No matter where you are as you climb up the career ladder, there are usually rungs above and below – positions that you would consider as a step up or a step down from where you are now.  A question I have heard (and answered) is “What can I do to get promoted?”  If I know someone well, I can provide specifics, but there are some general things that not only apply, but are very significant when it comes to preparing yourself for promotion and to be seen as someone who is promotion ready.


If you don’t know your job better than the next guy, then why should you get promoted? To have any sort of a case for getting to the next level, you need to know your job and perform it well. If there is something you do not know or understand, then learn it. Be an honest judge of your own capabilities. List all of the aspects of your job and rank yourself honestly. Get to 10 out of 10 and beyond.  If you are still at a 5 when it comes to your skillset – meaning that you do have some growth to do before you can expect a promotion, plan for it now. Attach yourself to someone who does know everything and learn from them.

Learn your job so well that you also know all of the inputs and all of the outputs. If your job is analysis, know where all of your info comes from and how it gets there. Learn where it goes and how it gets there. These are things that make you more and more valuable.

Learn the requirements of the level you want to get to and start taking care of them, too. It may be a degree or certifications, and some of these can take a while to get, so identify them early.


The ability to write is not an absolute necessity when it comes to promotions. However, without a doubt, writing is a skill that will enhance your career and open up advancement opportunities for you. Writing allows you to express ideas to a larger audience, to invite, compel, and engage others, and let’s face it, write reports. Status reports, weekly reports, monthly reports, and so on. If the Army marches on its stomach, the Intelligence Community does so on its reports.  By the way, my career dates back to before the word processor and copiers. Reports had to be typed up using carbon copies between the sheets of typed paper. Yay for progress!

How do you gain proficiency with writing? Natural ability is likely to play some part, but reading is also very important. Think about how what you write will be read and understood by that demographic. Read it as a customer, a manager, and a staff worker. Know your audience and write to them in the manner that best presents your primary points. How do you get better at writing? Read.  Lots. You will also enhance your vocabulary. Finally, like anything else you want to get good at, write a lot.


At a large site in England, I once organized and held what turned out to be a large party on the base. We had BBQ, football, softball, a bouncy castle for the kids and so on. Weather in northern England is typically not very good. However, when it is good, it can be near perfect. This was such a day. A nice sunny day for a BBQ. It was a long and tiring, but successful venture. As I stayed to make sure everything got put back in order with the rented facility, I also kept my eye on the bouncy castle guy to make sure that he (a local) packed up and left like he was supposed to do. He packed up his truck and prepared to leave. Busy as I was, I went and got into my car as well, just to make sure that the guy left the base as he was supposed to do. As I followed from behind, this guy turns left and drives down to Operations instead of turning right to the exit. I followed him, got him to stop, and pointed him back out to the exit. He said, “I just wanted to see what was down here.” That’s probably all it was. We will never know. But I had signed this guy in and was responsible to make sure that he left the base, so I did.

What if I had not followed him? You have to take care of the little things. If you don’t, you may find out that the little situation has become a big situation. Make a habit of not letting things drop, big or small. It may take a while, but your consistency will be noticed and this will enhance your reputation and value to your organization.


Even before you have learned everything in your current role, become known as the source of information. Be that someone that people come to for answers. For results. Make those around you better.  Train others. Also share your ideas. You may see how things could be accomplished more efficiently. Speak up, write it up and share your ideas. Look for methods to improve the efficiency of your organization and assigned tasks. How do other organizations accomplish the same tasks? What are the industry best practices that I can learn from? As Deming pointed out, “Those closest to a problem are best suited to find a fix for it.” Be respectful but offer up what you see. If your ideas are good ones, you will get noticed. If you are not sure if your idea is a good one, best share it with a coworker first to get their take on it.

Stand Out

Give this one some thought. You can do all of the right things, but never get noticed. How can you stand out from everybody else?  If you never stand out, it is going to take a long time for that promotion to come around. What can you do that is subtle, but can definitely make people take notice, but in a good way? Back when we were in lower management and working for the same company, my brother and I would wear cowboy boots. A nice shirt and tie, slacks, and BOOTS.  No one else did.  It was tasteful, but we stood out. I once gave a Montana Silversmiths belt buckle to a young lady who had asked me for help in getting promoted. I gave her this list or something very similar, and to stand out a little bit, I gave her a big silver R belt buckle and told her to wear it once a week.  “Do this and the other things I have mentioned,” I said.  “You will get promoted within a year.” She did and she was. It took 10 months.

Dress for Success

This is a simple one, but effective. Take a good look at the level to which you hope to get promoted. How do they act? What do they wear? Let’s say you work with guys who wear slacks and polos every day. At the level you want to get to they wear a tie, or maybe a sports jacket. One or two days a week, you wear the same. Chances are, the people who will select someone for promotion will come from that level. If they have seen you look just like them, it will be subconsciously easier for them to see you in that role if they have already seen you dressed for that role.

Be a Leader

The thing about leaders is that it is more of who you are and not what your title says about you. History is replete with larger than life individuals who led others by their deeds long before being formally recognized as leaders. You and I may not change a nation or the world, but who you are and what you do will have an impact on an organization. Be that positive influence, that unacknowledged leader, that steady force of competence and successful accomplishments and you WILL get noticed. Lead by example. If you are not that person today, be that person tomorrow and every day thereafter. Those who lead by example and with consistency will find themselves in a leadership position.

Whether promotions come or not, we owe it to our employer to be worthy of our wage or salary. We owe the organizations we support for the opportunity. As you help your company to grow, or your organization to achieve mission success, advancement opportunities will come your way.  This article is not about how to cut corners. If an organization promotes someone who does not know their job or is not prepared for the responsibility the new position brings, then they will have to deal with the consequences.  Do not expect to be promoted until/unless you demonstrate proficiency in your current role and real promise for performance in the next. Remember to give a hand up to those who are further down the ladder. Good advice and mentorship can take someone through their entire career, as can words of encouragement. Take the long view, and enjoy a long and successful career filled with interesting challenges and opportunities. This is America, and your talent and hard work is what will propel your career.

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Todd Keys is a Program Manager at Cantada, Inc. He has been in the intelligence Community for 30 years, as a member of the military (USAF), and as a contractor for top 100, top 10, and small business federal defense contractors. He has held multiple roles, CONUS and OCONUS, ranging from technician to executive, providing site O&M, system administration, engineering, supervision, contract management, and Capture/BD for the DoD and multiple intelligence agencies.