If you are a Microsoft engineer, you are receiving your annual rewards around now. You might be wondering why you didn't get the promotion you sought or why someone else did. If you ask your manager why, she'll provide insightful feedback and might name several reasons. Among the most common and misunderstood reasons is that you need to be more visible. Having seen yourself in the mirror for years, you might question the veracity of this explanation. Your manager would clarify that more people, particularly your manager's peers and their managers, need to be aware of you and your work.
"Hold on! Isn't doing great work enough?" No, it isn't. "But my work should speak for itself!" Yeah, but it's drowned out by everyone else's great work. Managers stand in the middle of a crowd, with everyone proclaiming their work. Your great work is speaking, but it could use more visibility.
"How the heck do I make myself and my work more visible--hire a publicist?" You don't need a publicist, but as you rise to higher levels in your career, you do need to engage more people with your work, particularly managers beyond your own. "How do I do that? I'm a workhorse, not a show horse." That's a good thing; there's no need to be dramatic or grandiose. However, you might need to get outside your comfort zone in a different way.
I am a rock. I am an island.
Many engineers aren't looking to attract management attention. That kind of attention is often associated with disciplinary action, constraints, or other hassles. Engineers would rather get things done and let their work speak for itself.
Involving management can feel like self-promotion or asking for help. You may feel self-promotion is for shmucks and that asking for help is declaring you're unqualified at the very time you're seeking a promotion. Plus, you may feel you don't need the assistance, so why ask for it and all the autonomy-killing direction and obligation that comes with it?
You certainly can handle your current assignments and scope on your own. You've mastered your current role--that's why you believe you're ready for a promotion. However, your management believes you need to be more visible, which makes you feel slimy, incompetent, and burdened. Something is out of whack: your approach to being visible. Until you change your mindset, you're not ready for a promotion.
The tip of the iceberg
Mastering your current role is grounds for nice rewards and continued employment--not grounds for a promotion. To get promoted you need to show you can handle the role that's a level above you. A higher-level role means broader scope and independence (for new college hires, independence comes first). Broader scope and independence require involving management across teams, not because you can't handle the role, but because you are handling it by involving the right people, gaining appropriate authority and air cover, and collaborating effectively across boundaries.
"But I've already involved everyone necessary on my current projects." Of course you have. You're good at your current projects at your current scope. However, you're seeking a promotion. That means you need to expand your scope.
"But I haven't been given the opportunity to work on broader projects. I need a bigger role and title to do so." That's garbage. As I discuss in Opportunity in a gorilla suit, you are awash in broader projects. There are so many that they are hard to see. Rather than find a new one, let's focus on your current projects.
Each of your current projects is part of a larger area and a deeper strategy. Each could be expanded technically (broader applicability or scale), tactically (greater consolidation and reuse), and strategically (broader service or customer base). The only things holding back the scope of these projects are your imagination and willingness to engage others beyond your current comfort level.
For more on levels and promotions, read Level up.
Don't sell yourself short
When you expand the scope of your current and upcoming projects, you'll need to engage teams beyond those who know you. You could do so quietly, avoiding exposure to management and sticking with individual engineers. However, the broader your project, the riskier it is to arrange work without management consent. Failure soon follows, and while you'll want to blame the "bureaucracy" that shut you down, the truth is that the cause of your downfall was your unwillingness to engage teams officially and gain agreement.
When you work across teams--agreeing on plans, dependencies, rough timelines, and commitment--you naturally engage managers beyond your own. They get to know you, see how effectively you work, and can remark on your accomplishments. Sure, that's not why you do it, but come promotion time, those managers come in handy.
Get out of your comfort zone. Consider the broader impact your current and future projects could have. Reach out across teams to make progress on your goals. Negotiate and compromise. You'll get credit for making your projects successful even if (and often because) others do the work. Engage managers at all levels to support your efforts and escalate issues when needed. Doing so is hard at first, but it gets easier. By the time you've mastered it, your sought-after promotion will be a foregone conclusion.
For more on negotiation, read "My way or the highway" (chapter 8). For more on talking to vice presidents, read The VP-geebees. For more on strategic thinking, read Lead, follow, or get out of the way and Solving the whole problem.