by Christina Wood

7 tips to position yourself for promotion

Oct 30, 202011 mins

IT pros with eyes on senior-level roles must fill out their skill sets, learn to present their successes, find the right champions, and make their aspirations known.

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Credit: fizzles / Getty

Getting promoted to a high-level position in IT is a long game. But it’s not one that’s won by being patiently excellent and waiting for people to take notice. Like any undertaking that requires the participation of busy colleagues, this will take preparation, persuasion, and a plan.

But before you pull out the org map and draw up a campaign, be certain that you want this. Sure, you want the salary, office, and respect. And maybe you’re certain you’d be an excellent manager. “But is the next role, and the pressures that come with it, really what you want?” asks John Appleby, CEO of Avantra.

“As you go up, your network increases and your responsibilities increase. But some things are diminished,” agrees Theresa Cantwell, director of HR and engagement management at Digiterre. “I’ve found that as people rise up, they come to miss the technology. They don’t have the time for it anymore.”

In a leadership role, you will spend your time on millions of other matters. And you will have to move out of your comfort zone. “If you decide you want this, know that there will be conflict and tension,” Cantwell warns.

Still interested? Read on to find out how best to position yourself to move up the ladder.

Shape yourself to the path

It’s tempting to storm your boss’s office and blurt out your frustration over your stalled path and desire for more money. And it would be great if that’s all it took. But that’s not a plan. In fact, it’s you that you will have to change. Not your boss.

“You have to think about this in terms of organizational need,” says Ellen Thorne, global vice president of HR at CloudBees. What does your company need at higher levels? How do you become the person that fills those needs? “If you aim to move to a senior-level IT position, figure out what skills and experiences you lack,” she adds. Then come up with a plan for getting those skills. “That way, not only do you have the potential and aspiration, you have the experience.”

Maybe you have no experience with strategic planning, budgeting, legacy products, or whatever is relevant. “Identify the areas where you need to build muscle,” says Thorne. That is your map. Now instead of demanding a promotion from your boss, bring that map to a conversation where you ask for help acquiring those building blocks. “Be upfront about it,” she says. “Ask for support in being part of conversations or projects that will help you build that muscle.”

“People that manage their own career go to their boss and say, ‘I want to be able to understand this discipline. Think of me if there’s an opportunity,’” says Katie Shannon, global partner, digital and technology officers practice at executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles.

Document your trip

Telling your boss that you want to be considered for opportunities will go much better if you are prepared to make a case for yourself. Don’t assume everyone will remember how you’ve killed it on every massive and difficult project you’ve ever been handed.

“Managers manage multiple people over the years,” explains Debora Roland, vice president of human resources at CareerArc. “They won’t remember the great things you did. You need to come in like you would to a job interview and recall the accomplishments you’ve had over the past year and why you will contribute even more to the business at the next level.”

Do you need to show up with a PowerPoint? That isn’t a terrible idea. But at least “keep a record of your successes and things that have gone well,” says Cantwell. “So that when you do have that focused meeting on your promotion, you can remind people of what you’ve achieved.”

How you present those successes is also an important part of your persuasion strategy. Because, as you tell your own story, you are demonstrating that you can tell a story.

“Storytelling is an important skill,” says Shannon. “You might have done a role where data changed the game for your business partner. It might have been one of the hardest projects you ever worked on.” But how hard it was isn’t what’s relevant to this story. “Talk about the data and the business impact,” she says. “Lead with what it did for the business.”

You purpose here is twofold. You are making a case for your own promotion while demonstrating that you can make a compelling argument for something that’s important to you — and the company. “If you’re going to sit in front of a board, if you’re going to sit on a leadership team and report into a CEO, and also bring your business partners along and attract talent, you’ve got to be able to tell a great story,” Shannon says.

Demonstrate empathy

Wherever you are in your career path, suggests Jessica Saranich, operations manager at, show empathy. If you are assuming that, because your work is technical, people won’t be able to understand what you do, change that. “Those stereotypes need to fall away,” she says. “When you come to something technical that you don’t know how to explain, work it out. Hone your language skills. Practice having conversations about technical things with people who aren’t technical.”

