Working hard and Promotions

It feels like every couple of years Twitter gets on one of these debates about work life balance. Now maybe I’m a little late to the conversation. Maybe the entire conversation was a 0%-interest rate phenomena. Nevertheless, I have some thoughts.

You have to work hard to get ahead in life. Period. However, what no one tells you is that you don’t have to work that hard.

It’s actually fairly easy in a corporate environment to get ahead. I’m embarrased at how long it took me to realize this. It took me becoming a manager to understand this. Let me include you on the secret.

Promotions are predetermined by your CFO via the budget. Managers fight over who get them.

On the standard path, That’s it. That’s the key thing you need to understand. Let me explain the consequences.

When promotion time rolls around all the managers get together and nominate their people. Then they sit around and debate the candidate’s merit and attempt to do some kind of global optimization to assess appropriate allocation across teams. You probably don’t want to promote everyone on a single team. That would alienate all the other teams. Even the best team mate on a crappy team gets promoted.

So as an individual, if you are trying to get promoted the strategy is obvious. Be the obvious choice amongst your peers. If you are on a team of 5 and you are the best, then if the allocation falls in your teams favor, you will get the promotion.

The key thing is that it is a relative comparison amongst your peers (and who your manager thinks they can hire into the team). You only have to be 10% better, not twice as good. That’s what most people miss.

In fact, if you were really trying to game this dynamic, you’d try to influence the promotion allocation in your favor as well. Don’t be on the best team, be on the mediocre team that is important to the business. The worse your peers are, the easier it is to be the obvious better choice.

To be clear, I don’t personally advocate for this strategy. This may be the optimal way to play that game, but corporate promotion cycles are not all there is to life, not even corporate life. For example, this doesn’t touch on dynamics of getting new jobs, striking your own deals, etc. Those are topics for another day.

I bring this up because its something that is true, and not often talked about. Now that you are aware of this dynamic, you can see why a culture of merit devolves as corporations grow and there are more avenues to play the aforementioned game.

Don’t like it? Play another game, or change the rules.