8 reasons (within your control) you’re not being promoted into leadership

Illustration of a person stepping up a bar chart.
Illustration by Katerina Limpitsouni

Since becoming a manager and leader, I’ve had the privilege of access to information and vantage points I didn’t have as an individual contributor. I’ve seen the inner workings of performance review cycles and how promotions are decided. It’s also given me a broader view of people, their skills and behaviours in the workplace, and how those influence their likelihood for promotion. The aim of this post is to empower and inform frustrated individual contributors who want to progress to senior and leadership levels and are struggling to do so, and might not know why they’re stuck.

I recognise this is a sensitive topic for many people. Reward and recognition are among our most primal needs. Undeniably, there are multiple complex systemic and organisational factors that can hold someone back from promotion — gender and race discrimination, bias, etc. amongst many. The maturity, stage and industry of an organisation can also significantly affect the types of roles needed and available, which influences likelihood for promotion. The aim of this post isn’t to negate or downplay those factors, nor to blame individuals for not progressing.

This list is about the things that you can control. And while it’s true there might be things outside of your control, you also have a role to play. You may inadvertently be doing things which are holding you back and feeding your frustrations.

It’s easy to blame your manager or leadership when you don’t progress and you think you should be. You could argue that your manager should be telling you if you are doing any of the things listed here. Unfortunately, not every manager can or will. So rather than rely on others, these tips may help you take control of the situation and what’s ultimately your future.

Illustration by Katerina Limpitsouni

Roles need to be available in the organisation

The points in this post mostly apply to mid-sized and large organisations where a leadership role is available. They may also be helpful for people in startups and scale-ups, although these often don’t have established review and promotion cycles. Equally, roles in young organisations can quickly change in scope which can bring a new layer of complexity as goalposts move and expectation shift beneath your feet.

The post also assumes that the organisation you’re in can promote individuals into leadership positions — for example if you’re moving towards the top end of an individual contributor track, or sideways into a management track. Sometimes those roles don’t exist or there isn’t budget, which is a different situation altogether. Also worth noting that the eight factors below reinforce and multiply each other. They often go hand-in-hand and compound one another.

Illustration of a person holding a text box.
Illustration by Katerina Limpitsouni

1. Your behaviour doesn’t match expectations for leadership

This is arguably the top factor I see holding people back in their progression. People who don’t take personal responsibility for the part they play in creating a better environment to work in. They frequently complain, criticise people and processes, and don’t do anything to improve things. Everything is a problem and it’s up to someone else to sort them out. They broadcast their concerns and freely find faults in existing efforts.

This behaviour often couples with defaulting to assuming negative intent and not taking feedback well — becoming defensive. I’ve often seen this in fixed rather than growth mindsets. It can destroy relationships, team dynamics and trust. This matters because the more senior you are, the more you become a role model for others, especially those junior to you. Leadership is about cultivating environments where people feel safe. Openly criticising the very people you’re wanting to become peers with doesn’t contribute to that.

You might not realise, but this behaviour doesn’t only eat into your productivity, it eats into others’ too. You might think others want to listen to your problems, but often they don’t. Especially if they’re of your own making or you have unreasonable expectations. It’s okay to have a moan every so often to a trusted source — sharing frustrations and listening to others can build relationships. But if you look back and find most of your conversations are negative, maybe something’s wrong.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t raise issues to your manager and leadership or talk to your peers about your concerns. It’s important to flag problems, but there are ways to do so constructively and with tact. It’s one thing to communicate thoughtfully and take personal responsibility for what you can impact. Or to show empathy for how things got to where they are and a willingness to navigate the change. It’s another to dwell in negativity, bottle up frustrations and openly vent and blame or become petulant when things don’t go your way or as you expect. One is productive and useful, the other is self-indulgent and destructive.

This might be you if…

  • Your last conversations with your peers were largely you complaining or criticising. Could you be coming across as immature?
  • You think leadership is a title and something you have to be given before you can or should behave like a leader.
  • You’re frustrated about problems and think it’s down to your leadership to fix them, not you. You’re failing to lead.
  • You don’t contribute unless prompted. You see problems you could fix and dismiss them as “not my job”.

What you can do about it:

  • Take personal responsibility for the part you play in improving things around you. Find a problem you feel passionate about, figure out what you can do about it, then speak to your manager about making it happen.
  • Learn to manage your frustrations and communicate constructively. Focus on the positives, not the negatives.
  • Practice empathy towards your leadership and be patient as your company navigates change. Instead of passing judgement, try to understand what’s happened and offer support — they’ll probably appreciate it.
  • Behave like a leader and be consistent with it: provide vision, listen to concerns and resolve doubts. Be present.
Illustration of a person next to a route with pins.
Illustration by Katerina Limpitsouni

2. Your expectations of progression are off-track

I’ve seen a number of people believe they’re entitled to a promotion simply for doing the job that’s been agreed at their level. Or maybe they stepped it up in the 2–3 months before the performance review cycle, knowing it was coming up and wanting to be considered. It doesn’t work that way, unfortunately. Although progression depends on performance, just because you’ve smashed it at your level, that doesn’t mean you’re necessarily ready for the next level in terms of the responsibilities and expectations.

