Skip to content

The Understated Leader: Part Three

There are hidden gems in all our organizations. They are the people who consistently do great work, play well with others, ask good questions and listen attentively. What they don’t do is make a lot of noise. That is not part of their DNA. It’s a shame that those horn blowers suck up our attention. We end up missing out on amazing stuff happening all around us.

I’ve written here https://getrealleadership.com/2014/12/22/the-understanded-leader-contd/ and here  https://getrealleadership.com/2013/09/03/a-great-example-of-an-understated-leader/ about The Understated Leader in the past. This is a low ego, highly collaborative and not flashy person who is productive and admired. For this post I want to focus on two key strengths these folks have that all organizations need so much more of: leading effective teams and facilitating innovation.

Take a look around your organization and identify those teams that work especially well. They are energized, flexible and crank out good results. You see the members collaborating easily, laughing and getting down to business. They are proud of small and big wins and examine setbacks. What would you say about the formal leader of this type of team? What behaviors do you observe?

Understated leaders tend to manage teams by:

  • Guiding rather than directing or inserting themselves
  • Assuming the collective skills and knowledge of the members will get the job done
  • Being a resource rather than a driver
  • Asking loads of questions to draw out the ideas of the members
  • Facilitating team feedback and reflection
  • Deferring praise away from self and onto the team

These leaders have a fundamental belief that the best work gets done through teams of people. They coach members about how to work well together and are reluctant to intervene when things get jammed up. They value both the interpersonal skills required to collaborate as well as the improved problem solving and outcomes when more heads are in the game.

Shift focus now to how creativity and innovation take place at your organization. Are there people with special roles for that job? Is everyone responsible for it? Are some leaders more prone to new ideas and new ways of doing things while others take the “if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it” approach? Does innovation happen unexpectedly or is it baked into the way the business is conducted? Are some staff frustrated with the lack of invention while others feel constant pressure to be creative?

When it comes to Understated Leaders, you will often see them approach innovation in these ways:

  • Challenge teams to go further, push the envelope, anticipate what happens down the road
  • Look for the best answers and input rather than the easiest or quickest or cheapest one
  • Anticipate people’s responses to the new thing and plan for the transition
  • Entrust teams to solve big issues rather than select one or two subject matter experts
  • Tap people from across and up and down the organization to invent something new or solve problems
  • Pose challenging questions for the team to address rather than take over the process

Much like their point of view about teams, these leaders know from repeated experience that answers to tough issues do not start and stop with themselves. They may feel ultimately accountable but they do not feel that they alone can solve the problem or identify what the next new thing should be. They are adept at framing the challenge, encouraging expanded thinking and new inputs and helping the team reflect on what is/is not working.

Clearly, leading teams and leading innovation require similar skill sets. And Understated Leaders are particularly proficient in these areas. It is this humble, engaging, facilitative and challenging style that works so well.

But what do you see when you look around your organization at the state of both team work and innovation? Probably a smattering of Understated Leaders but mostly more traditional leaders. I define traditional leaders as: out front, take charge, results driven, declarative statements, direction setting, strong presence. You know, the stuff we all read about in the management literature. There is a time and a place for traditional leadership, that’s for sure. But when it comes to teams and innovation, a very different style is more effective.

And here is where the rub is. We pay way more attention to traditional leaders than we do to the quieter ones. Both may raise their hands but we gravitate towards the noise. Both may get results but a closer look will usually reveal a more productive process and more stimulated and enabled staff with the Understated Leader. Both leaders may praise their teams’ accomplishments but only one will do that without ever using the word “I”.

For those of you who are in the position to dole out great assignments, I urge you to open your eyes and ears to the folks all around you who are not tooting their own horns. Listen to what staff say about working with various leaders. Pay attention to the level of engagement and enthusiasm or pressure and anxiety staff feel. Look under the hood of the reported results; make sure you blow away all the smoke and mirrors to see what is really there.

Rather than always gravitating towards the obvious shiny objects take a chance on the more hidden luminous assets.

 

Is It Caution, Resistance or Differences? Reactions to Change

Why does one person rejoice and another one feel dread when change is afoot? Why does a leader drag his heels while the staff is pushing for change? Why does a team stage a revolt when a new leader comes on board? Why do some people just sit back and hope to wait out the latest initiative?

Few things will evoke more “stupid human tricks” than responding to change efforts. Most of us are wired to feel cozy with homeostasis; it mirrors our biological imperative. Our companies, however, have a knack for upsetting that balance. That sets off our own idiosyncratic reactions. Understanding some typical patterns in ourselves and those we lead can help us figure out how to interpret and manage the dynamics.

Which category do you fit in? What about your staff?

