Sign up with your email address to be the first to know about new products, VIP offers, blog features & more.

Promotion from Manager to Director, why this jump is difficult for most

promotion to director

Which manager will land the promotion to Director?

Promotion to Director

What makes a promotion to Director harder than a promotion to Manager? The easy part of becoming promoted from individual contributor to Manager is gaining subject matter expertise. Unfortunately, “more” of what landed us our promotion to Manager isn’t usually enough to land the promotion to Director. The stakes increase with every promotion. The misunderstand differences in leadership and credibility requirements at each level is a barrier to entry.  The last few weeks posts discussed: 

  • Politics that need to be overcome when being considered for a promotion
  • What Managers and VP’s look for when promoting an Individual Contributor to Manager

To review, last weeks post laid out a typical organization’s structure:

  • Individual contributor
  • Group Manager (with 3-7 Individual contributors as direct reports)
  • Director (with 3-4 Managers as direct reports)
  • VP (with 3-4 Directors as direct reports)
  • C level (with 2-3+ VP’s as direct reports)

*actual numbers will vary between companies

Skip level boss must know who we are

One qualification holding back many promotions is lack of visibility. It is common for a Manager to have credibility within their immediate circle of peers and their Director. If we lack credibility beyond this circle, promotions won’t happen.

We need to make sure the peers of our boss, and our skip level boss have visibility into our accomplishments. These are the decision makers on most promotions and their endorsement is critical. If you want to go from Manager to Director, we need to have credibility with not just our Director and their peers, but our VP as well. If we want to move from Director to VP, the peers of our VP, and the CEO need to have visibility into our accomplishments. 

Every manager will have a different list of requirements for promotion. Below are a few talking points to drive the promotion conversation with your immediate manager so you know what they are looking for. 

What qualifications are required for a promotion to Director?

Communication skills 

To make the jump from IC to Manager, we demonstrated excellent communication skills with our peers and our manager. At this level, communication was limited to a small circle. 

At the Director level, communication will extend outside of the department. This means the Director must be able to effectively communicate with other disciplines. Outside of the company, a Director will effectively communicate with partners and vendors who are similarly titled. As a Director, you will be exposed to VP’s both internally and externally. The ability to effectively sell ideas to this senior level is critical.  

Certifications and Education

In many companies, education and certifications can play a critical role. An MBA might be a requirement in your field to become a director. If you are working in a larger company, an MBA can be critical to enter the Director level role and above. If you are working in Human Resource and working in a larger company, a Masters in Human Resource Management can elevate you as a candidate. The great thing about these programs is that they can go very deep into case studies.

I have a good friend that just finished up a program and for her final project, she had to pitch an HR project to an HR exec. This included learning about the opportunity, pitching a solution to the exec and a plan for execution. We went deep into the details of this project and I wished that a lot more HR professionals received this experience. When I found out she did this for 9 other topics I was thoroughly impressed. Yes, these degrees and certifications make a difference.   

Strategic Thinking

When we were an IC, subject matter expertise was applied at the day-to-day level. Managers are working with teams who focus on the tactical vs. the strategic.

As we move up the ladder, thinking becomes more strategic. Directors are talking outside the department and outside the company. At this level, we have the opportunity to see what is needed or what can be leveraged longer term. Are other departments working on a product or technology that can be leveraged? Do potential partners or customers have needs that the company can fulfill by leveraging groups across the enterprise? Managers don’t usually have this insight because they are working with smaller internal teams. If we are going to take on a Director role, we need to have the ability to think strategically. I blogged about how Managers and Directors think differently here, and more specifically how Managers and VP’s interview differently here

Recognize new opportunities

The ability to recognize opportunity doesn’t mean much if we are unable to sell other departments on the idea. We need to inspire disparate teams to execution. We gotta’ have all the tools.

In my opinion, one of the big differences is that Directors are integrating teams and/or projects. They can lead multiple teams with more than one Manager from multiple disciplines. Promotions come to those who have proven they can manage projects with multiple teams. 

Exhibit grit on the job

Climbing the career ladder takes grit. Tenacity, ferocity, perseverance. Call it what you will, it takes guts and determination. When we gain more experience and have more exposure, we think on a bigger scale. Bigger ideas require more resources. Anyone can come up with an idea, but we need to convince others that our ideas are valid and then we need to inspire teams to execute. Managers and Directors are in no-mans-land when it comes to title credibility. Employees will listen to a VP because of the title alone. But for Managers and Directors, we need to legitimately convince and sell. The ability to articulate a vision and sell a plan is critical when promoting someone to Director.

Managers and Directors experience “No, that can’t be done”, or “That won’t work” when selling their ideas. Directors do not get discouraged. Directors persevere and do not give up. They keep trying to sell their ideas. Directors are open-minded and see possibility when presented with new ideas. Directors have made the leap from tactical thinking to strategic thinking. They are looking at a much bigger picture than the day-to-day and see the big picture. Directors demonstrated perseverance and grit as a Manager.    

Rockstar individual contributors with no visibility will rarely rise beyond manager. I am NOT saying we need to kiss up and play politics. I am saying we shouldn’t be bashful. A promotion to Director will not fall into our laps. 

Below are methods to gain visibility beyond your peers.

Complete projects and share

If you complete a project, communicate your results to the larger group. Emphasize how your project moves your department forward. If you can present your results in person, even better. Too many times, employees finish a project and don’t communicate the results. They feel it is bragging. Don’t assume your manager is sharing this information with their peers or their VP. If other managers don’t know that you can complete a project, we shouldn’t expect them to endorse us for a promotion to Director.  

Ask for advice from your bosses colleagues 

Your peers and your immediate manager have a good idea of what you are accomplishing. Remember, your peers are NOT going to be the decision makers on your promotion to Director. It will be your boss and their peers. Meeting with these peers once a quarter and asking them for career advice is invaluable. This move puts you on their radar and gives them insight into what you are working on. Update them on how their advice helped you. Developing a relationship with these decision makers is just not good business, it will give you insight into what the rest of the “next level” looks like. We are not necessarily looking for a mentor, (it never hurts) but you will know what you need to sound like, look like and think like.  

We need to know what is important to management before they consider us for promotion.  As I mentioned last week, ask your manager how you rank on the above qualities and then ask how you rank against the directors of the company.

See you at the after party,


nasty: an unreal maneuver of incredible technique, something that is ridiculously good, tricky and manipulative but with a result that can’t help but be admired, a phrase used to describe someone who is good at something. “He has a nasty forkball”.

If you want to ditch the corporate ladder, take the elevator and subscribe to the weekly updates here. Knowledge drops are free and I promise, no spam. “Like” us on Facebook here, I read all comments below. Thank you!