the company were beating
down the doors to join his group. In terms
of execution, his track record was flawless: He
and his team had met or surpassed their numbers
in each of the past five years. Additionally,
they had successfully implemented every
major corporate program during that time,
and his division had recently been selected to
serve as the pilot site for an SAP installation.
When he’d learned of these last two GM assignments,
he’d also been told that he had a
great future with the company and that with a
Why You Didn’t Get That Promotion

harvard business review • june 2009 page 3
little “seasoning,” he’d be ready for advancement.
He’d tried several times to get the real
scoop on why he hadn’t been promoted, only
to hear vague comments about improving his
“communication skills” and demonstrating
more “executive presence” and “leadership.” It
seemed to him that the company valued people
who could look and sound good in the
boardroom more than it cared about the yearover-
year results of proven performers like
As for Kelly? She’d hired some top people in
the past couple of years, but Ralph knew that
she had a reputation for being tough on her reports
and having “sharp elbows.” To Ralph, the
promotion wasn’t much of an expression of the
company’s leadership competency model,
posted on his office wall: “Display ethics and
integrity, envision the future, deliver results,
focus on customers, engage in teamwork and
collaboration, and develop talent.” Ralph bore
Kelly no ill will, but it looked as though it was
time to update his résumé and rekindle some
relationships in his network. Distasteful as it
was, testing the job market seemed to be the
only way to advance.
The Unwritten Rules
Ralph’s situation is surprisingly common, especially
among people who aren’t politically
inclined. Few organizations spell out the criteria
for advancement.
Though Ralph had been considered for the
GM role both times, in each instance there
were bona fide concerns about his readiness.
The vague feedback about his communication
skills actually alluded to tensions with peers in
other units: He could be overly competitive
and slow to resolve conflict, whereas Kelly’s
powers of persuasion allowed her to manage
discord and achieve superior results. She was
also known for developing talent. Working for
her was not for the faint of heart, but she challenged
her staff members, and they grew in the
process. Ralph didn’t recognize that his popularity
reflected, in part, his reputation for being
a little easy on people—he didn’t stretch them
to grow and develop. Managers flocking to his
unit were often B players who knew he’d cut
them some slack. He was luring talent that was
good but not great; Kelly was attracting A players
who wanted a push. The company’s competency
model included “develop talent” but
didn’t specify that having a track record for
doing so was nonnegotiable for anyone who
wanted to rise beyond Ralph’s level.
Under the heading of “leadership” lurked
questions regarding Ralph’s strategic thinking.
He was a go-to guy for implementing corporate
initiatives, a master of continuous improvement.
But senior management had seen
no evidence of his ability to conceive a largescale
change that would produce a quantum
leap in performance. Can strategic thinking be
developed? That’s open to debate, but the fact
was that Ralph had always worked for visionaries
who never gave him the chance to flex his
own strategic muscles, a problem everyone
had overlooked.
The information void wasn’t a matter of
malice; rather, it was due to assumptions that
nobody thought to make explicit and an alltoo-
human reluctance to deliver bad news.
Managers and HR professionals often provide
intentionally vague feedback for fear of losing
a good employee. Further, although most leadership
competency models refer in some way
to important management skills and attributes,
they typically fail to distinguish niceto-
have from nonnegotiable skills.
What’s more, such models usually don’t spell
out how leadership skills should be demonstrated
at different levels or how the relative
importance of those qualities will change as
you rise in the hierarchy. For example, in middle
management, teamwork—defined as the
ability to maintain cohesion and morale within
one’s group—is a vital competency. At higher
levels, where Ralph hopes to play, it matters
less. In fact, at most companies, cohesion tends
to fall short at senior levels thanks to rivalry
and ego, but teams function pretty well nonetheless.
Acquiring and developing talent is the
executive’s imperative, and teamwork becomes
a nice-to-have. Ralph’s ability to orchestrate
well-functioning teams to complete complex
projects, among other skills, had singled him
out for previous promotions. But when he was
being considered for the GM jobs, strategic
thinking became a much higher priority.
Many of the unwritten rules are especially
hard to nail down because they don’t pertain
to technical ability, industry experience, or
business knowledge. Rather, they relate to the
“soft” skills that combine to give decision makers
an intuitive sense of whether a candidate
will succeed at the senior level. And, as predictable
career paths become more or less extinct,
John Beeson
is the principal of Beeson Consulting,
which specializes in succession
planning, executive development,
and organization design. He is based
in New York.
Why You Didn’t Get That Promotion