Explaining how an analytics tool works, what’s wrong with a laptop, or how to set up a router to someone non-technical isn’t that different from detailing the complex technical requirements of a security suite to someone non-technical who sits on the board or controls your company’s budget. “You will need to convince people of your ideas and the need for your projects as well as the needs of the organization,” says Saranich. “You’ll have a lot easier time if you can quickly communicate with some sort of passion. Those skills are rare and very powerful.”

Put up your hand

Don’t imagine the people around you are mind readers or that your boss, informed of your goals, will take it from here. If there is an opportunity, or someone listening who might know of an opportunity, put your hand up.

“I’ve known people that were on a succession plan, but they never actually raised their hand,” says Shannon. “They never made it clear that they wanted the job. They never even talked about it.”

It’s important not only to think about your goals strategically but to talk about those goals. “Make your goals clear to your hiring manager, to HR, or by establishing a relationship with an executive search consultant,” says Shannon.

You might need to do more than throw your hat at things, though. You’ll probably need to do some campaigning, work your company network, and let everyone know that you aspire to a higher spot. “Figure out your sales process,” says Appleby. “Who’s the decision-maker, who are the influencers, and work to convince them that you can do this role.”

Learn to lead

Moving up the ladder means leading a team. And in IT, that team is likely to be technical. You don’t have to be the most technical person in the room to do this. But you do have to demonstrate to the people hiring leadership roles and the teams you will lead that you can lead a team of technologists.

“When a company goes to market looking for a CIO, CTO, or CDO for their future, they’re looking for someone who has the gravitas to face off to the board,” Shannon says.   

Speaking truth to power, though, is only one aspect of leadership. Having a team to lead into the future is the larger portion.  

“Can the technologists see you as a leader?” asks Appleby. “This requires a specific type of empathy. Spend time with some of the deepest technologists, especially those that lead infrastructure teams and security teams. Can you empathize with their needs?”

If empathy and leadership aren’t something you were born to, consider those skills among the building blocks or muscles you need to develop right along with strategic planning and architecture.

“Leadership is a learned behavior,” says Appleby. And there are lots of ways to learn it — everything from getting an MBA, to putting your hand up for internal training programs, to taking a class online.  “The key is self-awareness,” he says. “It’s the first leadership skill that has to be learnt. Anyone who says I want to become more self-aware has taken the first step.”

Get a mentor

You don’t have to figure all of this out on your own. In fact, you shouldn’t. Get a coach, mentor, or sponsor. In fact, why limit yourself to one?

“Surround yourself with people that can help arm you with the pieces of the puzzle so that when you put your own professional development path forward, you feel informed enough to move the needle forward,” Thorne says.

Identify a person or persons who can help you get from where you are to where you want to be. “Choose somebody you admire who has the attributes you think you’ll need in the role you don’t have,” says Appleby. It doesn’t have to be your boss or anyone you have identified as the influencers and decision-makers in your company.

“It doesn’t even have to be someone in your discipline,” says Shannon. “Though I think someone who understands your function would be great.”

Look inside your organization, at your business partners, through your network, or in professional associations. Then ask. And keep asking until someone says yes.

“But don’t expect them to run the show,” says Shannon. “Ask for it. Then manage it. It could be as simple as a 10-minute call every Friday. It doesn’t have to be big. If you make it too big, it’ll probably never happen.”

And keep the conversation focused on career strategy.

“A coach is not your therapist,” says Cantwell. “They’re there to look at your future and provide you with the tools to work out objectively where you want to go.”

Once you’ve got a mentor or a coach, start looking for a sponsor.

Seek a sponsor

A mentor helps you understand how to get to your future role. “A sponsor is someone in your corner,” says Thorne. This is someone who might have access to more meetings and opportunities than you do and who knows what your aspirations are and is willing to throw your name out when something appropriate comes along.

For example, Shannon recently placed a CIO position for a client. During onboarding, an executive told the new CIO that he would be her sponsor. “‘What that means,’ he explained, ‘is that I’m going to help you avoid the landmines. I’m also going to talk about you and make sure people know when you’re doing something well,’” Shannon says.

But when you make it to the top, remember all the people who helped you get there. And look back. Is there someone you could help? If you find yourself being asked to be a mentor, coach, or sponsor you have not only managed your own career, you have learned to lead.