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Aiming for the next level

ASU executive in residence May Busch shares 7 common mistakes that can kill your chances of promotion

Illustration of paper airplanes flying up a mountain

September 17, 2018

Editor's note: This piece was written by May Busch, senior adviser and executive in residence in ASU’s Office of the President. She is also a professor of practice in the W. P. Carey School of Business and chairs the Idea Enterprise. Find her at

Is this a promotion year for you? Or maybe you have a big milestone promotion coming up next year that you don’t want to miss?

May Busch

Working toward your next promotion is both an exciting and nerve-wracking time. There’s so much to play for, yet the result is uncertain and it’s not in your control. If only we could give ourselves our promotions!

I’ve been through many promotion cycles in my career. Some for me, others for my team members, and now with my executive coaching clients.

When I think back on my 10 promotions during a 24-year career, on the way to managing director and chief operating officer for Morgan Stanley, Europe, I can see patterns of how to earn a promotion and common ways people stay stuck in their jobs.

It’s easy to sabotage your chances of promotion

Every promotion is a milestone in your career. It’s a sign of progress, recognition and reward. So you can’t help but work hard and give it your best shot. But what if all your hard work is not enough to get the promotion you deserve?

What if you’re not doing the right things? Worse yet, could you be doing the wrong things without knowing it and killing your chances of promotion?

While these are natural fears, they’re also worth thinking about … in a calm, strategic manner. 

In fact, it’s easy to go about getting promoted in the wrong way despite good intentions. That’s because no one shows you how to do it. Sure, you get told the “facts,” like key competencies and important deadlines. But that’s just the official part and it’s only the tip of the iceberg.

What are the unofficial, unspoken truths to getting promoted they don’t tell you?

One of the keys to success is simply to avoid going about it in the wrong way. If you stay away from the “killer mistakes,” you’ll improve your chances of getting promoted significantly.

Position yourself to be promotion-ready

Whether your next promotion opportunity is around the corner or a year or two in the future, it’s important to make the effort to put yourself in a position to be promotion-ready. And a great place to start is by addressing seven common mistakes or, better yet, avoiding them in the first place. 

When you miss out on a promotion, it’s hard not to take things personally because it feels like you’ve been rejected from the club. And it’s all very public. 

That’s why I’ve shared these common mistakes. I don’t want you to go through the trial and error (lots of errors!) that I did. I want you to have a smoother time of it. I want you to have the best chance of setting yourself up to succeed.

Remember, if you’re making some of these mistakes, you are not alone. The most important thing is to start addressing the ones that are holding you back, and keep taking steps. 

And now, it’s time to get out there and take action to put yourself in the best possible position to win your next promotion!

7 common mistakes that can kill your chances of promotion

Here are seven common mistakes I’ve observed over my 24-year career and now as an executive coach. Any one of these can sink your chances of promotion. Worse yet, they’re easy traps to fall into. I know I did! See if you’re making some of these mistakes. Then start thinking about what you can do instead to have a better chance of winning your promotion.

Mistake #1: Relying on your work to get noticed

I used to think that if I kept my head down, worked hard and produced excellent results, the rest would fall into place. Maybe it’s just a “nice Chinese girl” approach, but I can tell you it doesn’t work beyond your very earliest years on the job. Unfortunately, your work can’t speak and good news doesn’t travel nearly as fast as bad news. So don’t be lulled into the belief that doing great work is sufficient. Don’t think that it alone will get you noticed. Make sure you keep people updated on your accomplishments.

Mistake #2: Being invisible

This mistake is about not speaking up and not showing up. In my case, I was always “too busy working” to attend anything that wasn’t directly related to producing excellent work. And for those meetings and events I had to attend, I was too self-conscious to say anything. I would sit on the side and only speak when asked. This combination made me less visible to senior people. When no one knows who you are, it’s hard to form a positive opinion about how deserving you are of promotion, and I missed out that year. Make the time to show up and learn to speak up.

Mistake #3: Being indispensable

I realize this runs counter to advice you’ve been given, but being indispensable for what you’re currently doing is a real mistake if you want to get promoted. I remember sitting in a senior planning meeting when someone suggested, “Steven could be promoted to fill that open slot,” and Steven’s boss jumping in to say, “Don’t touch Steven. I need him in his current role.” 

If you’re so valuable in the role you’re doing, you may be too valuable to promote into a new role. After all, they can’t possibly find someone as good as you to do it. It’s fine to be seen as indispensable in the short term, but don’t leave it so long that you get stuck because you’re seen as the only person who can do the job. Make sure there’s someone else who can step in behind you.

Mistake #4: Leaving it too late

Don’t be like my team member, Carlo, who waited until two weeks before promotions were going to be announced before he came to my office to make his case. By then, decisions had been made and new information wasn’t going to help. And don’t be like Nick, who spent the first half of the year operating at half effort. Then, he kicked into high gear a month before performance evaluations. While it was great that he was calling on clients more actively and participating in our internal meetings more proactively, it was too little, too late. Start thinking early, know what promotion you’re aiming for a year from now, and carve out time to make a plan. And if you’re worried it’s too late, there’s no better time to start than right now.

Mistake #5: Playing it safe

As one of just a handful of Chinese kids in my town, I spent most of my growing-up years wishing I could be just like everyone else. That desire to conform, to be liked and to blend in with the group became an instinct for going along with the crowd and not rocking the boat when I started to work. But that’s follower behavior, and we’re in a world where leaders are the ones who get promoted. It took me too long to realize that playing it safe and being just like everyone else meant I didn’t stand out. Instead, it’s the time to bring out what makes you special and worthy of recognition.

Mistake #6: Being in the wrong job

Some jobs don’t lead to promotion to a higher level or greater responsibilities. The key is to know this before you pin your hopes on getting promoted. When my boss moved up to run a bigger unit, he asked me to be his operations officer or “right-hand person.” I was thrilled to move with him to this new role. Better yet, the star performers of the firm had gone on from operations officer positions to bigger and better things. When the time came to look at the next step, I learned that the operations officer role I was in wasn’t seen in the same light. Our unit was much smaller and less complex. It wasn’t the training ground that led to immediate superstardom. I ended up having to move to a revenue-producing role and take an extra year to demonstrate my value. If you’re in a role that doesn’t lead to promotion, then take everything you can from it and use it as a steppingstone to a role that affords an opportunity for promotion. 

Mistake #7: Not having your boss on your side

Laura loved her work, was doing well with her clients and had great relationships with her colleagues. She had just one problem: She and her boss didn’t get along. No matter who’s at fault, the result is the same. Without her boss’s support and advocacy, Laura wasn’t about to get promoted. Unless your boss is about to be fired, I’ve never seen anyone get promoted when their boss doesn’t rate them. If you haven’t figured out the care and feeding of your boss, this would be a great time to do it. This is the time to be doing your job well, which includes making your boss look good and making their life easier.

This story originally appeared in the fall issue of ASU Thrive magazine.