harvard business review • june 2009 page 4
the confusion for people seeking advancement
just gets worse.
In my 30 years of experience in and observation
of succession planning and executive development
at large companies, I’ve found that
the unwritten rules of C-suite placement decisions
fall into three categories. Nonnegotiables
are the fundamental factors without which an
executive will not be considered for promotion.
Deselection factors are characteristics that
eliminate an otherwise qualified candidate
from consideration. Core selection factors are
what ultimately dictate promotion decisions.
The exhibit “Key Factors in Executive Career
Advancement” shows the model I’ve developed
for senior managers. The factors may differ
at your company, but the ones highlighted
in the exhibit are pretty typical.
Ralph passes the test on the nonnegotiables
and the deselection factors but falls short on
several core selection factors, like thinking strategically,
building a strong executive team, and
having the organization savvy to work effectively
across internal boundaries. If Smith &
Mullins made a list of such factors available to
its executives, along with a dose of constructive
feedback, Ralph would probably be able to see
where he needs to devote his energies.
But since it doesn’t, Ralph has to tease out the
underlying issues. Although he periodically gets
feedback from 360s, such reviews—unless combined
with confidential face-to-face interviews
by a third party—are rarely sufficient to illuminate
the core reasons behind a stalled career.
One obvious way to get insight is to approach
your boss and colleagues directly for
their opinions, though their input might be of
limited use. They may not be straight with you,
and their perspectives may differ from those of
the most senior decision makers. For additional
information, you might have a conversation
with your former manager or your boss’s
boss. Try to contact the highest-level manager
who is knowledgeable about your work and
with whom you have a positive relationship, so
your approach seems natural and appropriate.
(Caveat: Don’t go behind your boss’s back. He
or she should know about any contact with
other executives and what your intentions
are.) For the reasons stated above, you’ll probably
have to dig a little to get useful information.
That’s not easy, so let’s take a closer look
at how you can go about having a truly constructive
How to Ask, How to Listen
Getting past executives’ reluctance to provide
direct and difficult feedback is tricky. When
asking for input, project a sincere desire to understand
what’s holding you back—and avoid
appearing to lobby or argue. Your core question
should be “What skills and capabilities do
I need to demonstrate in order to be a strong
candidate for higher levels of responsibility at
some point in the future?”
Get into active-listening mode. Any comment
or body language that conveys defensiveness
will most likely cause the other person to
either clam up or move the conversation to
easier (and vaguer) territory—such as the need
for more “seasoning” that Ralph kept hearing
Key Factors in Executive Career Advancement
Factors that are absolutely necessary
for you to be a contender

Demonstrating consistently strong

Displaying ethics, integrity, and

Being driven to lead and to assume
higher levels of responsibility
Deselection Factors
Characteristics that prevent you
from being considered as a serious

Having weak interpersonal skills

Treating others with insensitivity or

Putting self-interest above company

Holding a narrow, parochial
perspective on the business and
the organization
Core Selection Factors
Capabilities that breed others’ confidence
in your ability to succeed at
the senior executive level

Setting direction and thinking strategically;
spotting marketplace trends
and developing a winning strategy
that differentiates the company

Building and continually upgrading a
strong executive team; having a “nose
for talent”; establishing an adequate
level of team cohesion

Managing implementation without
getting involved at too low a level of
detail; defining a set of roles, processes,
and measures to ensure that
things get done reliably

Building the capacity for innovation
and change; knowing when new ways
of doing business are required; having
the courage, tolerance for risk, and
change-management skills to bring
new ideas to fruition

Getting things done across internal
boundaries (lateral management);
demonstrating organization savvy; influencing
and persuading colleagues;
dealing well with conflict

