How to Get a Promotion as a Designer (Even If You've Been Passed Over Before)
Ever seen someone get a promotion and wonder, “How’d they get that?”
The path to advancement in design and the creative fields can be very mysterious and behind-the-scenes so it’s not always easy to figure out how to get chosen.
If you’ve been eyeing a specific title change or promotion and haven’t known how to get there, this guide will walk you through step-by-step how to take the mystery out and close the gap between where you are now and where you want to be.
Step 1: Define what you want
What do you want? Do you want a specific title? Do you want a specific opportunity?
Do you want to be promoted to Project Manager? Director? Or do you want to become a senior associate instead of an associate?
What you want is about a specific career opportunity.
Want to move from running small projects to leading that high profile project that just came into your office?
Sometimes we want to move ahead, but we haven’t defined specifically what we want.
And if we haven’t done that, then it’s hard to ask for it and to figure out how to get there.
Step 2: Figure out what is required to get there
If there is a formal written job description for that promotion you want, grab that job description. It’s time to see how you stack up.
I like using a matrix for this. You’ll want to create a two-column table and put each qualification into a row.
In the second column, you’ll write out your own relevant skills and experience.
You would never think about winging it when it comes to your design projects. You’ve got a project schedule, a budget, hey, maybe even a Gantt chart for that!
But when it comes to having a plan to guide our careers, we creative problem solvers often just hope that the path will emerge, or someone will tell us what our career path should be.
It may be because you’re too busy doing the work to think about what you want your career path to look like. It might be because you believe that the answer is out there – or that our mentors and bosses will show us the next step.
But the truth is, if you don’t define a career path for your creative career – you may end up doing work you hate, paid less than you deserve, and living your Plan B life.
So for example, if one of the requirements is “manages project budgets” and even if you haven’t managed a budget, but you’ve managed a budget for an event that you were volunteering for, write that. This is an anything goes kind of situation. All your relevant experience matters.
If it’s one of those mysterious promotions that has no description and nobody exactly knows why anyone gets chosen to move from associate to senior associate, you’ll want to schedule a meeting with your manager. Or if you don’t have a strong relationship with your manager, any other person in your company who is either in leadership, or who has insight into how decisions are made.
Share the promotion or opportunity that you’d like and then ask them:
What are the gaps between me and —-?
And then you just want to shut up and let them fill in the gaps.
Or if it’s one of those mushy gushy ill-defined opportunities, this question might open the door:
What do you need to demonstrate to be chosen?
Sometimes promotion decisions are also made in a non-straightforward way: It might be a committee that meets at the end of the year, or someone puts your name in a forward before bonus season.
In order to understand how the decisions are made, and who might need to be influenced in order to approve your promotion, you might also want to ask:
How does this decision get made?
Step 3: Make a Plan to Close the gap
Once you’ve identified the gaps, and identified your relevant experience, you’ll want to set up a meeting with your manager, or whoever controls promotion decisions.
You can do this in a performance review, or well in advance of a performance review – so you can demonstrate your progress at your upcoming performance review.
Bring your chart. Having a document helps you look more well prepared.
This time you’ll include open third, fourth and fifth columns to capture the results of the conversation – their assessment of any gaps you have – and a jointly generated plan for how to fill those gaps.
Share the promotion or opportunity that you want, say here’s my assessment of where I’m at. What do you think?
You may walk out of the conversation with a promotion! In that case, it’s time to go out and celebrate!
But if not, asking “what do you think“ ensures that the conversation feels collaborative. Women who are too direct and aggressive can get pushed back because we’re not conforming to the norms that we expect from women. So the best way to do this is to walk out of that conversation with a shared understanding of what you’re going to need to do in order to achieve that opportunity.
Take notes on anything your manager highlights that they see is gaps.
Then ask them:
Are there any other gaps that you see that I haven’t captured?
For each gap, either ask your manager, or on your own after your meeting, make suggestions of how to close gaps.
So for example, if one of the gaps is that you need more client facing experience, you might include “lead small client project” or “attend client interview.”
These will go in the forth open column.
Then go back to your manager, and share your plan, and ask:
Here’s my plan of how to achieve that. Do you have suggestions?
Again, this ensures that the conversation feels collaborative. It also means that you’ll have the opportunity to get better suggestions for them. For example, you may have suggested that you attend a client interview, and they may say, “Why don’t we have you present at the next client interview.”
The fifth column is your ‘when’ column – when you will next have an opportunity to take the action that will fill the gap you identified. For each action you need to take to fill the gap, ask your manager when the next opportunity might be to gain the experience. So for example, you might say, “When is the next client interview coming up that you know of that I might attend?”
You do this to create a shared timeline for your growth – but also because sometimes even managers with the best intentions give you a vague promise that you can get access to a stretch opportunity, but they don’t do the mental work to match your ask with what’s actually available in the organization at the time.
This question helps translate the vague idea that it would be good to get you at a client interview with the to do list item they’ll have walking out of this conversation – which is to ask their boss what proposals are going out that you might be involved with if the office lands an interview.
Note that if you have a lot of gaps to fill out this may be too much to cover in one meeting. That’s ok.
Aim to walk out with column 3 – your gaps filled out.
Then you make your plan for how you will fill those gaps. Take the first stab – what do you think you’d need to do to improve your experience managing budgets? Ask around and make your best guess.
Seek ways to fill the gaps that rely on experience rather than formal training. Want to learn how to create a staffing plan? Ask to shadow your manager while they do it rather than asking to take a formal class. Then propose that you make the next plan and they review it to see what you could have approved.
When you make an initial plan for how you will fill those gaps, rather than asking your manager to tell you exactly what to do to fill them – will demonstrate that you can take initiative and use your own problem solving skills rather than waiting to be told what to do.
Aim to use the meeting to again, collaboratively develop an approach – this is your manager’s chance to say – actually there’s an easier way to fill that skills gap – why don’t you do X instead? And for you to again walk out with a shared plan and timeline.
Step 4: Check in
Your next steps are to fill those gaps baby! And keep checking in with your manager on your progress.
Do this at formal performance meetings.
If you only have one performance review a year, I recommend scheduling additional check in meetings.
But don’t stop with formal meetings—also do this informally. Can you share something every week that indicates, even if not directly, your progress?
If you’re not regularly attending client interviews, send an email like:
And if there are opportunities you need to get access to in order to grow, use these meetings to keep checking in and asking when the next opportunity will be.
When’s the next time there’ll be an opportunity to ____.
Is there anything else I need to do?
Bring that matrix every time you have a formal meeting. And make a new one for every meeting. It will ensure that you have a paper trail that you’ve worked for this and made progress, and it also visualize your progress, for yourself and others.
If, after doing this for a long time you’re still hearing “you’re not ready” but you’re not getting any good actionable feedback on what needs to change so you are ready, one of two things may be happening:
1. There might not be opportunities to advance at your company currently. Sometimes organizations need a balance of junior to more senior staff. Sometimes you just gotta wait until someone vacates the role to make room for you.
If that’s the case, then you can make an assessment as to whether you want to stay and grow even without the title. You may be able to negotiate more money or the opportunities you want even without a formal title change.
2. You might be at a company that doesn’t see you as valuable, or isn’t the kind of place that you can advance. And if that’s the case, then you’ve tried, and it might just be time to go.
But so many women wait to be noticed and hope to be chosen, and when you do that, sometimes nobody really knows what you want.
So let’s get you communicating that, making it clear, and getting what you want whether it happens here or somewhere else.