The Ugly Truth About Promotions

There are two schools of thought when it comes to promotions:

  1. Promotions are based on a checklist: if you match up against these criteria (ABC) and do these things (1234) when you have them all checked off, THEN you’ll be promoted.
  1. You don’t need to worry about the promotion, the checklist, or the politics – just do a good job and the promotion will take care of itself.

In the highly regulated world of government institutions, there’s a deliberate attempt to remove all of the subjectivity surrounding who gets promoted when. There’s an attempt to take all of the human aspects out of it so promotion becomes an easy yes/no question. All this in an effort to regulate everything from equal opportunity to diversity, to inclusion, to skill set mix, grade levels, pay scales etc.

And, all of that sounds nice and fair on the outside…

But here’s the important thing to remember: regardless of the criteria and regardless of the regulations, promotions really come down to a couple of very human things that have little to do with job performance.

Let me say that one more time:

Promotions have very little to do with job performance.

Here’s the truth:

Promotions are as much a function of timing as they are of work performance. Let me explain. Within our governmental institutions, the culture of “Time In Grade” still remains. Even though most organizations have moved away from formal Time In Grade requirements, there is still an unspoken perception that you must have experience at your current grade level for a certain period of time in order to get “sufficient” experience to move up to the next grade level.

In practice, it looks something like this: if you’ve been promoted this year, the promotion panels are unlikely to give you active consideration for promotion until about two years later, at a minimum. (During this period you’re ‘undercooked’ and culture says that you need to stay at that grade a little longer.)

After those two years, you move into the ‘sweet spot’ where you are considered in the prime window for promotion. This sweet spot window usually stays open for about two to three years.

After that point, you fall into the unfortunate place I like to call the ‘overcooked’ category. There is a largely unconscious perception that “if he/she didn’t get promoted before now there must be something wrong with him/her.”

And all of this is regardless of what your performance evaluations say!

The other key piece that influences promotions is this: in government the number of promotions that any organization can put forward in any given year is largely determined by the budget they get from the higher authority that funds them. Which means your organization only has x number of promotion slots regardless of the number of people who are deserving of promotions.

For example, I just saw this year’s promotion statistics, for one grade level and one career track in the organization I know best. Out of 2,039 officers who were eligible and qualified for promotion, 27 actually got promoted. That’s right around 1%…

Now I want you to take that information and overlay it on what I just said about ‘undercooked’, ‘sweet spot’, and ‘overcooked’. Think about the person who was number 28. For some people, maybe even Number 28, their “sweet spot window” just closed.

Now why am I telling you this? Because this is a pretty pessimistic picture, right?

I’m telling you this because so many people look at their government careers and measure their success or failure in life based on the grade level they achieved. They look at their government career and say “Well if I got promoted to this level, I was a success, and if I didn’t make it to this level, I was a failure.”

I’m telling you the ugly truth about promotions because I want you to realize this: promotions are far outside your control, and they are not an accurate measure of the value of the contribution that you bring to your organization.

But here is what IS an accurate measure of the value you bring to your organization, and to the world at large. It’s the level of joy, fulfillment, excitement, and satisfaction that you derive from your work (the gift of service you provide to the world in exchange for money). That feeling of truly making a difference in the world – that’s the only accurate measure of your unique contribution.

And the beautiful thing about this is: it’s something you have absolute control over!

You can deliberately choose to tap into those things that matter most in your life. You can focus your energy on identifying, magnifying and using your unique gifts – those things that you do like no one else in the world. You can focus your attention on making sure you surround yourself with people who bring out and inspire the best in you — and that you are the kind of person who brings out and inspires the best in them.

After all that’s what leadership is, bringing out the greatness in yourself and others. That is Greatness In Government. For more tips on how to embody Greatness In Government, visit

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Kate Bradford

Ms. Austin makes some excellent points. However, unless she’s talking specifically and only about Military Personnel, Foreign Service Officers or private companies, she’s really missed the boat.
Federal Government Civil Service grade levels are fixed for a particular position unless the position undergoes a desk audit or some similar process. Therefore, the only way a person gets promoted in Civil Service is to apply for a position at a higher grade level, be selected and then move into the new position. Yes, some agencies actively seek to promote employees with proven track records from within to higher level positions in their organization. However – by and large – Civil Service employees must manage their own career by developing the skills, experience and credentials needed to qualify for the next level. The only “time-in-grade” requirement is the requisite year to be considered for the next grade level once within the system.
Advancement up the Civil Service grader ladder demands that employees, first and foremost, do well in their current positions. Consistent, timely, quality work that goes beyond minimum requirements creates a sense that these solid performers can be counted on and are valuable to the mission. Strive to exceed expectations – turn in quality products ahead of time and at a level of professionalism equal to those at a grade level you aspire to.
Political savvy is critical. Knowing how to partner with bosses to negotiate work requirements, manage commitments and provide the right input (SMART – specific, measurable, action-oriented, realistic, and time-limited) to the ever-important performance reviews creates compelling documentation that this is an employee worthy of promotion.
Knowing how to play well with others in a work environment goes a long way toward creating good-will and fostering a positive corridor reputation. Good working relationships can make or break an opportunity to be considered for a promotion.
Forecast the next big thing. Every organization has its ‘areas for improvement’ or ‘opportunities to excel’. Get practiced at identifying these gems. Develop a proposal to address them, to work smarter, streamline work or improve output. Sell management on these ideas and then implement them. Collaborate. Document and celebrate these successes and their positive impact.
Finally, writing a powerful resume that formidably documents your credentials and persuasively convinces decision-makers to hire you over the other packed field of candidates is the most critical element in the Civil Service promotion process. Submitting a winning application for a Federal vacancy announcement is a subtly complex process fraught hidden and nuanced danger. It’s not for the inexperienced or faint of heart. Seek out help from those who have succeeded in navigating this minefield. Often the perfect candidate for the job is obscured by a poorly written application. This is not to advocate lying or embellishing in an application. It should establish a compelling argument for why they need you and how your skill set, experience and credentials will benefit the organization.
Sometimes deep soul-searching is in order if attempt after attempt fails to lead to the desired advancement. Measuring success by the next promotion can lead to demoralizing failure. Yes, healthy self-interest and stewarding one’s career is important. But finding ways to serve and make a difference are measures of true success even if the promotion doesn’t come. Ironically, making a positive impact is often the only way to achieve the desired – and sometimes elusive – promotion.
I speak from personal experience. After over 13 years in the same job, I succeeded in being promoted to a new position last spring. Yes, rejections are demoralizing. However, I’m proud that I made a positive impact in the job I left. This treasured personal success inspires me to do the same in my new position. Will I make it to the next grade on the ladder? I have no idea. My goal today is to serve my agency and again be a positive agent of charge. I’ve already identified new projects and goals – ways to make things better. If I do, I’ll have succeeded – promotion or not.