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How to get promoted during the pandemic

As we finally approach the end of 2020, many employees are turning their attention toward career aspirations for the coming year.

If you count yourself among those looking to reach the next level, a quick web search will produce a slew of tips:

  • The Muse recommends making things easier for your boss and following through on your commitments. 
  • Glassdoor urges you to network with the right co-workers and to demonstrate high levels of employee engagement. 
  • You can bone up on how to have a career conversation with your boss by taking advantage of LinkedIn Learning courses.

COVID-19 caught us completely off guard in early 2020, but we know by now that next year will not be business as usual. We will remain working under the pall of a pandemic well into 2021. While several vaccines are showing early promise, not everyone who wants to receive one will be able to immediately. Widespread immunity would end the pandemic, but some models predict that surges could reappear until 2025 or beyond.

Uncertainty will be just one characteristic of the operating environment in 2021. Employees are already experiencing unprecedented levels of stress and emotional challenges. As a result, what employers need from their future leaders is markedly different from what they coveted pre-pandemic. To boost your chances of being promoted in 2021, showcase your proficiency in the following areas:

1. Lead despite distance. 

In an article titled 24 Big Ideas that will change our world in 2021, LinkedIn editor Scott Olster shared that “roughly half (47%) of U.S. professionals believe their companies will allow them to be — at least partially — remote after the coronavirus pandemic wanes.“

Leading others requires a complex set of competencies that are difficult to master in any environment. Doing so over Zoom is even more challenging. Develop and demonstrate your ability to communicate a compelling future vision, marshal resources, and provide team members with feedback and support

Remember also that, while connecting with them through available web conferencing tools may seem simple and intuitive, different behavioral profiles may have other preferred mediums. You can cater to those preferences better when you understand their strongest behavioral drives—and how they manifest in a remote environment

how to work from home

2. Demonstrate a resilient mindset.

We’ve already been through a great deal of unwanted change, uncertainty, and discomfort. These experiences tap into reserves and open the door to poor performance and employee disengagement. Resilience is the capacity to recover and endure in the face of adversity, and it’s exactly what employers need most during challenging times.

If you believe that you’re promotion material, you need to put forward the backend effort to be at your best. Prioritize sleep, exercise, meditation, and other activities that foster resilience. Whether it’s true or not, imagine that all eyes are on you at all times. As Michael Allosso, TV actor-turned-self-awareness-specialist and communications expert, says: “Every day is showtime.” 

Model positivity and mental toughness through your words and actions, and others will notice. Further, understand your behavioral tendencies, and recognize where you might be stretched under stress. The more self-aware you are, the more you can limit any detrimental effects of those stretches.

3. Learn pandemic-relevant skills.

The pandemic has heightened employers’ demand for specific “soft” skills, including empathy, communication, and the ability to motivate others. While these capabilities may come naturally to some more than others, it’s important to remember that great leaders are made, not born.

There are many educational resources that cover these topics—from audiobooks and podcasts, to digital courses and formal certifications. Choose the format that matches your preferred learning style and schedule. Make your boss and your colleagues aware of your investment in your professional development, and ask them to assist you develop your new skill set by sharing their observations and helping hold you accountable for improvements in your interactions.

PI Learning Center

4. Be flexible.

During these uncertain times, many organizations have been forced to quickly change their business models, accelerate investments in digital transformation, or adapt other core aspects of their strategies in order to survive. These operating changes inevitably trickled down to their front line employees. 

Demonstrate your value as a leader by remaining flexible in the face of shifting strategic priorities. Organizational strategies tend to involve some combination of innovation, teamwork, process, or a drive for results. Become equally comfortable with the operational requirements of each.

Extend that flexibility to your career path, as well. The pandemic has splintered the notion of a “straight line” to the top. Be willing to consider a shift to a cross-functional leadership role, or consider a temporary “tour of duty,” even if it doesn’t neatly fit into a prior conception of your career story arc.

5. Embody empathy.

While some businesses have actually thrived during the pandemic, many have struggled. Small businesses have seen the sharpest decline in employment levels due to economic challenges brought on by the pandemic.

The simple fact is that if the bottom line is hurting, an employer may not be in a position to reward its most prized employees—no matter how much they wish to do so. What does this mean if you’re seeking a promotion? You might need to demonstrate a higher level of selflessness and understanding in certain situations.

Be honest with yourself about your motivations. Given the opportunity, would you accept a promotion while foregoing a salary increase in the near term? Can you be creative by negotiating a change in job title or reporting relationships? Those might be easier transitions for your employer to fulfill during a period of economic hardship.

A trustworthy employer will have a long memory, and you could be rewarded handsomely for your loyalty and understanding if you play the long game.

A talent optimized toolkit 

Many employees will seek to be promoted in 2021. Only a subset of those will do the hard work to make their mindset, skills, and contributions highly relevant for their employers’ specific needs, as brought on by the pandemic.

Go beyond the basics and focus on what matters most in the current climate. You can set yourself apart and properly position yourself for making a larger contribution, and advancing in your career.

Interested in more resources that support upskilling and talent optimization? Start here.


Matt Poepsel, PhD is the author of Expand the Circle: Enlightened Leadership for Our New World of Work and host of the Lead the People podcast. He serves as Vice President & Godfather of Talent Optimization at The Predictive Index. He holds a PhD in Psychology, an MBA, and a Harvard Business School Certificate of Management Excellence. Matt has more than 25 years of leadership experience as a software executive and consultant. He’s also a US Marine, an Ironman triathlon finisher, and a student of Buddhist philosophy.

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