Having a sponsor was also definitely important. My manager and I had a fantastic relationship, and I also had a great relationship with my skip-level manager. I think that played a big part as well. - Ritu Vincent
As I’ve spoken with more folks trying to reach their first Staff-plus role, most folks run into similar challenges. Many have miscalibrated their own impact and simply haven’t done the work yet to operate at that level: a Staff engineer isn’t just a faster Senior engineer. However, there’s a large cohort who have done the work--they’re visible across their organization and have pulled together a strong promotion packet--but are still struggling to have that work recognized.
These folks are often frustrated by the distance between their impact and their recognized impact and ask their managers and peers for feedback on closing that gap. They’re told to complete a staff project or to create space for others. For folks who haven’t done the work yet, this is great advice, but for folks who have these checkboxes are a distraction: what they’re really missing is a sponsor willing to push for the recognition of their existing work.
It’s common to view promotion systems through the lens of other systems that have evaluated us throughout our lives such as school, but this falsely frames performance evaluation as a solo activity. Whether your company does ad-hoc promotions or uses a calibration process, promotions are a team activity and as Julia Grace, then of Slack, advised me once during a job search, “Don’t play team games alone, you’ll lose.”
Finding your sponsor
The most important member of the team guiding your promotion is you yourself. The second most important person is your organizational sponsor. Lara Hogan has written on sponsorship at length, but roughly this is the person speaking up for your work in forums of influence and when advocating for constrained resources (like the budget for salary increases).
While you’ll likely have a variety of sponsors, in the context of getting promoted—especially to a Staff-plus role—this almost always needs to be your direct manager. They’ll be the person to take your drafted promotion packet and turn it into the company’s format. They’ll be the person to advocate for your promotion during a calibration meeting as others drill into your qualifications. They’ll also be the person who has to have an honest conversation with you about the gaps you still have before you’re a strong promotion candidate.
While you’ll always need your direct manager engaged as your sponsor, you may need additional sponsorship. If your manager has never promoted someone to a Staff-plus role before, they’re likely going to get surprised or make a misstep along the way. Invest in establishing a relationship further along your management chain. You don’t need to spend much time with your skip-level manager, but if they aren’t familiar enough with your work’s impact to remember it in a meeting two months from now, you’re unlikely to get promoted into a Staff role.
Activating your sponsor
The first step of activating your sponsors is explicitly sharing your goals. “I’m looking to be recognized as a Staff engineer” is a great start. Ritu Vincent mentioned this as her top advice for folks seeking Staff-plus roles,
People frequently come to me and ask, “What should I do next to reach Staff?” One of the things that I tell them is to be super open and honest with your manager about what you want from your career. A mistake I made early on in my one-on-ones was telling my manager what I thought they wanted to hear, instead of what I actually felt.
Once they’ve identified their sponsors, many folks see their work as complete: it’s up to the sponsor to do the heavy lifting. This usually fails! Sponsors are folks with more organizational capital than bandwidth to deploy that capital, and they’ll help you most when you align the pieces for them. Ask your sponsor how you can support their sponsorship. Owning your career isn’t only about asking for things. It is about that, but it’s much more about facilitating those things happening.
Reviewing your promotion packet collaboratively with your sponsors is a great way to facilitate this conversation. Focus on asking for what the gaps are in a way that doesn’t prompt your sponsor to make up an answer. Most folks forget they can answer questions with, “I don’t know,” and instead make up unhelpful answers if you push them to answer questions they’re uncertain about. If you keep getting answers like, “Work on larger, high impact technical projects,” then you’re asking in the wrong way, the wrong questions, or the wrong person.
One starting prompt is, “If I don’t get promoted this cycle, what are some of the likely causes?” Another question worth asking is, “What’s the most effective thing I can do to make myself a stronger candidate?” That said, the best questions are very specific and do a lot of the work for the answerer. Think about how hard it is to answer those questions compared to a question like, “This quarter I completed the API refactor, which I thought would demonstrate Staff-level work, but the schedule slipped a lot, and it ended up frustrating our product managers because their work got dropped. How could I have handled this project more effectively?” The latter question is much easier to give a useful answer to, even if the answerer isn’t too familiar with the details of the project.
Finally, remember that activating your sponsor isn’t a transactional thing to do once before your promotion. Build a relationship over time, and put in the work to help them when they need your support. Stay aligned with their initiatives. Suppose they need folks to join a working group, volunteer, and put in the work. These folks have a lot of people asking them for things, and they are pretty cognizant of folks who show up right before promotion time. I once had a colleague who rarely visited the office but always visited the office the week before promotion decisions were made. People noticed.
What if it doesn’t work?
If you find yourself in a situation where you and your manager don’t work together well, which isn’t quite the same thing as liking each other, then you’re not going to get promoted into a leadership role. Your manager has too direct an influence on your impact and your perceived impact for that to happen. Similarly, you might have an amazing relationship with your manager, who then leaves the company. You’re hardly doomed, but your promotion clock will likely get reset as you build a relationship with your new manager. (Sometimes, this works out the other way, with your new manager working hard to prove themselves to you by advocating on your behalf.)
You’ll cheat yourself if you immediately try to switch teams or companies after running into friction with your manager. Companies generally don’t allow transfers unless your manager approves it, so you may burn a bridge to nowhere that you’re standing on. More importantly, you’ll lose the opportunity to develop your skill of working with folks you don’t immediately click with: it’s not a fun skill to develop, but leadership always involves influencing and building relationships with those with conflicting goals and styles.
If you’ve spent six months proactively trying to make the relationship work, then it probably is time to explore moving teams and to perhaps consider switching companies. This is one of many cases where it's extremely helpful to have developed your relationship with your skip-level manager, who can help you find a new team, even if you and your manager aren't working together effectively.