This past year I was a very proud "Academic Mom" since not only did one of my doctoral students at the Isenberg School of Management receive her PhD and assume an Assistant Professor position (Dr. Min Yu is now at the Pamplin School of Business at the University of Portland in Oregon) but 3 former doctoral students received promotion and tenure -- Dr. Jose M. Cruz is now an Associate Professor at the School of Business at the University of Connecticut in Storrs and also an Ackerman Scholar, Dr. Fuminori Toyasaki is an Associate Professor in the School of Administrative Studies at York University in Toronto, Canada, and Dr. Ke "Grace" Ke is an Associate Professor at the College of Business at Central Washington University.in Ellensburg.
Also, this year, another doctoral student of mine is on the job market and another former one is preparing his dossier for his promotion and tenure case. So, I have a lot of experience both placing doctoral students and also seeing them get promotions and tenure, which is wonderful! Tenure, for the non-academic readers, means that one has a job for life (unless there are some very rare circumstances or one gets into real trouble).
In academia, if one is in a "tenure-track" position and an Assistant Professor, one, typically, comes up for promotion to Associate Professor with tenure in the sixth year. The packet that one prepares has to include research contributions, teaching contributions, and also, usually, service ones.
When it comes to the evaluation of research, outside letters are solicited from those who are deemed knowledgeable to be able to comment on the candidate's research. The person coming up for promotion and tenure is usually asked for a list of names and contact information and then other names are decided upon by the chairman and personnel committee (there may be variants of this process, but this is, more or less, the typical process).
The chairman may request as many as 8-10 names from the candidate.
Now, certain colleges and universities have quite stringent restrictions as to who may be on the list. This is why it is important to start building one's networks shortly after receiving the PhD and assuming the tenure-track Assistant Professor position.
Advisors (dissertation chairs) often are not allowed as outside letter writers and neither are your collaborators or often students who had the same advisor as you did. Oftentimes, one cannot have another faculty member as a letter writer from the same university and college system. Of course, who knows you the best -- those that you have worked closely with (such as your dissertation advisor) and those that you have co-authored papers with (usually members of your doctoral committee also are not appropriate letter writers).
It is important that when you get asked to present such a list that you are not left with an "empty feasible set," meaning that you cannot think of anyone who would be willing to write a letter for you (and, hopefully, the letters will be positive). Usually, the letter writers have to be tenured Associate Professors, if not Full Professors. so they are senior to you. Some colleges and universities do not allow letters from industry (which I find strange since some outstanding research can be done in corporations and if you are a faculty member at a business school having impact in business to me is a plus).
So how does one begin to build a network of individuals that might be willing to write letters for you once it is time for promotion and tenure? Every year I get asked to write such letters and enjoy doing the evaluations.
Clearly, if you have published regularly in a journal and have also refereed and done a great job, then having an Editor or Associate Editor of a journal that is familiar with your work as a possible letter writer is an excellent possibility. Also, if you have contributed to edited volumes of books or special issues of a journal, then the cognizant Editor may be willing to write a letter for you. Also, those whose work you cite in your papers and who know you and your work are also natural ones to evaluate your research. Now, another challenge is that some schools forbid you to contact the prospective letter writers beforehand so you should have sufficient "good will" that when you suggest a name that person will not only know you but will be an enthusiastic letter writer for you.
It is important to be active not only in writing papers and getting them published but also in talking about your work at conferences and seminars. Be willing to organize sessions at conferences and do speak to people at conferences so that they become familiar with your work. Do let others know about your research and papers and do your best in being visible in a positive way, of course.
To all those undergoing promotion & tenure this year, best of luck, and to those who have a ways to go, I hope that this post is helpful.