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Being responsible

As we approach annual reward time at Microsoft, many engineers are reflecting on their careers and receiving feedback from their managers and co-workers. Those seeking a promotion might receive constructive criticism that’s hard to process, understand, and act upon.

Some might be told to think more strategically (read Lead, follow, or get out of the way), that they have plateaued (read Permanently high plateau), that they should be more visible (read You don’t need a publicist), or that they must go beyond solving technical problems (read Solving the whole problem). However, even broad-minded, well-known, upwardly mobile strategists may be told that they’ve failed to demonstrate the confidence and/or leadership to be successful at the next level. What does that mean?

Promotions aren’t rewards—they are about satisfying business needs (read Confusing promotions with rewards). People who get promoted are being asked to take greater responsibility for the business. Have you demonstrated that you can handle that increased responsibility? Perhaps you feel you can handle it, based on what you’ve accomplished and comparing yourself to those in similar roles. But have you convinced your management you’re ready? How can you? Let’s discuss that.

Convince me

While your management might temporarily assign you more responsibility for a pressing need, they won’t grant you that responsibility permanently in the form of a promotion unless they feel confident that you can handle it. What would make them feel confident? Well, how do you feel when you’re confident? Basically, you’re not worried. You may have some concerns, but you’re sure you can manage them.

Management feels confident you can handle a responsibility when giving it to you means they no longer need to worry about it. Sure, they’ll want you to keep them apprised, particularly if anything goes unexpectedly or needs escalation, but they are confident you’ve got the situation handled.

If you’re being honest with yourself, you’ll acknowledge that some assignments are straightforward for you (“fix this bug”) and others are intimidating (“justify your budget”). You may be intimidated by assignments lacking clear goals and requirements or by assignments that lie far outside your scope of knowledge and experience. Either way, when you’re intimidated it shows, and management worries. No promo for you.

You don’t feel so cocky now

To demonstrate you can handle increased responsibility, you must take on that responsibility with confidence, even when the tasks are intimidating. There are two common ways to do this:

  • Be overconfident. Some people are irrationally confident or hide their self-doubt well. Those people often fail in spectacular fashion. They don’t mitigate their risks, due to ignorance or sloth. They don’t ask questions and shun assistance in order to avoid seeming incompetent. They underestimate the situation and their capabilities and then leave a huge mess. While overconfidence can be fun when the stakes are low, I don’t recommend it when the business is on the line.
  • Accept responsibility. The better way to deal with assignments outside your comfort zone is to simply take responsibility for them. Yes, the goals and requirements may be unclear, and yes, you may not have done this kind of work before with these people before, but you’ll ask the right questions, uncover the risks, bring in the right help, and work the situation until it’s resolved. You’ll keep management informed, and if the risks become too great or you can’t secure the help you need, you’ll promptly alert all stakeholders to the impasse. That way, management doesn’t need to worry.

Understand your own limitations, and turn down assignments too far from your comfort zone. However, when you’re given a job you can handle, even if there’s plenty of ambiguity, take on the obligation and own it. No excuses. No worries. Ask thoughtful questions, and obtain the help you need. Doing so will inspire confidence and convince your management that you’re ready for the next level of responsibility. (Of course, you also need to deliver.)

I got this

Our industry and the world are full of ambiguity. When management asks you to do something that has a scope and details that are unclear, yet you are confident you can figure them out, accept responsibility and own it. Own the inquiry, the listening, and the learning. Own the risks and the mitigations. Own gaining the buy-in, the partnerships, and the necessary resources. Own the decisions. In the end, own the success and learn from the lessons. If you can handle the responsibility, then show you can.

It’s not enough to feel ready for a promotion. You must demonstrate that you can handle the increased responsibility with confidence and leadership, as well as achieve the results. When your management assigns you higher level work, there are no worries—you’ll get it done with professionalism and care. That’s when you really know you’re ready, and the promotion is overdue.

Eric Aside

For more on writing Connects, read Connects with impact. For more on levels at Microsoft, read Level up.

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