When will I go to the next level? When will I get promoted?

As an HR professional, I hear this all the time from different sets of people. The aspiration to grow in the hierarchy of the organisation is so strong that this becomes the most sought after objective for most employees. Those who manage to get to the next level feel they have ‘arrived’ in life. 

Let me take you back a few years to give you the context of organisation structure and hierarchy. Till the mid-90s, the organisation structures in most Indian corporates were very tall. There were multiple levels in the hierarchy. You can say that on an average there were 10 to 15 levels with different job titles. People got promoted every two-three years, received a fancy ‘promotion letter’, and a salary increase which was a wee bit more than what others got. Such an achievement used to be celebrated heartily. So, your salary changed, your job title changed, maybe where you sit in the office also changed, but what did not change was ‘the work that you do’. 

Your authority did not change, nor did your responsibility. You pretty much continued to do what you were doing before this ‘cosmetic promotion’. You celebrated and went on to paint the town red. One fine day, after a few months, you suddenly realised that you are not doing anything different as compared to what you did previously. That would be the start of the confusion. Unhappiness would come in as an accompaniment, but you would hope that things would change when you move to the next level.

In Indian psychology, people love the following:

  1. To get the job title of a Manager
  2. To become a people Manager

When these two events happen, they feel they have achieved success in life.

While the organisation structures were tall with many levels, it was still not easy to get employees to move up the ladder almost every other year. Being the HR Manager, I have been privy to such conversations almost every year at the time of annual performance appraisal. I recall an interesting incident when one individual contributor, a high performer for over two years, came to me, and said, “When will I become a Team leader?” I asked him the reason why he wanted to be a team leader. He said it will give his parents confidence that he was doing meaningful work in his company when people start reporting to him. 

Somehow I feel that in the Indian mindset it is hardwired that you become senior and valuable in the company only when other people are reporting to you. 

I am also reminded of another incident that will show you a typical mindset. Around 2013, I got a call from a stranger, enquiring about the profile of one of our employees for a matrimonial purpose. Incidentally, a lot of marriages in India are arranged by the parents, and the caller was perhaps a man searching for a match for his daughter. When I declined to provide the information, this person said, “Please tell me only one thing, is he a people manager or not?” This is how important this is to people. 

Around the late 90s, when the multinational companies had already been around for a few years and had found a firm footing in the country, the organisational structures became much flatter with very few levels. Most multinational companies brought in their employee practices, culture, and organisation structure from the western world. Most companies had only about four to six levels. What this meant was that there was no possibility of a fast movement up the ladder. Any promotions taking place would mark a genuine upward growth. Cosmetic promotions began to fade away. 

Now, when a person moved up in the hierarchy, the role changed, the authority and the responsibility changed, the positioning changed and above all what the organisation expected also changed dramatically. This person was expected to make decisions, ‘right’ decisions. In some cases, the responsibility of managing a team of people was also assigned. Now, to accept so many changes and yet continue to be a performer, you needed to have a strong mindset to embrace a change. But change is resented by most as it forces us to step out of our comfort zone, which is not easy.

In her book Career Misadventures, Anjali Ahuja focuses on how to avoid them.

It (horizontal growth) brings you opportunities to learn and acquire new skills and makes you a multi-skilled professional. It is a unique and rare kind of opportunity that only a few organisations provide.

As an HR professional, I have been having crucial conversations with people who feel that they got a high-performance rating and, yet, another person with a lesser rating and a later joining date, got promoted. I have been trying to explain to employees for several years what the key considerations for a person to be promoted are, though with little success. 

After all, people see what they want to see.

A person who has a low-performance rating but has demonstrated a high level of maturity, adaptability in ambiguous situations, learning agility, spirit to contribute, and, above all, a high level of self-awareness will certainly be the one to move up in the ladder. There have been ample examples of people who fall into this category. For example, “A good Salesman does not necessarily make a good sales manager.”

It is not only about ‘what’ you deliver or contribute to the organisation, but ‘how’ you do so. I have always been surprised about the ignorance towards the concept of self-awareness among people. Our education system has failed to provide any orientation towards this concept and towards discovering one’s inherent strengths. Corporates, too, have not been able to invest much time and effort in this direction. They have huge budgets and resources allocated towards ‘skills training’ and ‘process training’, but there has been little focus on the development of leadership abilities. 

This to my mind is one of the reasons why we have created only ‘managers’ in most corporates and not leaders, who can be role models and inspiring to others. 

While we are talking about ‘growth’ in the organisation, it would be unfair to not talk about what growth truly is.

With the flat structures becoming prevalent in India, people, to an extent, accepted that promotions will not be possible every year. Yet, the aspiration to manage people still is quite predominant. The thought behind flat structures is that employees need to achieve a depth of knowledge and wisdom. They need to grow not only vertically but also horizontally. The growth trajectory could be and should be different for different people. It is also important to know the strengths and inherent capabilities of an individual before concluding whether the person needs ‘horizontal’ growth or is ready for ‘vertical’ growth.

I love the concept of horizontal growth. It’s a model that provides you in-depth knowledge and understanding of your skills, your strengths, and capabilities. It brings you opportunities to learn and acquire new skills and makes you a multi-skilled professional. It is a unique and rare kind of opportunity that only a few organisations provide. This model ensures that you become a ‘Subject Matter Expert’ and helps you get acknowledged in your area of expertise. Thereby, you earn respect as a true professional.

One major benefit of this model is that it is not only ‘you’ as an individual who is adding value to the organisation, but also the organisation adding value to your profile. 

For example, you join the organisation with proficiency in three different skills, but if you happen to look at your resume in a couple of years’ time, you will observe that you have acquired more valuable skills that have made you a better professional. Each one of us needs to and deserves to grow. The growth can be vertical or horizontal but should result in adding value to you as a professional. It is in the nature of human beings to feel exhausted if they do not grow. Stagnation, to them, is decay. It is a matter of huge concern if you are not growing. 

If you are working hard and yet not growing, it is time to pause, reflect, and course-correct. You know your situation best and only you can bring about a change to it. It is important to think about what you need to change. If you want different results, you need to take different actions. Be open to feedback and be aware of your surroundings and your environment. Seek feedback but do not challenge it, even if you do not resonate with the same. The least that might happen is that the feedback will bring to your notice a wrong perception of you and you can do something about it. 

Key Takeaways

  1. Be open to change.
  2. Understand the concept of horizontal growth as well as vertical growth.
  3. Do not challenge feedback.
  4. Be an agile learner.
  5. Learn to manage perceptions.

It is time to take action. If you do not, you will be running all your life and getting NOWHERE because you will be running on a treadmill!

(Excerpted with permission from Career Misadventures by Anjali Ahuja)


  • Anjali Ahuja

    A Mind-set coach and an Author

    Anjali Ahuja is a mind-set coach, a corporate professional for over 25  years ,  a trainer, a thought leader & an author.  She is on the corporate advisory board for a number of well-known management Institutes in the country.  She has held senior leadership positions in a number of fortune 500 companies and has made invaluable contributions in the area of people and culture.