Should You Be Promoted Every 3 Years?

If you didn’t catch it this week, a job board executive came out with how often you should be promoted early in your career. Basically, he said it should be every three years. Do you agree?

Early-career employees should aim to get a promotion around every three years, according to Ian Siegel, CEO of ZipRecruiter. “If you aren’t moving up after three years, there is a problem,” he said.
Let’s say you start your new job right out of college at 22 years old.
First job title (Individual Contributor): HR Generalist 
Second job title at 25 years old: Senior HR Generalist
Third job title at 28 years old: HR Manager 
Fourth job title at 31 years old: Senior HR Manager
Fifth job title at 34: HR Director 
Sixth job title at 37: Sr. HR Director 
Seventh job title at 41: Vice President of HR
I’ve told this story before but I had a goal coming out of college that I wanted to be a Vice President by 35 years old. I spent the early part of my career chasing titles. I became a Vice President at 38. Upon becoming a VP at 38 I immediately realized it didn’t matter at all!
Titles are organizational-size specific. If you work for a 250 person company (or a bank or a startup) becoming a VP of whatever probably isn’t too hard. If you work for a company that has 25,000 employees becoming a VP is going to take some time. Also, are you really a Vice President when you have 2 direct reports, or when you are responsible for an organization of hundreds or thousands?
The reality is titles are basically meaningless to everyone except yourself.
I think Ian’s math actually works out for large organizations. If you start working for large companies, the three-year promotional cycle probably works out in most normal economic environments for above average performers who meet the following criteria:
  1. Have the desire to continually move up.
  2. Have the ability and desire o relocate.
  3. Have a specialized skill-set or education.
  4. Have a willingness to go cross-functional and learn all parts of the business.
  5. Have the ability to play the political game.

You don’t get promoted for just showing up and doing the job you were hired to do. Every idiot in the company can do that. Showing up doesn’t make you promotable.

There are probably a few things that can help you move up faster that I think most upwardly mobile professionals don’t know. You need to make your boss know that you want to move up and you’re willing to work with them to make that happen. Working with them doesn’t mean trying to push them out, it means you will work to push them up.

You need to have a developmental plan that your boss, and maybe the boss above them, has signed off on. This plan is your responsibility, not their responsibility. If you think it’s your bosses responsibility to make your development plan and push for your promotion, you’re not someone who should be promoted. Own your own development, with their guidance.

Understand that three years in an average. You will be promoted sometimes in six months and sometimes in six years. In some career paths you’ll be promoted three times in three years, but then not again for nine. The right amount of patience is critical in getting promoted. One of the biggest mistakes I made in my career was jumping companies for a title because I thought my current boss wasn’t going anywhere and three months after I left he was promoted and told me I was in line to take his spot. I loved that job! I had no patience.

Being promoted has nothing to do with time and everything to do with you putting yourself in a position to be promoted.




6 thoughts on “Should You Be Promoted Every 3 Years?

  1. For me, 3 years is a good rule of thumb with one tweak. I believe that change is good for all the right reasons. Not necessarily a promotion, but a new role is great for growth and stretch. I think when we start talking about promotions it can set the wrong g expectation. I have just as much growth in moving into a completely new role that may not a promotion.

    Good topic and look forward to the comments.

  2. It clearly says “early career employees,” so the advice is accurate in the context it was given.

    Yes, earlier in your career, if you’re moving up from I to II to III, or from Junior to Senior, that progression should happen relatively quickly, and if you’re not moving, chances are your company doesn’t believe in you (or they are so small that they cannot give you different work).

  3. If you accept this timeline, then everyone over 40 should be in a VP or C Suite position. Take a look at your coworkers and see if that fits.

    • Ashland (BTW – love that name!)

      I don’t think everyone should be a VP at 40 and I don’t think most people actually want to be a VP at all. I’m in love with individual contributors who actually know and love doing the job they have, forever! But, if you have a desire to be a VP – is 40-ish a realistic time frame?

      I think so,


  4. Yeah, every 3 years, says the CEO of a firm in a market niche that exists largely because of worker discontent or turnover. Everyone blooms at a different pace. The last thing the work world needs is the added stress from an arbitrary timeline metric placed on individual achievement.

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