We all got the email from the head of our organization at the same time about some big changes. Thankfully, it wasn’t a “half of you are getting laid off” type email. It was simply about how some different people in upper management are taking on newly created roles. These promotions opened up a few spaces in the ranks of upper middle management, and so the announcement was also a bit of an advertisement to the staff to try and get some applicants for the vacant positions. A colleague and I started talking about how one of the open positions was perfect for our current supervisor. Unfortunately, that meant that the immediate position above me, our team’s supervisor, may become available and the majority of our colleagues were not interested in taking the job for various reasons. Although I’m the new guy on the team, I am qualified to fill the role and honestly, it would probably be an easy promotion to get. Naturally that got me a little excited about the opportunity. In thinking about it some more, especially when you consider how few other people on our team wanted it, I started to really question how good of a decision it would be to take on the new role. I realized there were lots of facets to the decision that I had to consider.
Initially the Peluso Presents effort started out with a focus on the professional individual contributor, which I dubbed the PIC. My work explored everything related to being a single worker with no direct reports. In my defininition a PIC was highly educated and intelligent but mostly powerless in the greater organization for which they worked. A PIC is essentially a really smart pawn who knew how to win the game where others were controlling the pieces. Of course that meant that no matter how smart they were, as a pawn in the game of work, just like in the game of chess, they often were moved around and sacrificed for some greater strategy that had little to do with their own role in the game. Throughout my career I considered myself a PIC and by default, I was surrounded by other individual contributors. Being “the boss” was never really part of the narrative around me.
I have written about how it’s hard to climb the organizational ladder. More often than not getting promoted to desirable management positions is as much luck in being at the right place at the right time as it is skill. I think that’s why after years of working for others, it’s seductive to think about wanting to be the boss. When your in charge, you get to make the decisions, you get to know more of what’s going on and most importantly, you are one of the last to be let go when things get bad.
Now that the option is truly feasible to me, I’ve had some interesting emotional reactions. The closest I can come to describing them is that they must be similar to the feelings of a high school graduate who had the skills and resources to go, but skipped college for a menial job. Who, five years later, sees their friends graduate from some advanced education and land higher paying jobs. It’s a bit like fear of missing out on a grand scale. In my experience, FOMO is the spark to get the kids to go back to school to get some kind of advanced training as they don’t want to be left behind doing the crappy jobs while everyone else in their circle seems to have much better long term career prospects.
So, with these unexpected emotional reactions, it made me start to think about a potential reality of climbing the ladder. I began to try and organize the important points to consider in my mind. The first, and most obvious is that as you go up the chain of command there is usually more salary. More money is good, yet I know that it’s not a windfall. Often the additional income is incremental. Typically you need to go two or three steps until you get a substantial enough increase to impact your quality life.
Of course if you do go two or three steps up the ladder, the money proposition isn’t as straightforward. There often is a direct financial cost, i.e. an additional investment in education. In the private sector, senior management almost always needs at least an MBA and often another degree related to their industry. These can get pretty pricey. For example the cost of the prestigious MBA at UNC-Chapel Hill is close to one hundred thousand dollars at the time of this writing and there are other programs that are even more expensive than that. This doesn’t include the cost of living if the prospective student presses pause on their career while they take a year or two to pursue their MBA. At that point the cost could double to nearly two hundred thousand dollars. If the MBA only nets a promotion which includes a twenty thousand dollar a year raise, it would be a decade or more, assuming post tax dollars, to break even on the degree. That’s an extreme example. Realistically, a part time online MBA program will cost $20-$40K which would equal a four or five year ROI and possibly less if there is another promotion or two during that time.
Of course that calculus isn’t truly sophisticated as it doesn’t take into account all the overtime you have to work. If we look at time as money and do a total cost analysis like many employers do, then we have to remember that working at the middle to highest levels of any big business is typically a sixty to seventy hour a week commitment with availability expected to be 24/7. The additional income is really coming from the extra time as much as it is coming from the enhanced knowledge and skills. If you could work a straight forty hours and get the extra money, then the justification for the promotion and degree is there. If you have to get the extra degree to get or keep the promotion, then work an extra twenty hours a week, then, being honest, the return of the investment in the degree is somewhat longer than the aforementioned estimates.
There exists a similar reality in public work, especially the education sector. To climb the ladder you need a doctorate, most commonly a PhD or EdD. Costs for in-demand doctorates used in the public sector are typically lower, most likely because the average income, even for top level employees, is significantly less than the public sector. Like the MBA, PhD’s are all over the place from a cost perspective. A doctoral degree in education for working professionals can range from 21K to 55K with the average being in the 30’s and 40’s from my personal experience. After taxes that’ll take six or seven years to pay off. Again, that’s just break even. If you look at my case, I only have 10 years left before I technically retire from my job. It could be as low as 9 years if I can use my saved vacation time. Looking at this opportunity for promotion, assuming it’s going to be used as a stepping stone and I wish to go further, then I also will most likely have to spend three years getting a doctoral degree that will break even seven years later. Ultimately this all means i’d have to work past my early retirement age or the degree is a financial loss for me.
