Ask Ellie & Jill: Passed Over for Promotion?

Posted on August 2, 2018

Ask Ellie and Jill

In the series, ELGL members can anonymously send their questions, difficulties or scenarios to and receive a response from the ghost writing response team. Your name, organization and other details will not be shared in the posting or subsequent response.

Dear Ellie & Jill,

I’ve been working with my City for 5 years. I started as a management analyst after getting my MPA and was promoted to program manager 2 years ago. I like my job and my coworkers, but I am ready to move up. Twice now I’ve been passed over for promotions. One position was Deputy Director of my department and the other was an Assistant City Manager position. I know I would be great in either of these positions, and I’m frustrated that I wasn’t chosen. I feel like I wasn’t even taken seriously as a candidate because I’m so much younger than the people who have been selected. I am working at being a good sport about it, but I know in my heart that I’m brighter and more capable than the people they chose for both positions. How do I get them to see that I’m ready for the next big thing?


Rising Star

Dear Rising Star,

Not being chosen for a promotion is hard enough when it happens once. Twice in a row is tough! We’re sorry that you’re going through this right now. Our advice falls into two pop culture reference-themed categories:

It’s Not You, It’s Them

The next time your City’s senior leadership team is in a room together, take a look around. Do you see a diverse demographic array? Or do you see a room full of people that look alike? While they have come a long way, our cities and towns still have a lot of work to do bringing diversity to the leadership table. While we frequently think about diversity as a gender, racial or cultural issue, age is a factor too.

It may not be that your organization is specifically biased against young leaders, but it’s possible that confirmation bias is making it hard for them to select individuals that fall outside of their own comfort zone.

There are two options in this situation. One-if you’re too fed up with being passed over and you are having a hard time being a good sport, it may be time to move on before you say or do something that will make it hard for them to give you a good reference. When you start looking for another organization, look for a community with a diverse leadership team and track record of hiring and promoting rising stars.

Two-if you care about the community and your work too much to leave, and you can maintain a good attitude, it’s time to step up. Find a mentor. This doesn’t have to be someone in your department, but if there is a member of the senior leadership team that you’ve had good rapport with in the past, seek them out. Ask them to coffee and ask them for advice on how to succeed. Don’t be argumentative or put them on the defensive but allow yourself to be a little vulnerable. Tell them you’re excited to do great things in the City and ask how they think you can position yourself to be ready for the next leadership opportunity. They may well provide useful feedback and be able to advocate for you the next time you put your hat in the ring.

They’re Just Not That Into You (Right Now)

On the other hand, it’s possible, that for these two positions, you weren’t actually the strongest candidate. When hiring managers are faced with a large pool of qualified candidates, they often mitigate risk by leaning toward candidates that have done the work versus those that could do the work.  

There may also be particular characteristics that the hiring team placed more weight on than you knew. For example, if the hiring manager knows that a particular position will have to spend a lot of time de-escalating resident complaints or interacting with specific constituencies, they may put more emphasis on finding a candidate that has demonstrated expertise in those areas, despite this only being a small part of the job description.

Now is time to take a deep and honest look at yourself. Take stock of your skills and abilities and work on those areas that need help. In your last few performance appraisals, has there been any mention of skills or traits that need a little polishing? Have you gotten any critical feedback on a project that could point to areas you could improve? If you have a good relationship with your manager or a mentor, ask them for candid feedback about what areas you should work on. Does your City offer any personal or leadership development classes or webinars that you could participate in?

And finally, it’s possible (and we say this with love) that it isn’t going to work out in the long-term for you with this City. We have a friend who tried over and over to be promoted to a senior leadership role in the town she started working in after grad school. Time after time she was passed over. Today she runs a vibrant department one town down the road. She learned the hard way that the team in her first community just wasn’t that into her. When she gave herself permission to look outside of the organization, she flourished. If you think this might be the case for you, take advantage of ELGL’s awesome job searching and networking resources and see where the road might take you.

Whatever happens, Rising Star, we’re cheering for you.

Your friends,

Ellie & Jill

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