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Whether you are a new graduate or a seasoned veteran in your field, career development is an important topic to keep top of mind. Development can take on many different forms, so the first article in this series will focus on promotions.

When you take the time to think about where you are in your career, do you think you are exactly where you should be? Or want to be? Do you think you are being utilized to your fullest creative potential? I would venture a guess that everyone feels they have more to give. It’s okay if you answered “no” to these questions. In fact, you should be wanting more. But what happens when every one of your creative co-workers feels this way? How can you position yourself to be the next person up for promotion?

As a people leader, I have had the distinct honor and pleasure of supporting creative teammates in getting to the next step in their careers. I point this out because I have been a part of the promotion pipeline, not just in my own career, but in my teammates’ careers as well. However, it wasn’t until recently that a great manager of mine shared a fantastic way to look at whether I, or others on the team, are ready to be promoted. Playing through this scenario opened my eyes to a new way of approaching promotions and how to take the next steps.

For this exercise to work, you have to do two things. First, you have to be honest with yourself. Truly honest. If you think of yourself as the best creative with no flaws, you will only become frustrated with lack of movement toward promotion. Second, I would recommend running through this exercise very quickly at first. Limiting yourself to completing the exercise in 3-5 minutes puts things in perspective in terms of what you know and what you don’t know. I’ll explain this part shortly.

Without further ado, here’s the exercise. Answer this question: If you were to start an agency with 10% of the people in your creative department, who would make the cut?

That’s it. That’s the exercise. Simple enough, right?

When I first tried to answer this question, I had so many thoughts that turned into questions. Like, do I want great designers only? What about copywriters? We also have developers. What about the talent on the development side? How can I possibly narrow it down? In my scenario, I was trying to come up with five people to start a fictional agency with. More questions were streaming through my head… What kind of agency? What do I want to accomplish? Am I putting together a production agency or an innovation agency? What about the folks in my department who I don’t have clear knowledge about what they do or if they’re strong performers or not? Would it be fair to make such decisions about an agency without knowing exactly what everyone does and how they rank? Who will lead it? Should I choose teammates above me? So many questions that could go on and on. Remember the second requirement I mentioned above? You have 3-5 minutes to craft your team. And craft a team you must.

This time limit is super important. The limit forces you to think about who stands out in your mind. When the head of your department has to make decisions about who has earned a promotion—and gets it—versus who has earned a promotion but may not get it due to a limited budget or other reasons, you really have to think about your brand. How are you perceived? Are you a hard worker seen as a great teammate and shows tremendous potential for taking on more responsibility or are you seen as “just a hard worker?” Are you someone who builds relationships through compromise or jeopardizes relationships with a demanding or inflexible attitude?

In the case of my department, there are quite a few teammates who I think could be promoted, but the reality is that not everyone can be moved up at this time. And I don’t say that just because we’re in the midst of a pandemic. Even when times are good, budget is still limited. That’s why the exercise only allows for 10% of the department. You can see the challenge is real, but this is also not a guarantee that 10% of your department will see promotions every year.

So, what can you do to be on your department head’s agency? It starts with understanding the direction of the department and the organization. Not only do you have to be an expert in your craft you have to position yourself as someone constantly learning new skills that prove valuable to the team. If there is an information gap on the team, you should fill it. For example, if your historically print-centric department is making strides toward being digital-first, be the teammate who can share what you’ve learned about digital. Whether it’s learning code or looking into artificial intelligence and beyond, share your knowledge.

If after thinking about your agency and rating yourself against your peers you feel strongly that you are at the top of the list, communicate it. Talk with your manager. Find out what the expectations are for venturing down the promotion path. You will find out if the assessment of yourself is accurate. And if you are not quite ready for a promotion, then find out what you can do to get on track.

If someone does meet the requirements, then my recommendation is to craft two lists. These lists help me sell the idea of a promotion to my manager, and beyond. The more I am prepared to answer questions about your performance, the better the conversations will go with leadership. The first list should include what you have done that shows you have earned it. The key word here is “earned.” You have to prove that a promotion is more than you thinking you deserve it. I am more likely to promote someone who has earned it in less than a year over someone who thinks they deserve a promotion because they have held the same title for ten years. But then again, if you’re truly honest when you build your agency, this will come to light.

The second list should consist of what you plan to take on once promoted. What additional responsibilities do you want? More importantly, what needs of the department or organization can you lead? The more crossover between these two questions the better. This list should include items that show you have a finger on the pulse of the team. Promotions go to the individuals who can think beyond themselves. A great way to understand needs is to find opportunities to meet with people, both on your team and outside the department. Learn from others where the pain points are and use that as leverage for making your new role a successful problem-solving mission. If you can put together a list of goals for the future that are grounded in business acuity, you are well on your way to crafting an ironclad case for your promotion.

This second list should also call attention to how you envision your roles and responsibilities shifting, whether it is diving deeper into your area of expertise or starting to shift to other areas. These career development opportunities are something you should have a grasp on before advocating for a promotion. We will cover roles and responsibilities in part 2 of this series and how you can look at your job description in a new light. So, stay tuned.

*This article was originally written for and posted on LinkedIn. Please feel free to add to the conversation there.

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