There is no guarantee that having embarked on the journey toward “MD-ship” that one will make it. That having been said, sometimes you just have to be patient. If you are given bad news, then the key is to understand why and what it takes to get there. Make sure you get clear and honest feedback about how the organisation sees you, and particularly whether they see you as Managing Director material.

There are three categories of feedback you can get:

1.  You are seen as MD material and it is a question of “when, not if.”

This is the “least worst” news and, at the same time, among the most frustrating messages to receive. It means you are “close, but no cigar.” This was the case for me the first time I was up for promotion to Managing Director, and the “when, not if” terminology was coined by my division head.

(As an aside, if he weren’t so senior and plugged in, I would have done more due diligence to make sure that this was the broadly held view at senior levels. I probably should have done so anyway, but I was lucky and it worked out in the end. In any case, make sure you hear what you need to hear from more than one senior source, but do so gracefully and without offending your boss or sponsor.)

When asked what I needed to do to get there next year, he told me to stay focused and “keep knocking the cover off the ball.” After a good sulk over the Christmas break, I did as he advised, and also enlisted his help and that of my other mentors over the next year to help stay on track. This paid off and I was promoted the next year.

2.  You are heading in the right direction, but have some things to work on

In this scenario, it is crucial to understand what you are missing as well as what you are doing well. The adage of “accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative,” comes to mind. It is also possible that you are in a role that is not seen as an MD role, in which case you need to make a move. Again, enlist help in addressing these points and either working toward being seen as MD material where you are, or getting into the right business role for you to have a real shot.

3.  You are unlikely ever to be promoted to MD

This is the trickiest category because very few senior people will ever say those demotivating words to an employee. Yet, it is important to know, “am I wasting my time?” Truth hurts, but then you can move on.

If this is the message, then you have some decisions to make. First, is it true and do you agree? If it is true, do you leave and go to a firm with a better fit, or stay and address your shortcomings? If you stay, do you find another role within the firm for which you are better suited, or carry on where you are and either keep trying to change their minds, or accept that you have probably topped out? Finally, is this a role in which you can stay without progressing, or do you risk losing your seat one day in an “up or out” type scenario?

What is the right thing to do?

I have seen different people react in different ways, and collectively they have made all of the possible choices listed above in relation to not being promoted. This is a very personal decision and one that requires a level-headed approach rather than a rash reaction. Whatever you decide, it makes sense to maintain your contacts with the search firm world to keep your options open, and to refrain from burning your bridges with your current firm.

At the end of the day, you have to weigh up the options and realise that you really do have many. It is also important to understand that it is well and truly a marathon, not a sprint. Unless you are in a private partnership with an IPO coming up in the near future and except for your ego, it really matters very little whether you are promoted this year or next year, as long as you know you are on the right track and that you have the support of the firm.

Like everyone else, I was in agony over seeking promotion, being passed over my first year, and then having to gear up all over again. It was only after I made it to MD that I realised ultimately, the timing made little real difference. Faster is not necessarily better. After five years, when asked to provide a bio for an upcoming speech, I even had to check the paperwork to be sure of the exact year when I was promoted! But if you are like I was, you won’t believe this until you experience it for yourself, and I very much hope that you will.

Keep it in perspective

Promotion to MD is a great goal and a hard-earned achievement. But remember that once you get there, the work truly begins. And the bottom rung of the next ladder is undeniably risky.

When I was up for promotion, a colleague in firm management did an informal calculation of the average tenure of an MD and found that it was only 2.4 years. Granted, that was more than a decade ago and we were not shown the data behind the calculation. Nonetheless, it was a sobering statistic.

As one of my first bosses said, “be careful what you wish for, sometimes you might just get it.” So, when you ultimately make MD, congratulate yourself, but realise that new MDs must quickly learn to justify their existence at an even higher level.