Growing and developing as an executive;
soliciting and responding to
feedback; adjusting leadership style in
light of experience
Why You Didn’t Get That Promotion

harvard business review • june 2009 page 5
about. Ask clarifying questions, but don’t challenge
the content. (You can attempt to correct
factual errors with the right person later; this
isn’t the time.) Be alert to code words and
phrases masking fundamental issues—general
observations about the need for “increased
leadership ability” or “better teamwork” or
“improved communication.”
For instance, a manager I’ll call Terry was
told by her boss that she needed to improve
her leadership skills before she’d be eligible for
her next promotion. She was managing multiple
initiatives, and her teams were functioning
effectively; she didn’t see how to improve her
leadership except by taking on more projects.
Fortunately, she had worked for her boss’s
manager earlier in her career and could set up
a meeting. In a series of probing questions, she
asked the manager to help her define what
“better leadership” would be in her case. She
discovered that in her dedication she in fact
had been doing herself a disservice. She’d been
given an ever-increasing number of projects
because of her superior organizational and
people-management skills and her ability to
stay on top of details. However, senior managers
were concerned that she was maxed out by
her personal involvement in every initiative
and wanted to see that she could delegate
more and create processes and systems that
would ensure flawless execution without so
much direct supervision.
In response she put considerable effort into
rethinking how she spent her time: which issues
she should be involved in personally,
which she could—with some coaching—learn
to delegate to others, and what kinds of meetings
and reports would allow her to stay as
close to projects as was needed. She revamped
her team’s staff meeting and the level of preparation
required. She also designated a direct report
as chief of staff to follow up on deadlines
and alert her to situations that required her intervention.
Terry admits that it was initially
difficult to extricate herself from the details on
some projects and confesses to poring over the
status reports submitted by the staff. But with
practice she got better at letting go. A year
later she was promoted to lead a large operational
Things don’t always work out so well. Ed, a
highly proficient finance manager, had advanced
quickly because of his technical knowledge
but recently missed out on several key
promotions. His boss told him not to worry, everything
was fine. Still, Ed met with his unit’s
HR manager, who advised him to improve his
communication skills. This confused him; he
took pride in his ability to write and speak
clearly and devoted a lot of time to communicating
with his staff. At the suggestion of the
HR manager, he met with three peers to get
their opinions. All three were hesitant to offer
their opinions until Ed probed specifically for
examples of poor communication on his part.
It turned out that he was right; his basic communication
skills were fine. Rather, the underlying
issue lay with his ability to listen and to
be flexible. Colleagues complained that he
tended to get locked into his own opinions,
that he lacked openness to other perspectives
and shut down creative alternatives. Some considered
him arrogant.
Overall, his peers recommended that Ed
spend more time discussing his plans with
them and soliciting input. Unfortunately, Ed
saw this as “politics” and energy that would
be diverted from getting things done. Exacerbating
the situation was the fact that Ed’s boss
was encouraging him to drive the implementation
of a new corporate policy that Ed’s
peers found onerous. When his boss took a
new position within the company, Ed suddenly
felt vulnerable. Using his extensive industry
network, he quickly found another position
with a well-regarded firm but ended up
leaving his new job after only nine months.
The official reason was that Ed was not a cultural
fit in a highly collaborative environment.
In reality Ed’s peers at the new company
complained that he was a know-it-all
who tried to sell major initiatives to his boss
without taking the time to understand how
the organization worked and what internal
customers needed.
• • •
If you are having trouble decoding the feedback
you receive, try asking at the end of each
session, “What one or two things—above all
others—would most build confidence in my
ability to succeed at higher levels within the
organization?” As long as the other person answers
honestly, this question tends to circumvent
vagueness and separate the wheat from
the chaff.
Keep in mind that changing deep-seated perceptions
about you, formed over years, requires
visible and consistent effort—which is
Managers may provide
vague feed-back to avoid
losing a good employee.
Why You Didn’t Get That Promotion

harvard business review • june 2009 page 6
why it is typically best to focus on one or two
key areas of development. Think through
whether your current position provides you
with a platform to demonstrate needed skills.
Ralph, for instance, may need to move to a position
where his breakthrough thinking isn’t
preempted by a visionary boss. Alternatively,
he may find ample opportunities to exhibit
strategic thinking in his current role—if he is
aggressive and creative in pursuing them and
his boss gives him room to experiment.
Although this type of development isn’t
easy, the payoff can be huge for both the individual
and the organization. Employees like
Ralph learn what’s really holding them back,
and companies like Smith & Mullins get a
deeper and better bench.
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