How to get a big fat pay rise and promotion, even in lean times

Picture of Matthew Stibbe
Posted by Matthew Stibbe

We’re living in tough times and it may not feel like the best moment to look for a pay rise or a promotion. But for ambitious companies and ambitious individuals, tough times are opportunities to outpace the competition.

I’ve been running tech companies for the last 30 years, first Intelligent Games and now Articulate Marketing, with a side bet on Turbine. I have been the boss for hundreds of employees, and this is my personal view of what ‘pay rises’ and ‘promotions’ look like from my side of the table.

The usual health warnings apply. These are my personal opinions. Your mileage may vary. Don’t run with scissors.

Don’t be a drag

Astronaut Chris Hadfield has a useful way of thinking about people: you’re either a minus one, a zero or a plus one.

“Over the years, I’ve realised that in any new situation, whether it involves an elevator or a rocket ship, you will almost certainly be viewed in one of three ways. As a minus one: actively harmful, someone who creates problems. Or as a zero: your impact is neutral and doesn’t tip the balance one way or the other. Or you’ll be seen as a plus one: someone who actively adds value.”

Watch Chris explain this concept:

This resonates for me a lot because I have spent large parts of my career grappling with the ‘minus-ones’. These people are a drag on the company culture. They eat up time and effort trying to contain the damage, they sap their colleagues’ morale and set a rotten example, they often make a lot of noise and they can be very demanding but sometimes they can be passive-aggressive black holes absorbing all the energy around them.

Aim for zero first

In my experience, one rotten apple can absorb as much management time as ten great employees. In some cases, they’re just bad employees. But in some cases, minus-one behaviour turns out to be someone’s well-intentioned but misguided effort to be a plus-one.

Let me tell you straight. Being a pain-in-the-ass drag on the business that absorbs a lot of your boss’s time for little benefit and distracts the team from more pressing issues … this is a rotten strategy if you want to position yourself for promotion and pay increases.

Chris Hadfield has one piece of advice for would-be plus-ones – aim for zero first.

  • Pull your weight
  • Show up
  • Pitch in, rally round, volunteer for stuff
  • Don’t hog the limelight
  • Do your job professionally
  • Learn the ropes
  • Be a mensch (here are some helpful tips from Guy Kawasaki)

This is not the end of the journey, but ‘aim for zero’ is a great place to start.

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Understand your company’s goals

Cartoon with a king at a bus stop waiting for a bus that is displaying the destination 'total world domination' symbolising the importance of ambition in the context of promotion and pay rises

Go read your company’s business plan. Look at the annual report. Think about what makes it successful or what is causing friction. Pay attention to the firm’s leadership – they may talk in concrete terms about near-term plans and in less definitive – but still revealing terms – about longer-term goals.

  • Try to understand the business roadmap and long-term ambitions.
  • Think about what the company is also not doing. HubSpot, for example, includes a list of strategies they will not be pursuing in their business planning process. This is also good guidance.
  • Look at what the company measures and try to find ways to influence those KPIs (key performance indicators).

The reason is that promotion and pay increases are easier to allocate to people who are aligned with the company goals. You’ll be speaking the business’s language and adding your weight in the right places.

And while it can be helpful to ‘speak truth to power’ sometimes (nobody likes a toady) and it can be nice to have a reputation as a radical innovator (if you are solving real problems) but you’re more likely to be seen as a barrack-room lawyer, troublemaker or barrier to progress if you persistently try to push your own agenda.

Also, if your employer is facing serious challenges because of the pandemic (or for any other reasons), that’s not the best time to ask outright for more money. But it is a great time to show you can add more value and to align yourself with the company’s goals of survival and recovery. Bosses remember people who pitch in when times are tough.

Understand your boss’s objectives

We’re all the hero of our own story but the secret to success lies in becoming the hero of your boss’s story.

The better you understand what success looks like for your boss, the better your chances or helping her achieve it and – critically – attracting positive attention to yourself and building your case.

The obvious questions to ask are:

  • What are your priorities right now?
  • Tell me what you’re working on?
  • What obstacles do you need to overcome?
  • How can I help?

An interesting thought experiment you can play is the ‘café game’. Imagine you’re in a café, on a bright sunny day, in 12 months' time with your boss, looking back on an amazing year. What did you accomplish? What went to plan?

Every boss is different, but for what it’s worth, I wrote a guide to understanding what I am thinking as a boss, entrepreneur and manager: How to understand what your boss is thinking.

At Articulate we have a library of management books and a subscription to The Economist and The Harvard Business Review. Use these resources to understand management and business thinking.

Add value to get promoted

How does your employer make money? How does it differentiate itself from its competitors? What are its hedgehogs? (See Jim Collins’s book Good to Great for more on hedgehogs!)

Jim Collin's hedgehog concept: what you are passionate about, what you're good at and what makes money. Critical thinking for people who want a promotion.


