I don't think the stress of trying to get promoted is usually about the skills required at the next level. The stress comes from the ambiguity in the process. What is expected? What does my manager think? What do other people think? I think if you can get people past that ambiguity to a place where they have a few specific actions to work on, it becomes empowering and exciting.

That's the majority of the challenge that my mentees bring up in our coaching sessions. They're not necessarily asking for help on influencing their peers better, they're asking how to communicate better with their own manager. It's interesting that communication with your own manager is a problem for entry level engineers as well as senior leaders.

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After six months at Amazon, I had my feet underneath me enough to look around and consider my future.

I was a Level 5 SDM (Software development manager), which is an entry level management position. Theoretically, a Level 5 manager requires extra assistance to do their job, while a Level 6 manager can work independently.

It's relatively rare to hire Level 5 development managers. Plenty of senior leaders refuse to hire managers who aren't believed to be experienced enough to work independently. They're hiring managers to scale themselves, and a leader who requires extra assistance isn't what they're looking for.

Considering the above, the majority of my peers were Level 6 SDMs. As I observed my own performance compared to theirs, I began to believe that I should begin my own promotion process.

When I asked about the process for getting myself promoted, I was told a line of utter absurdity.

You shouldn't ask for a promotion. Do a great job, and you'll get promoted at the right time.

Complete garbage. Of course you should ask for a promotion, a raise, or anything else you want out of your career. You are the person who is impacted the most by your career, and you need to own it!

One quick point. There's no reason to wait before doing this exercise. At all times, you should have a clear personal understanding of where you are in your career, and what your next steps are. You may be years from promotion, but that shouldn't stop you from thinking about your future.

Understand the Promotion Bar

Before having a conversation with your manager, you need to understand what the promotion bar is.

At Amazon, there's a set of wonderful Role Description documents, which clearly outlines each level, and the differences between them. If your company has those, this is where you start.

If your company doesn't have clearly outlined role descriptions, you need to research what the expectations are. Talk to HR (it's one of their primary jobs), and see if they have resources you could use. Talk to your manager. This isn't about asking for a promotion yet, it's simply about understanding what the next level is.

"I love working on myself and my skills. I'd like to understand what the expectations are for the next level in my career. Do you know of any resources where I could read about those?"

Collect any and all data about the next level into a role description document (if it doesn't already exist), so that you can properly begin an assessment. This document needs to summarize what moving to the next level would entail. These may be concrete things ("the next level manages at least 10 people") or often more subtle things ("the next level runs large department wide projects").

I suggest breaking down that document into a list of 5-10 items long. This is a great exercise to think carefully through what exactly is expected for the next level. Get that list into a spreadsheet for the next step.