It doesn’t feel very good to find out you didn’t get promoted, whatever the seniority level. It’s natural to wonder, “Is this a sign? Am I remedial? Do I have what it takes? Is it me or is it them?”

If this happens to you at an early stage, such as going from Associate to Vice President, then the most important thing from a career management standpoint (aside from regaining your equilibrium) is to find out what the true message is and determine if you are in the right place for your brilliant career. It is a time when you are entitled to some honest feedback, so treat it as a well-timed ‘wake-up call’ and make the most of this opportunity to make an honest assessment and get accurate feedback. The good news is that it is easier to make mid-course corrections at the earlier stages of your career than leaving it until later on.

The earlier on in your career that you get this ‘wake up call,’ the more likely that it’s an indicator that the current situation is not the best fit for you. Promotion hurdles get progressively higher as one becomes more senior, so not making VP in the regular promotion timescale should give you more pause than not making MD the first time around.

However, none of this is written in stone, and you have to figure out what it means in your specific situation

Before you jump to conclusions, here are some action steps to consider:

  • Assess for yourself:
    • Who else did/did not get promoted? How do you stack up as a candidate on a relative basis? Note that even if you can understand why you didn’t make the list, it is still important to express your disappointment, and to let them know that you are looking to redouble your efforts but need them to guide you as to how you need to improve.
    • Are there successful senior people who did not make VP right away?
    • Are you in the right place (i.e., industry, business unit, function, company)? Are you in a place where your best capabilities can be put to use and valued? Are you in a role where you can shine? Is this what you love to do?
  • Talk to your boss:
    • What is the reason for the decision?
    • What does it mean for your career: Are you viewed as future promotion material? Is it a question of “when, not if”? Are you in a role from which you can be promoted?
    • What do you need to do to position yourself for next year: Are there specific skills you need to develop or experiences you need to gain? Are there particular groups or people who need to become familiar with your abilities and made into supporters? Weaknesses to address?
  • Get the advice of your mentors on the above.
  • Position yourself for next year if the conclusion is that this is the right place for you.
  • Stay positive: this is about your job, not your life or your value as a person.

The key is to find the place where you can shine. If you are in it already and simply need to keep going, then go for it. Nonetheless, keep in mind that it is always good to create multiple options by maintaining your external network, even as you develop your internal support base.

If you conclude that your current role is not a good long-term fit for you, then it is time to begin the process of finding one for which you are better suited. Be patient as you explore avenues and resist the temptation to make sudden moves.

In the meantime, continue to do your best where you are and don’t burn any bridges, no matter how satisfying it may feel in the near-term. The world is highly connected these days and it is in your interest to make the reputation that precedes you a positive one.