You might be in a strange position in your career where you hope to get a promotion soon, but the company seems like have no option for you. They have no new positions for your dream role. This new role can be any kind of leadership. Probably, you may know by now that giving someone the title "senior" is not bound to open positions but rather the experience, impact, and skills. Yet, staff engineering or engineering management, tech lead, and team lead roles—additionally—bound to open positions, headcount, and company's needs. Each software engineering team has various senior, mid-level, and junior engineers, but they have one leader (or two when the tech lead and team lead co-exist). Getting that position is not that easy.
If you and your manager feel ready for your promotion, but the company is unwilling to promote you or has no open space, what should you do?
First, I've been there too, and you're not alone. I felt so alone and hopeless at that time. These situations are not easy to handle and cause a lot of stress. When we're stressed, our judgment and decision-making also get impacted. Hence, we make wrong calls. Overall, just know that you aren't alone; you're part of a big crowd.
So, if you're considering leaving the company because they have no options for you, can you find a leading role in another company without being a leader or have no official leader title?
The short answer: Yes, but it isn't easy.
Why is it difficult?
The answer is simple: companies don't want to take risks for leadership roles because the result can be catastrophic for the team and business.
Hiring someone always has a certain amount of risk. When the new hire is not experienced in the role, this risk is more significant. The person might be knowledgeable about leadership (technical and/or people). Still, knowledge does not represent reality, and application of the knowledge—what we call experience—is the real trait in leadership. And that's also what they ask you in interviews as well.
In leadership interviews, you get behavioral questions besides technical questions. Companies test your technical skills and leadership skills separately. You may be familiar with technical interviews and can succeed well because of your knowledge and experience. But when it comes to leadership interviews, companies ask you to talk about your concrete experiences in specific topics.
You might be knowledgeable or have an idea about what to do in certain situations, but they are interested in what you have done before. If you have relative experience in which you can relate to the question, you can give them some good answers. That's what I've done as well. When I was interviewing for an Engineering Manager role before becoming a manager, I already had relative experience mentoring and coaching people and driving projects from start to finish. I used these experiences in the STAR method, which helped me get an offer.
Recommendation: To answer their behavioral questions, always use the STAR method. Define the Situation you have been in, explain your Task in the situation, which Actions you took and what was the Result of them. If you lean on the "if this happens, I will do that" style, that shows a lack of experience. If you don't have the experience, try to build that experience or talk about something related but be honest that you don't have direct experience.
Whether you can get a promotion via changing jobs or not depends on what kind of person the company you're applying to is looking for. If they have an experienced VP or Head of Engineering or Engineering Manager who can coach and guide you, the company might be okay with hiring a junior leader. However, they will still look for relevant experience. Hence, you have to gain that experience.
If you're in between looking for a new job in another company and waiting for your current company to promote you, I would suggest you approach it pragmatically.
What is the realistic timeline you see for getting promoted in your current job? If the company believes that you're ready for a job promotion, but they have no budget or position open, for how long you most likely will wait? Is there anyone else looking for the same role? Do you have any competition? Write these down along with your possible compensation changes. Validate them with your manager. They might not disclose compensation details, but you can still ask if the numbers you have in mind are in the ballpark or not.
Meanwhile, start applying to open positions in other companies. Don't hesitate. These processes often take time. The earlier you start, the better situation you will find yourself in. Each interview will teach you where you lack the experience. Also, interviewing is a skill that improves with practice. More interviews ➡ better interviewing skills.
If the promotion process takes at least another year, don't hold onto that and look for something else. You might still be in the same company for a year more during the transition, but once you start looking, you might find a good opportunity. While looking for another job, seek opportunities that help you build leadership experience. Soak all the knowledge you can get from your current employer and convert this knowledge into wisdom that will guide you in your future.
As I mentioned, I got an engineering manager offer from another company when I was a software engineer. I didn't accept that job offer for various reasons. But I'm a living example that it can be done. In the next Mektup, I will talk about what I have done to get an offer without being a manager before and how I built the experience and skills to get a good offer.