If you focus your attention on the things that really matter to the business, you leverage your contribution.

Consider the opposite: lobbying for investments that the company doesn’t want to make, developing skills the company doesn’t need etc. At best you’ll be swimming against the tide. At worst your efforts will count for nothing. Not a great plan for promotion.

Get s*** done

I can’t emphasise this point enough. In most cases, the best way to get promoted is to excel in your current job. It reassures managers that you are capable, reliable and ready for greater responsibilities.

As a boss, I react badly to the proposal ‘I’ll work harder if I get a pay rise’ or ‘once I get a promotion, I’ll be able to do my best work.’ You’d be surprised how often it happens. Frankly, for me, it’s like negotiation with a blackmailer. I fear that if I give in to the demands, I won’t get stellar performance; I’ll just get more demands.

You want to make promotion look as risk-free as possible. And a track record of reliable performance and delivery is a strong advocate for a pay rise.

Train for the promotion you want

There has never been a better time to learn new things. Even if your employer can’t subsidise your training, there are hundreds of free or low-cost courses online. There are also awesome blogs and podcasts with deep expertise.

At Articulate Marketing we give every employee a personal budget for training and an unlimited budget for books. We also have access to a vast library of HubSpot Academy courses, which are perfectly aligned with our work. Some people use it. Some people don’t.

In my experience, the people who continuously developed their skills and learned new things had the best career outcomes.

Find a mentor

A mentor from within the business can help you raise your profile, understand what’s going on in your business and get some disinterested, useful feedback. A mentor from outside can provide valuable perspective and encouragement. Either way, having a mentor is a good thing.

To explain what I mean, I think back to my flying career. I started learning to fly in 1999 and had dozens of lessons with an instructor. Back then, I thought that once I passed my written exams and check ride, I wouldn’t need an instructor. I would be a fully-qualified, eight-foot-tall pilot.

The reality is that passing the exam is only the first step. I went on to do a night rating, an instrument rating, a US pilot’s licence and then a commercial licence. Over nearly 20 years, I spent at least a third of my time in the cockpit with an instructor.

Quickly I came to see the instructor as an ally. Someone who could teach me new things and make me a better pilot. I realised I was never going to be a perfect pilot. And flying with an instructor wasn’t a lesser kind of flying. In some ways, it was a better experience because it helped me grow and develop.

See my old, but still valid, article about asking someone to be your mentor.

Take on more responsibility

Right now, I’m reading David Marquet’s book ‘Turn the Ship Around’. It’s brilliant. If you’re a manager, it’s essential reading. But I think there’s a lesson in it for everyone. It’s fundamentally about changing the relationship from ‘leader-follower’ to ‘leader-leader’. Turn the telescope around, and there are lessons there for people in a subordinate role about how to demonstrate competence, take on responsibility and improve teamwork.

If you are led to water, please take a drink

When offered an opportunity, take it.

I have had several cases in my career where I have deliberately given promising employees opportunities to get additional responsibility, to take on new projects or solve pressing problems.

From my side, I felt like I was offering a chance to shine and a route to career development, pay increases and promotion.

So it has always puzzled and frustrated me that people often refuse these opportunities. And it really grinds my gears if they later complain about not advancing in their career.

Career development is not always a linear path and it may not go in the direction you want right now. But if you stand still, you won’t go anywhere.

That doesn’t mean you have to say ‘yes’ to every crazy thing your boss asks you to do. But if you say ‘no’ you had better have an alternative suggestion or a very credible reason.

Increase positive visibility to win that promotion

On a related point, there’s no point being a star if nobody sees your light shine. If you want to get a promotion, you need to appear promotable.

To use the Johari Window model, most of your worth is hidden in the Façade and Blind Spot quadrants, either because it’s not known to others or it’s not clear to you.

Johari window - four quadrants based on whether something is known to yourself and/or known to others.

You would like your boss to know all about you – to understand your personality, your goals, your potential. You feel that it’s their job to divine all this (and to some extent, yes, it is.)

But the reality is – painfully – she’s not spending much time thinking about you. If you’re lucky, you might have a monthly 1-1.

So you need to find other ways to open the window and let your light shine. Here are some suggestions:

  • Make positive contributions to company meetings.
  • Volunteer for things, like mentoring new hires.
  • Don’t just raise problems, come with suggestions for fixing them.
  • Be proactive in 1-1s. Prepare well. Tell your boss what you have achieved.
  • Toot your horn a bit. Let people know when you pass an exam, complete a project or whatever.

I think the steady accumulation of positive recognition beats a negotiation-focused ‘lean in’ demand for a pay rise delivered retrospectively in a pay review meeting.

Indeed, you are the CEO of your own career. You have more power than you think. Pay reviews happen once a year, but you can add value, raise your profile and develop your skills every day.

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