Most companies need you to show that you can consistently perform at the level above yours for a period of time before you’re considered for promotion — often a minimum of 6 months, sometimes up to a year. You can’t just hit the gas pedal for a few months to get promoted and go back to cruising speed. A step up in level isn’t just a bend in the road; it’s like changing gears altogether with everything that brings.

The more senior you become, the more you need to have done to show you’re capable. You can’t expect to get promoted at the same speed or frequency during your junior years as your senior and leadership years. The scope of the role is different. The scale of impact you need to create is bigger. That takes time.

It’s also generally not singularly down to your manager whether you’re promoted, especially the more senior you get and the larger the company. There can be an entire panel of people involved. Your manager needs to have enough evidence to support the decision. Understanding the process is important for you to help your manager make a case to represent you.

In these panels, existing leadership will be considering what the impact of you being promoted will have on the wider business. Putting someone in a role with a large sphere of influence can be a risky decision as there’s a bigger potential blast radius. Many managers play it safe because of this.

And, in some positions there may be legal, regulatory, or other requirements about the experience you must have demonstrated to hold a position — this is the case for certain roles in banking, for example.

If you don’t know what progression looks like, that’s a separate issue. That can happen if your organisation is young or low in maturity and career frameworks are still in the process of being defined. The best thing to do in that case is to help your manager and leadership figure it out — not only will it benefit you and others in the long-run by showing you’re taking proactive steps which will further support an application for promotion, but it’s better than the passive alternatives.

This might be you if…

  • You expect to be promoted every 6–12 months.
  • You expect to be promoted for showing one or two skills or behaviours from the level above yours on one or two occasions.
  • You think it’s only down to your manager whether you’re promoted.

What you can do about it:

  • Ask your manager about the typical timescales for progression at the different levels in your organisation.
  • Speak to peers in other companies and look for industry averages.
  • Consistently show the behaviours and competencies above your level, on multiple occasions.
Illustration of a world map with connected dots.
Illustration by Katerina Limpitsouni

3. You’re missing the bigger picture

You’ve lost sight of your role and purpose in the organisation — why you were hired in the first place. There’s a balance between wanting to do things that benefit you and your career, and sometimes the reality of what the organisation needs from you, or the opportunities that are available. No company will always be able to offer you exactly what you want all of the time.

And being in a leadership position means things aren’t about you any more. You become responsible for the health of the organisation — that means the revenue and the people. If there’s no revenue, there won’t be any people. If there are no people, revenue will most probably suffer. If you’re thinking of yourself first rather than the greater good, you risk damaging the future of the organisation.

Being a leader doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice yourself at all costs and ignore your needs — far from it. It does mean you have to be willing to put others before you if it makes sense for the company. And you must consider the consequences and implications of your behaviours and actions on those around you and at an organisational level at all times, rather than just yourself and your immediate team right now.

This might be you if…

  • You expect things to change around you and for you within the organisation, and get frustrated when they don’t.
  • You’re picky about what you work on and don’t care or want to do it unless it directly benefits you or is perfectly aligned with what you want to do.
  • You don’t see how your role or team impacts the company’s revenue, goals or mission.
  • You don’t particularly care what other teams are doing unless it directly affects you.

What you can do about it:

  • Understand the business model of your company and how your department or team contributes to the organisation’s revenue, goals or mission.
  • Be willing to work on projects that you don’t necessarily think are flashy. They’ll likely be the ones that will have the most impact and would catch the eye of a future employer, or you will learn a lot from.
  • Ask your manager what the most urgent or important initiatives are in the organisation. Identify whether you have the skills to help progress things and offer your help if so.
Illustration of two people on a video call.
Illustration by Katerina Limpitsouni

4. You haven’t had the conversation with your manager

This might come as a surprise, but your manager doesn’t spend half as much time thinking of you as you think about yourself. If your manager hasn’t initiated the conversation with you about a promotion, it might be because they don’t think you’re ready. Or they have a lot on their plate and they assume you’ll bring it up. You might be one of many people they manage, alongside other initiatives they’re juggling which you don’t have visibility of.

If you haven’t spoken to your manager about a promotion and they haven’t raised it either, it’s unlikely to come out of the blue. If you want it, don’t passively sit and wait for it to happen. That’s only going to frustrate you, especially if you expect it and think you deserve one. If you think you should be considered, go speak to them and with plenty of notice — at least 6 months, ideally longer. Let them know what timeframes you’re aiming towards. Make them want to agree with you.

