How to join projects that get you promoted

Last updated on March 5th, 2020
rocket ship

Eric Schmidt famously told Sheryl Sandberg “If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, don’t ask what seat. Just get on.” He was talking about companies, and specifically Google. But the advice goes for projects as well. Every company has a Project X or two, where Project X is a high-flying initiative that senior leaders are heavily invested in and closely watching. We all want to live in a perfect meritocracy that is 100% fair. But let’s be honest – working on Project X is good for your career. So what does it take to get on Project X?

Before you start, write down your goals

If you run hard and fast, but you’re going East and ultimately decide your goal is West, well guess what? That was a waste of time and energy. So don’t prematurely jump for the sexy project. Write down what you love, what you hate, and what you want to be doing in 5 years. As best as you can. Then use that as a guiding light to find your Project X, something that is a company priority with lots of upside but also aligns with your long-term goals. If you’re reading this post, you probably have an idea of a project you’d like to work on some day. I’m going to give you a guide for getting there.

Just ask

After identifying your goal, you need to find the decision-maker and talk to her. In some cases, this will be your direct manager. If it’s not your direct manager, you should talk to your manager first and have a general career conversation to prevent surprises. The earlier you are in your tenure, the more you need to present this as a “long-term exploration” of something you may want to do some day. The longer you have been on your team, the more right you have to discuss shorter-term next steps in your career. Once you have your manager’s OK, set up time to talk to the decision-maker. In this case, I’m defining decision-maker as the person who can say “yes, let’s have you join this project.” If it’s not clear who that is, start asking until you figure it out. It’s possible that multiple people need to say yes, which is more complicated, but let’s assume it’s one. Now politely ask this person for 15 minutes to discuss your career interests. They’ll know you’re ultimately asking for something and that’s OK. This process is all about honesty. When you talk to her, clearly describe your long-term interests, your skills, and the role you would like to play on Project X. Then, don’t ask to join the project yet. Ask her what she would need to see, now or in the future, to believe that you would be a good fit. This gives her a low risk way to be completely honest, which is important because you need to get the truth. It’s easy to ask for the role and trigger a response like “well, we don’t have any openings right now so come back in six months” when inside she’s thinking “you can’t do this role because you’ve never worked with enterprise customers.” Getting that real feedback is critical. It gives you something specific to work on. If you’re lucky, maybe she’ll be ready to have a conversation about joining the project now. You don’t know unless you ask.

Create a plan to bridge the gap

If asking was all it took, then congratulations you can stop here! Otherwise, take the feedback you got and create a plan. Start with what success looks like, perhaps proving to senior leadership that you can effectively work with enterprise customers, and then work backwards. What specific skills do you want to invest in? What would it take for others to believe in you? There is reality and there is perception. Both matter. You need to change reality by building your skills and experience. You also need to change perception by thinking carefully about how you can prove this to other people. For example, “customer-facing skills” is fuzzy. But closing deals is not. If you are able to close three complex deals that increase a product’s revenue by 10%, that is a proof point you can lean on. Think carefully about proof points when you’re preparing your plan. What measurable milestones do you want to hit over the next quarter?

Build a reputation

While working toward your goal, be methodical about building a reputation. If you want to eventually change teams, working on things that have cross-cutting impact across the company will help you build a reputation that transcends your current role. I have seen PM’s host monthly forums where product managers share learnings and best practices from recent product launches. I have seen engineers start hackathons at companies that weren’t used to thinking that way. If you are willing to do most of the work and it doesn’t cost the company much money, you can make it easy or unnecessary to get approval. Even small, seemingly random things can make a lasting impression. Maybe there is no shared holiday calendar so that your team knows when people are out of the office. Maybe the coffee maker is broken. Find something that is broken and fix it and people remember. They really do. It’s part of building your reputation as somebody who makes things happen. It should go without saying, but also make sure you crush it in your current role. Explore new things, but always deliver on your current responsibilities and keep a strong and honest relationship with your manager. That’s usually a pre-req to unlocking new opportunities.

Pull it all together

In summary, there a few things that are important to get on your company’s next rocket ship. Make sure the decision-maker knows you’re hungry and ready. Get specific and actionable feedback about how you can get there. Crush it in your current role, make an impact beyond your responsibilities, and create a detailed plan. Then march toward your milestones and make it happen. Project X might be closer than you think.

Improve your resume, boost your interview skills, and make your next career move.