Intentionally Over-Qualified

You can approach a job in one of two ways:

1) Do the minimum expected to not get fired.

2) Do the maximum possible and massively exceed what’s expected.

Keep this thought in mind for a few seconds as I introduce a different concept (then integrate the two).

There are two ways to think about a promotion:

1) "Promote me, and I'll step up my performance after I get promoted."

2) Step up your performance before you ever get promoted.

These two concepts are very much linked.

If you do the minimum expected, by definition you won’t step up your performance unless you get promoted.

From your employer's point of view, you’re a high-risk promotion.

If you’re promoted, your employer has no idea how you will perform. You’re a risk.

The other approach involves doing the maximum possible and massively exceeding what’s expected.

In this approach, by definition, you end up stepping up your performance before there’s ever any discussion of a promotion.

From your employer’s point of view, promoting you is low risk.

Your employer already knows how you’ll perform after the promotion because you’re already doing it.

In this case, the promotion really just formalizes a transition that has already taken place informally.

Recently I hosted another office hours session for members of my Inner Circle mentorship group.

I received a number of questions about how to ask for a promotion or raise.

Initially, I was struggling with how to best answer the question.

When I thought about it, it occurred to me that I’ve never actually ever asked my employers for a promotion or a raise.

In every case, they gave me one or the other or both without my ever asking.

In the years I worked for others, I averaged a promotion every 12 to 18 months and received annual raises from 15% to 50%.

(This occurred at McKinsey, a public company in industry, and a private company in industry.)

Looking back, I realized that I subscribed to the approach of doing the maximum possible.

At the time, I wasn’t doing so in order to get a promotion or raise.

I never strategized about either of these because I was too busy strategizing how to do a better job, improve the performance of my department, or help the company succeed.

I did the maximum possible for one very selfish reason.

It was the fastest way to learn and improve my business skills.

I was successful in growing my skills; the promotions and raises were simply a byproduct of that.

(Incidentally, this approach works best when you work for a growing company in a growing industry.

Taking a “good" job in a shrinking industry or a declining company is extremely risky.)

It’s fine to plan your career targeting promotions and raises.

However, don’t forget that at some point you must also grow your skills to sustain a career-long trajectory of promotions and raises.

In short, better skills matter... a lot.

Additional Resources

If you found this article useful and want to receive more articles like it, sign up to receive approximately two articles each week by email. Just fill out the form below:

First Name *
Email *

This form collects your name and email so that we can add you to our newsletter list on How to Live and Amazing Life. Check out our privacy policy for details on how we protect and manage your submitted data!


4 comments… add one
  • Nevena Feb 28, 2018, 11:20 pm

    Hi Victor – hope this message finds you well. I just want to start by saying that I love reading your writing – I am not in consulting industry, but I find a lot of your advice very applicable to general
    career success and navigation. I agree with the message of your note completely. I think that hard work, skill improvement, passion and strong work ethics go really, really long way (much more than just words). However, one thing that I couldn’t relate to is when you mentioned that you never asked for a raise or promotion (and given your evident expertise, it’s clear how that happened). What I have encountered, and what many (if not all) of my female mentors and friends (in different firms and industries) encountered as well is that, as a woman, you need to be incredibly vocal about what you want, and even sometimes
    when you are, it’s not enough to get to the next step. Not because of anyone’s bad intentions, but due to various natural dynamics, perception often seems to be reality in life due to our unconscious biases (among other things) and that seems to be a limiting factor to many women and other minorities in corporate environment. You can control them and navigate them to the certain extent, but I feel that you have to be vocal about your aspirations and needs. This is
    really not something negative about your article, I did enjoy it, but just sharing some food for thoughts, and pointing out that there might be slightly different side of the equation. If you ever get a chance to write about this aspect in more detail, I would definitely love to read about it. Thank you.

    • Victor Cheng Mar 22, 2018, 3:49 am

      Hi Nevena,

      I think I’ve been either lucky, the beneficiary of male privilege, or both. There are two reasons to work hard.

      1) To improve your skills (which increases your potential market value)

      2) To create value for others

      3) To capture a portion of the value you’ve created for others.

      I agree with your statement that in many cases it is important to be vocal about #3. My main point (but I perhaps didn’t clarify this enough) is that if you only do #3 without doing #1 or #2, that’s not ideal.

      Far easier to create lots of value for others AND ask for it, than to simply be vocal without creating any value first.


  • Tony D Feb 21, 2018, 10:50 pm

    Victor – It seems you are very much into hyper-meritocracy, but Prof. Pfeffer at Stanford GSB has amassed a large body of empirical evidence suggesting that promotion and performance are quite often unrelated. We all know stories of people being unfairly passed over and vice versa. How do you account for that?!…

    • Victor Cheng Feb 26, 2018, 1:00 am

      Hi Tony,

      It was great to see you in person last week. I’ll repeat my answer here for the benefit of others.

      The reason to over deliver is for two reasons:

      1) It improves your skills
      2) It increases your market value

      It is true that the most qualified person isn’t always promoted by a single manager. When your skill level increases, your performance track record exceeds your peers, your ability to get higher paying jobs from a company — not necessarily your company — increases.

      It is very hard to progress in one’s career over the long run without a commensurate progression in skills. There are multiplier effects that can amplify or diminish one’s chances of promotions outside of solely the ability to do the job. For example, who you know can amplify your career progress temporarily more than your skill level alone would indicate. However, at some point, you have to deliver.

      As I’ve said to others, it’s not just getting the promotion but getting it and keeping it that matters.

      Michael Jordan didn’t start practicing basketball after he was voted the Most Valuable Player in the NBA multiple years running, he practiced before.

      Olympic Gold Medalists in sports with human judges don’t practice their sport after they win Gold, they practice before.

      Similarly most fast rising stars in industry don’t develop their skills after they progress; most do so before hand.

      I will be the first to acknowledge that there can be a time lag between when you develop your skills versus when you get rewarded for it. That said, you can’t go wrong by delivering greater and greater value to more and more people.

      (We can talk about value capture on a different day; but for now just create more value).


Leave a Comment