Be an A+ employee, get an A+ promotion.

It’s simple, right?

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You’ve probably heard this advice before – “The best way to get ahead is to do the best possible job at the job you’re in”.


Ok first let me say what is true about this advice. Many people really, truly, do not very accurately perceive their work, and how their performance is ranking compared to others. This is why managers give this advice. It’s because it is true – there are almost always ways to get better at your role.

Let’s explore a simple example. Say a job description calls for “accurate data entry.” A worker is accurate about 80 percent of the time. One of his colleagues, though, is accurate 95 percent of the time. When the time comes, she gets the promotion, and he’s stumped. He’s still a good employee right? Well, clearly, he was not the best. There is plenty – plenty! – of opportunity for him to improve his core skill set before attempting to advance again.

So if you get boxed into this advice feedback loop, here’s what I recommend. Take a good hard look at your position description (don’t have one? Make one, with your boss, ASAP), your most recent review if you’ve had one, and think about how you’re working. Are there any duties on the description you realize you’re not doing? Things you think you can improve on?

Be careful also not just to think about this in terms of hard skills you complete in your role, but also soft skills, like how you interact with your coworkers or guests. Also, be creative in how you address the areas you need to work on. Some people will simply never be great at some things. My example is attention to detail – I am often thinking about so many things at once, I may not notice the tiny details surrounding me. So I surround myself with people who are obsessed with details – who without asking or thinking, will fix my hair if it falls out of place, will organize my files, or will polish every nearby cup in sight. These people, in turn, may be happy to rely on my vision of the big picture to help them improve what they see and work on.

This can help – really. Working on building your skills – of all kinds – can improve your chances to advance. And it’s certainly where you should start, if like data entry guy up there, you’re at an 80, and your peers are all at 95s.


I’m also not a fan of this advice. There’s a balance. Sometimes, you’ve done all that you can do to improve in your role. Sometimes, the role is really not a great fit for you, or it changed, and it’s much more difficult for you to excel within it. Sometimes you just get bored if you’ve been in the same role for too long, and that makes it even harder to try to refocus and build on what now seem like infinitesimal details to improve on. And sometimes, everyone in your peer group is performing at a near-similar level of excellence. You’re lucky to be on that team, but it’s much harder to stand out from the pack and get ahead. None of those reasons mean you wouldn’t be a great in a new role. None of them should stop you. And so if those are the reasons that you can’t do any better than where you are right now, it’s time to explore new options.

And this is when this advice can be used as an obstacle, rather than a tactic. When I hear managers or owners use this too much, I know it’s just a code. They’re not saying it, exactly, but what they’re trying to get at is that a promotion, for you, is at some distant event horizon. They’re not saying it’ll never happen… but it may be a long, long time before something comes of it. Also, for managers, when they have a chance to review or advance candidates, it is never as simple as the Mr. 80 vs. Ms. 95 example listed above. Each candidate holds a long list of strengths and weaknesses, and they’re joining a team, ideally to complement their team’s strength at weaknesses. Advancement is not as simple as having the highest rank, or seniority, or even interpersonal skills. It’s usually decided on a weird, mushy, personal and emotional recommendation on what a manager thinks will make the best outcome.

So that piece of advice is a tool to use wisely. If you hear it, spend the time really thinking about it. What more can you do? What is holding you back from being better, if anything? If there is anything, work on it. It will only serve you to have that skill in your pocket in the future.

If enough time’s passed, improvements were made, and you’re still getting the same advice… Then it’s time to consider another path. Maybe someone else will find the version of yourself you’ve created and rank you much higher than the A+ you’ve created in your current position. Go find them!

Anne NylanderComment