How to reach the director level

5 steps for going from manager to director, according to a Leadership and L&D strategist.

Cartoon image of an excited woman at work who just got a promotion to the director level

If you've been a manager for a while, you may be feeling ready for new challenges, more responsibility, and frankly, a bigger salary. If you have your eye on director-level roles, here are five steps to help you level up from manager to director.

Step 1. Be sure that being a director is actually something you want (at this point in time).

The grass isn't always greener in the corner office, so it's essential that you understand what you'd be taking on.

Are you familiar with the director roles at your company, and how they differ from manager and other roles? As a director, you're responsible for:

  • Understanding tactics,
  • Managing managers (not just individual contributors),
  • Goal setting, long and short-term planning,
  • Solving problems with processes and procedures,
  • And much more!

If you're ready for director-level responsibility and to be taking steps at work that go beyond day-to-day tasks, becoming a director might be the right challenge for you. (And of course, if you have ambitions of one day reaching the C-Suite, then reaching the director level is an essential stepping stone.)

Take a look at the current workload of the directors at your company, and ask yourself a few important questions:

  • Is the work appealing to you?
  • Is the workload sustainable?
  • Do directors tend to stay at the company for a while, or is there a revolving door for these roles?

If folks at your company make their calendars public, taking a look at some directors' calendars is an easy way to get a sense for this, but you should also chat with the directors you’re closest to in order to get a better sense for what they do (if you haven't done this already).

Then, take inventory of your personal life. No matter what the role is, a new position can be stressful to transition into, especially in the first 90 days. Would the timing of a promotion and a new workload be good for you at this point in time?

Step 2. Talk to a mentor or sponsor (ideally with director-level experience).

A mentorwith director experience in a similar industry and role is a great resource to utilize before talking to your boss about a promotion. Your mentor can walk you through the steps they took to get to the director level and help guide you down the same path. There may be some industry-specific classes or conferences they would recommend, for instance, that can help you fine-tune your skills.

A sponsoris someone who works at the same company as you who can vouch for you and get you more opportunities before you go after the promotion. A sponsor can get you onto committees and into meetings where your voice can make a difference, and can even speak with your boss about you moving up.

Step 3. Take on more responsibility, and start talking with the right people.

Start by talking to your manager about wanting more leadership opportunities or project responsibilities. You don't have to tell them you’re looking for a promotion at this point, but a candid conversation about wanting to contribute more will show them that you have initiative and send the message that you're looking for new challenges.

By taking on new responsibilities at the same time you're already crushing your existing tasks, you'll be better equipped to make your case that you’re ready for more when the time comes to ask for a promotion.

If your manager doesn't have anything lined up for you to take on, look within your department (or company) to see if there are any task forces, committees, ERGs, or other initiatives that you can become involved with. If there aren’t any, you could even consider starting one. Some ideas include:

Step 4. Step up your skill set.

If you have the bandwidth, this is an excellent time to strengthen the skills you need to be a dynamite director. Think of some skills that would help you be a better asset as a director. You can take classes online, join webinars, go to conferences or even pick up books to help you become a subject-matter expert.

A lot of companies have a budget for continuing education, so be sure to ask your manager if they can foot the bill for new training and tools that will help you become an even better asset to the company.

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Step 5. Ask for the promotion.

Now it's time to have the talk with the powers-that-be about becoming a director. But remember, you've already done all the hard work! You:

  • Checked in with yourself to make sure this role is right for you,
  • Stepped out of your comfort zone by getting help from a mentor and/or sponsor to help you elevate from manager to director, and
  • Developed more skills and took on more responsibilities.

Be sure to make an official appointment with your manager; don't leave this as an agenda point at the end of a one-on-one. Allocate about 30-45 minutes to really talk things through, and put it on their calendar. Make sure that this is good timing both for your boss and also for your department (i.e., avoid right before your boss leaves for/returns from vacation or when things are especially chaotic at work).

Now that you have the timing right, you need to make your case. Clearly and concisely, you are going to want to explain:

  • Why you want the position,
  • The steps you've taken to prepare to get there, and
  • Why you are the right fit for the role.

A few important pointers:

1. Avoid using the length of time that you've been there as leverage for a promotion.

You don't get a promotion just because you are loyal; you get it because you've proven you can take on more, so focus on that.

2. Be sure to have done your homework about the salary.

Know the range you would be comfortable with and do your research to make sure you're in the right ballpark.

3. Keep the company or department budget and any current challenges in mind.

If there is any kind of financial struggle, there’s a chance that this conversation may not go your way — and especially as someone trying to make the case that you're ready for the director level, you’re expected to demonstrate an accurate, realistic understanding of where the company is currently at. (In other words, asking for a significant pay increase days after a mass layoff may not read well.)

4. Make sure you’re familiar with your company’s internal promotion procedures.

And finish by clarifying what the next steps are.

5. Just like an interview, remember that this is only a professional conversation.

While this may be a great opportunity, it's not the only one out there, so release the pressure of feeling like this decision holds your future in its hands.

If for some reason the answer is a “no,” you can take all of your growth and sweet new skills to another company that would love to have you. Or you can take the "no" as a learning opportunity and ask what else you can do to be considered for a director-level role in the next six months; remember, "no" doesn't mean "never!"

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