Your manager should be on your side and invested in your growth. They’ll want the best for you, especially if they hired you. Don’t make them the enemy. Build up a case for them to make it easy for them to put you forward to their seniors and peers.

If you want to be a leader, you have to take the lead. That starts with taking personal responsibility for your career and growth, having uncomfortable conversations and putting in the work to make it happen. Your manager will want to see composed hunger and ambition. Not everyone can deal with more responsibility and they’ll need to see the signs that you can.

This might be you if…

  • You haven’t had a conversation with your manager about your performance, goals, career or progression in months.
  • You’re waiting for your manager to tell you that you’ve been promoted, because you think you deserve it. You’re frustrated that they’re not bringing it up.
  • You’re worried about seeming entitled, so are avoiding the topic with your manager.
  • You’ve tried to bring it up, but you’re not being clear in your communication (after all, communication is about what’s understood, not what’s said).

What you can do about it:

  • Start the conversation with your manager about your career from the beginning of your relationship. The second next best time is now. Take ownership of your performance and progression by setting meaningful and useful goals that will allow you to grow in skills.
  • Keep track of your achievements, so you can look back at your own growth over time and make it easy for your manager to see it too.
  • If you believe you are due a promotion, book in time with your manager many months ahead of the evaluation cycle and bring a list of achievements that show you have been consistently performing at the level above yours for at least 6 months.
  • Be direct and explicit with how you speak with your manager. Adopt a radical candour approach.
Illustration of a person in front of a to-do list.
Illustration by Katerina Limpitsouni

5. You’re passive and wait to be told what to do

The more senior you become, the more you’re expected to take responsibility for your own development. If you’re going to eventually support other people as a leader, you need to be able to manage yourself first. You have to put your own oxygen mask on before helping others.

It’s like becoming a parent, you have to figure out your own way that works for you. You can ask others for advice, but no two individuals’ circumstances are exactly the same, and what works for one person doesn’t for another. The same applies to developing your career. There are no step-by-step instructions on becoming a CEO. No one is hand-held into a leadership position. Your manager isn’t being told what to do by theirs.

You have to figure out what your organisation needs and how you can add value. You have to ask the useful questions. You have to suggest paths forward and gain consensus or commitment to decisions in groups. Your manager can’t be in the room telling you what to say and do, or when. Your manager can help you understand your options, point you at resources, connect you to people or unblock a path for you, but ultimately it’s your life — you have to make your own choices and follow through with action.

It’s worth remembering that organisations aren’t fixed entities; they’re constantly changing and evolving depending on market forces and the people inside them. Opportunities are around every corner. It’s why it’s essential you deeply understand your role and skills in the wider ecosystem of the organisation, and how you can provide value. If you’re patient and focus on what you’re learning and what you can offer, you’re more likely to reach the outcome you want than by focusing on that alone.

This might be you if…

  • You want and expect your manager to give you a checklist to get you promoted. You think it’s largely their responsibility to make sure you grow and progress.
  • You don’t know what your own strengths and development areas are.
  • You don’t have a clear sense of what skills you want to develop.

What you can do about it:

  • Ask your peers and manager for honest feedback to understand your strengths and development areas. Treat the feedback as a gift and craft meaningful goals that align with the company needs.
  • Speak to people outside of your organisation with careers paths or competencies you admire, to understand the skills they built and the gap you need to bridge to get there.
  • Reflect on your path and where you want to get to (beyond the title), and what that means in terms of skills you might need to develop.
Illustration of two people next to each other.
Illustration by Katerina Limpitsouni

6. You view relationship-building as “politics”

Hopefully this won’t be news, but people don’t want to work with people they don’t like or respect. If you consistently dislike everyone you work with, perhaps you should ask yourself why. It might be you’re not in the right environment or company. Or maybe you’re not looking at things with the right mindset.

Relationship-building doesn’t mean you should butter people up. It’s not about being manipulative or inauthentic. It’s about showing people the same respect you deserve yourself. It means listening and being helpful. It’s about not showing contempt towards people you disagree with or decisions you don’t approve of. It’s about not having to be right all the time, or having to show how much smarter you are than everyone else. There are ways to disagree respectfully. You can disagree and still commit.

It comes back to assuming positive intent and focusing on the greater good rather than your own personal gains. I’m not saying you need to be best friends with everyone you work with, but it helps a lot if you don’t create friction or drama unnecessarily. Your existing leadership are unlikely to want to give a larger platform to someone who spreads negativity and doubt.

This might be you if…

  • You dislike and/or think you’re smarter than everyone or most of the people you work with.
  • You openly make flippant comments and cynical remarks about people and the organisation.
  • You don’t see the point of building relationships with anyone at work.

