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The Secrets to Getting Your First Promotion

When I was a young apparel technical designer, my mode was constantly in high speed. Walk fast to each meeting, talk fast in each call, speed through the work and create proof that I could produce high volumes of results every single day. An old colleague of mine and I used to even race each other when digitizing our patterns into the computer at the end of every day! Whoever could get their pattern shapes clicked into the software the fastest won, and we honestly had so much fun doing that together. (Insert eye roll here).

I took pride in my ability to produce mass amounts of work each week, and thought of myself as “ready for the next level” because of my speed and quantity of completed materials. But looking back on this time now, it wasn’t my speed that helped me move up the ranks as a young professional. It was my respect, my thirst for knowledge and my ability to humble myself by asking a ton of questions. I had an understanding that I had to prove myself worthy of those promotions. I just wasn’t so aware of what “worthy” meant.

Here are the reasons I received my first promotion at my first professional job over 15 years ago:

I knew that I didn’t know what I didn’t know:

  • For the first full year of my career, I didn’t touch a garment in a fitting. I didn’t get to mark or cut up samples, pin up corrections or lead a meeting. I took notes. And then I took more notes. As an Assistant Technical Designer, it was my job to annotate everything that was happening in each fitting so that my manager could go back to her desk and use my notes to write up the official comments to the factory.

  • It was also my job to update sketches in Adobe Illustrator to match the garment comments, update our PLM software information to match the comments, and observe techniques in updating the paper patterns to match the comments.

  • I wanted so badly to learn how to run my own fittings, correct my own paper patterns and write my own comments! But I knew that I needed to learn how it was done before I could do it myself. That understanding alone, and the respect that I gave to my manager while she was teaching me and guiding me through all of these processes was a huge win for me.

I knew how to (most of the time) shut my mouth:

  • I have been known to be a hothead in certain situations, especially in the middle of my career when I was gaining a ton of experience but not leveling up (more on that here in a minute). But at this earliest stage of my professional life, I knew that my place was to learn and listen.

  • I have a few instances burned into my brain where I spoke up in a meeting inappropriately, usually due to some frustration, and I was so lucky to have an amazing manager who always took the time to explain to me immediately afterward why that was the wrong move. She kept me in check, and I learned better etiquette because of that.

I showed gratitude:

  • I had always been the type of person to say please and thank you to anybody in my circle. And this practice went a long way with my team and my managers. I let them know all the time that I appreciated their leadership and expertise. I was polite, thoughtful and kind to people. I honestly didn’t think that I was smarter, better or more worthy of anything than them, and I let them know that I felt that way.

Too often these days, we’re experiencing a phenomenon of young professionals truly believing that they know more than those of us who have been doing our jobs and building our careers for decades. It’s something that gets discussed at conferences, leadership tables and executive meetings. If this describes you, know that the leaders at your company know your name, but not for good reasons. Show humility, gratitude and kindness to those working to show you how you can move forward in your career. This propelled me forward more than anything.

On the flip side of this coin, here are the reasons I didn’t get promoted in the middle years of my career, and may also be the reason you’re not getting promoted. These anecdotes are so embarrassing to tell. Looking back on these situations now, I just cringe. But I did learn from a lot of mistakes, of which I hope you’ll take a message or two from now.

I thought I knew better than everyone else in the room:

  • I will never forget the day I started at a new job and immediately started giving my opinion on how their process was wrong. Day one, I didn’t even know everybody's names yet, and I was “helping them” learn how to run a more efficient fitting. Oof.

  • My brand new manager pulled me aside afterward and advised me to ease into my new role, and take some time to learn their processes fully before I started giving advice.

  • My best advice in summary on this one is: If you’re brand new at a job, take the first three to six full months to learn, observe and create good relationships. Since this time, I’ve had the opportunity to observe some of the best leaders and managers in our industry do exactly this before they start implementing any change in their new role.

I believed that faster was better:

  • Just like I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I was crushing projects left and right, outperforming everyone else in quantity. I was not a candidate for promotion in this state. It wasn’t until I started to understand the concept of quality over quantity that my career started to move in an upward trajectory again.

  • Those of us decades into our careers operate at a slower pace on purpose. Let me say that again: Those of us decades into our careers operate at a slower pace on purpose. We are not getting older and slower. We value the quality of the work that we do so much more than the quantity. We know that producing ten amazing results is actually and truly better than producing one hundred crappy results.

  • Slow down to go fast. Take your time and do better work, not just more work. The improved quality of your work is what will get you promoted. Every. Single. Time.

I lost sight of my manners:

  • All that gratitude and kindness that I’d had at my first job that got me promoted had evolved into an air of arrogance. I didn’t show enough appreciation for anybody around me, and I was even told to my face once that I was tactless. Ouch.

  • Kindness goes a long way in every aspect of life. Period.

  • I don’t feel that I need to say any more than that.

I recently heard a story of a young woman looking to be promoted this year, and is trying to prove it. Her manager put her in charge of a small aspect of one of the team’s projects to give her the chance to see what it’s like in a leadership role. Not long after being given this opportunity, she decided to take the lead on all aspects of the project, not just her smaller part, and started taking meetings with the leadership team on her own to discuss the project’s details without her team members. When the team got wind of all the tasks she’d signed them up for without their input or advice, they were livid.

Unfortunately, this situation is exactly why she won’t get promoted this year. She didn’t show any respect to her team members by including them in the conversation. She bit off more than she could chew by taking on more than she was given, and she thought she knew enough to be able to speak for everyone on the team. She agreed to too much, too fast and rubbed everyone the wrong way. Only when she learns to involve her team, respect their advice, and take her time to get all of the experts in the right room together will she actually be considered ready for the next level.

In summary, getting promoted can be simple. Here it is:

  1. Be Kind - Be the type of person your team members like to work with.

  2. Be Humble - It’s ok that you don’t know everything, and it is better to ask questions and admit that.

  3. Be Polite - Say “Please” and “Thank You” out loud and often.

  4. SLOW DOWN - This is the biggest one. Slow down and produce better work, not more work.

People always say that you need to be doing the work of someone at the level above you before you’ll even be considered for that promotion. Slowing down to create great results is genuinely the best way to do that.

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