In the public sector there is also an investment in wardrobe. Pretty much from the first layer of management and up representatives of public institutions are typically expected to wear sport coats or suits. If you are a female there are comparable equivalents. I know from personal experience that this can get very expensive as I’ve had to purchase several different sets of clothing as my weight grew and contracted. There are other expenses, such as buying meals for your team which aren’t covered by the organization and other incremental costs or investments too numerous to mention here. The point is the further you go up the chain, the more of that financial benefit can be eaten up. All that being said, it’s easy to see where these costs are justified in the early or mid part of a career. Even if you only achieve a couple of steps up the ladder, you can justify the expense as it will be highly profitable over a forty or fifty year career. In my own case, the additional expenses don’t quite add up.
Now, you could make the argument that I could just stay at one level above where I currently am and then I don’t have to invest in any more education. But there are more costs than just the dollars spent on additional credentials. I touched on quality of life earlier, specifically when it comes to the longer hours you have to put in when you are management. That amounts to taking a quality of life step back to take two steps forward. In my situation it’s especially acute. As a teacher I have tons of time because I still get summers, mostly, off. Virtually every other job outside of teaching, up to and including the supervisor’s role, requires that I work all year with the traditional week long vacation, usually taken in the summer. For me personally, that’s a huge quality of life impact, assuming I’m doing something meaningful with that free time which is a current goal of mine. It’s easy to see where the other instructors wouldn’t want to give that up. Granted, giving up my summers off is not a big deal if I don’t do something with the extended time which I want to implement starting this year.
In the private sector the quality of life impact is substantially different. As I mentioned, In my experience, it usually means you have to be on call 24/7. Often you have to attend formal and informal events both professionally and those of a personal nature, at least those events for your direct reports. You typically have to travel more, often overnight, as there is a geographic scope to the responsibilities of many managers. Sometimes you have to fire good people. I’ve been told that’s almost as bad as getting fired/laid off yourself. Almost.
So why would anyone who doesn’t have an innate competitive nature want to be promoted? Everyone has heard the old idiom that rank has its privileges. The question at hand is if the rank is worth the privileges. I’ve mentioned money and there is no question that there is a substantial positive impact the more you move up the ladder. That being said, money isn’t everything.
I think it’s worth moving up if you want more stability in your job. In my experience the second and third level managers are more ingrained in their positions. They do get laid off on occasion, but barring shocks to the system like private equity buyouts they tend to weather the ups and downs of the business cycles better than individual contributors.
I don’t think taking a promotion is always a good idea if you don’t want to get further than the next step up from an individual contributor. In my own case it’s a wash as there is one position, and only one position, at the college that I think I would enjoy as much as my current job. That position is roughly two steps above me and of course there is no guarantee I’ll get it the next time it becomes available, whenever that may be.
I’m positive it’s not worth taking a promotion if you don’t have the time to climb the next steps. This is a little bit of a gray area as, for the most part, you can always extend your working years if you wish. Even if you work an extra five years there is still the question of your ROI on an education investment. I’m not so sure a PhD or MBA is worth it when you may have 10 years left to work.
The benefits of taking a promotion are exceptionally questionable if the longer term growth is dubious. I know many college instructors who got an EdD but have never gotten promoted. Of course the private sector is a much bigger question mark. You could have a plan, invest in advanced education, work great with your boss, put in your time, and then there is something like a private equity buyout. Next thing you know everyone gets fired. All the degrees in the world can’t change the reality of the great reset switch.
This is a very complex conversation and the decision is unique to each person and situation. Maybe that complexity is why so many people choose to never explore career advancement beyond the job they do. Yes, you can learn and grow individually and financially when you get promoted, but looking at the total picture, there is also a strong possibility that your personal and professional life will be of a higher quality if you stay at the level you are at. For my own part I am undecided if I would take a promotion if it was mine for the asking. I know I most likely will never be able to afford a waterfront vacation home, a life goal of mine, if I stay where I’m at. I also know I can definitely figure out some fun and interesting things that are within my budget to keep me busy during my free summer months. For example, I love to fish, it’s cheap and I’ll have a ton of time in the Summer to do it. I’ll just have to accept that if I don’t wish to get on that space elevator to senior management, I’ll always need to travel a little further to get to the water. I guess fishing is a bit like promotions. Sometimes you catch a big one and it’s a feast for dinner, and other times you catch it and it’s best to just let it go. No matter what you decide, the best part is you can always go fishing again.
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