What you can do about it:

  • Think about the wider implications of your behaviours on others, especially in meetings or at critical moments in a project.
  • Be a role model for leadership behaviours like reliability, consistency, collaboration, clear communication and kindness.
  • Build genuine, curious and positive relationships with your colleagues across levels of seniority. Put in regular time with them, even just for a coffee.
Illustration of two people next to a project board.
Illustration by Katerina Limpitsouni

7. You’re not making your impact visible

This is less about your behaviours and more about your work. It might be that you’re doing all the right things, but your work isn’t visible. If that’s the case, find a way to make it visible to the right people and via the right channels — often that’s by talking about it outside your team or sharing content in company forums. This isn’t about bragging about your work; this is about explaining what you’re doing, why it matters and why others should care. It’s about showing your value and how you’re making a positive impact on the company goals, culture or mission.

The more senior you become, the fewer people there are in leadership positions above and lateral to you. You need to be able to very clearly articulate and show the value you bring and why you should be in a leadership position. That starts with putting yourself out there and making yourself visible.

Part of this ties into building strong relationships with your manager and other leaders in the organisation. Depending on your organisational structure, your manager or another leader can and should act as your sponsor. They can open doors to you and bring you into forums where your impact can be made more visible. That begins with you doing great work and role modelling leadership behaviours.

This might be you if…

  • You don’t have a relationship with anyone in a leadership position beyond your manager.
  • You have never presented in a company forum or shared your work widely.
  • No one in a senior leadership position has ever acknowledged your work.

What you can do about it:

  • Regularly present at the company meetings or town halls.
  • Share your work in an engaging and interesting manner in public channels. Ask your manager or another leader to amplify your reach.
  • Identify whether there are leadership forums where you could and should be presenting deeper dives into your work. Ask your manager or another leader to open those doors for you.
Illustration of a person next to a series of progress indicators.
Illustration by Katerina Limpitsouni

8. You don’t have the skills needed at that moment for that company

You might be lacking in a particular area and have a blindspot, or maybe you’re over-confident in your abilities — the Dunning-Kruger effect in action. This should be the first thing to check off the list. I’ve seen people who were convinced they deserved promotions held back by weaknesses in their craft because they underplayed its importance.

Your execution needs to be excellent as it sets the standards for others. Promotions can be held up as a blueprint for others. If you’re not yet a safe pair of hands in a certain area, that can lead others to pattern match. At the risk of repeating myself, leadership means things aren’t just about you anymore.

If you think this could be the case, be proactive and get feedback from your manager and peers to understand your performance at all the parts of your role against their expectations for the level above yours. Ask them to be honest and describe the impact of your shortcomings. Armed with the feedback, put together a plan to improve and show your manager what you’re going to do about it. If you don’t know what that looks like, this is where your manager can give you pointers. But it’s up to you to own that process, make a plan and follow-through.

If you don’t think you can improve the particular skill to the standard needed, it doesn’t help to get angry and upset. Ask about changing teams where the role or problem space might be different. A role in another team might not be available, but you can always try.

In large organisations, the same titled role can have a different shape in a new team. I’ve many times seen product designers and product managers struggle in one space and thrive in another, where the constraints and goals suited their skills better. Or perhaps the skills you’re great at might have a different title. I’ve previously seen a user researcher wanting to spend their time coaching, when that aligns better with the role of an agile or delivery coach.

If you’ve tried working in a few different teams and you’re still not progressing, you might need to realise that the time and effort needed to get to the position you want in this particular company is going to be challenging. You might want to reconsider your ambitions and bide your time until there’s an organisational change that might benefit you, or consider going to another company where the shape of the person needed is different.

This might be you if…

  • You’ve been given feedback to improve in a core area of the role multiple times, but don’t think it’s as big a deal as your manager makes it out to be.
  • You think you should be getting promoted because all of the other things you’re doing are great, and a weakness in one core area shouldn’t hold you back (spoiler: it probably will, unless you find another role that matches those skills better).
  • You’ve worked in a handful of different teams and still aren’t making progress.

What you can do about it:

  • Ask your peers at different levels what the impact of your shortcomings are. Focus on the ones who give you useful constructive feedback, not the ones who placate you.
  • Ask to change teams where your skills might be a better fit.
  • Consider a change in role (title) where you can play to your strengths.
Image of hands with soil in them and an org chart growing out of it.
Illustration by Katerina Limpitsouni

If you recognise some of these things, great.

It means you have room to grow. The first step in making progress is to identify your shortcomings and accept you have work to do. Contrary to popular belief, leaders are forged, not born. Some people might have baseline levels of skills or behaviours that mean they are more suited to leadership positions, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be learnt by everyone.

In summary: take personal responsibility for your development, build healthy relationships, adopt a growth mindset, think of the wider organisation and business, communicate constructively, and be patient. You’ll get there.

Head of User Research and Design Leadership @Zoopla. Previously @monzo