  • “The CEO just doesn’t understand.” These people have usually been around for awhile and have done a thorough factor analysis to point out that a) this is not cost effective or b) it will damage the business or c) people will get hurt or confused or disengaged or a whole host of other terrible things. If only the leader had consulted more people (sic. ME) then s/he would clearly understand that this is a very bad idea.
  • “I respectfully disagree.” A variation on the first group, these are objective thinkers with low ego needs. They have studied the situation and simply have a different opinion about the best course forward. They may actually welcome some parts of the change but their problem solving brains lead down different tributaries and they believe their analysis is a stronger one.
  • “We’re fine as we are.” Leaders and/or staff exclaim that there is nothing to see here, everything is going fantastically well and no change is necessary. These are people who struggle to absorb the facts on the ground; poor earnings, market loss, dissatisfied customers and other relevant metrics. Like an ostrich, they prefer their heads in the sand.
  • “You’ve got to be friggin’ kidding!!” Open hostility with a tinge of self righteousness and arrogance; always a fun crowd to deal with. This is not the same as push back, which is more polite and rational. These folks get nasty and make this personal although it is often hard to know exactly why that is. Where does that rage come from?
  • “Yippee! This will be so fun.” Thank the heavens for those who truly enjoy changing things up. They often see the benefit of doing things differently, like learning new stuff and have a view that if you aren’t changing then you aren’t keeping ahead of the pack. They are not just early adopters; they are flexible, open minded and adventurous.
  • “My mouth says yes but the rest of me says no way.” Most people fit into this category. They want to be good sports and have some appreciation for the rationale for change but they struggle mightily to get comfortable with it. They would rather stay in their comfort zones and don’t like the unsteadiness that comes with doing new things. They take one step forward and two steps back as they slowly inch themselves towards inevitable disruption.
  • “Please leave me alone.” If I just ignore this, maybe it will go away. These are often more introverted folks who focus on self mastery. Imposed changes upset their ecosystems and they can become semi-paralyzed. They keep doing their work but resist the change until they realize there is no choice.

As you can see, some people are more cautious or uncomfortable with change. Others can’t get enough of it while some prefer to ignore it altogether. Some people have a different rational opinion while others are just emotional spewers. As leaders, we are quick to lump everyone together and label it resistance but that isn’t accurate. Simpler, yes, but not correct.

If we see everyone as resistant, we will just use the hammer. But we can’t take out 20 different tools so we don’t just see all those nails. I suggest that leaders do three things across the board that will address the needs of this cast of characters.

  • Acknowledge differences right up front. You are launching a new organization structure. In your initial communications (and for the first few months of implementation) speak about the range of reactions you expect from enthusiasm to skepticism to complete disagreement. Tell the staff there is room for all these emotions because each person has a unique way of integrating new behaviors and arrangements. That’s okay. You want people to remain professional and civil so any venting or feedback needs to be delivered with positive intentions of supporting the movement forward. We humans want to know that we are not invisible; that our thoughts or feelings are heard. Signal that you do and you will hear them.
  • Explain the Why repeatedly. Most leaders breeze over this in favor of getting into the What details. Sure, each of us wants to know What is changing for me. But we are more likely to withstand the discomfort of change if we have a clear understanding about Why we are being asked to do this. (“Because I said so” does not work well with adults.) If the leader lays out what threats or challenges or opportunities are at the door and Why we need to act now, most people will agree even if they might disagree on this specific plan.
  • Don’t tolerate saboteurs. There will always be a small group of people who will act badly to undermine the success of the change effort. It might look passive aggressive or overt. It might be an individual or an angry cabal. We all know who those folks are and we have difficulty gauging how much real power they have to tear things apart. But we know we can’t stand being in the same room with them. As leaders, we must cut these people off. They need to know they must play nice or else. And you need to follow through on the “or else”. This is when a hammer is appropriate.

We can’t be all things to all people in our organizations. But we can give voice to the normal, human responses to change. It doesn’t matter if I’m slow as molasses and grumpy and you are quick and happy about it. In the end, the change will take place. It’s just that some of us will get there sooner and with less commotion than the rest of us.

How To Stay Clean In A Toxic Environment

Your boss is a nut case. Or your team is dysfunctional. Or your department is at the bottom of the heap. You can smell the stench all around you. It may be easy for you to point to others and their deficiencies but eventually people in the company will assume you are guilty by association. Is it possible to remain above the fray? If so, how can you emerge untouched by the dirt?

Amy joined the marketing department while it was still in transition. It was widely known that the group was broken, dysfunctional and avoided as much as possible. Samir was brought in as CMO with the mandate to fix the team and the function as soon as possible. Amy was one of his first new hires. He told her that the department was in turnaround mode and her skills and attitude would help shape the future. She was up for the challenge because she admired the company and felt that she and Samir were on the same page.

As the newbie, Amy was courted by all the splinter groups. The Back Stabbers couldn’t wait to tell Amy all kinds of crappy things about team members. The Never Ever Samir posse trash talked their boss with a vengeance. The Hallway Whisperers were hellbent on sharing every innuendo without any evidence to back it up. Amy felt dizzy from all the lobbying to join forces with one of these factions. She had moments when she was drawn to this one or that one but her shit detector told her to stay away.

Her resolve to remain detached from these cliques isolated Amy. She struggled to get the cooperation she needed to get her work done and she sensed that she was a target for the underground slams. She considered whether or not to discuss this with Samir but decided not to take that route.

Here is what Amy did instead.

  • Turned her attention to the internal customers. If the marketing function was broken she was going to demonstrate what a talented and responsive partner looked like. She worked closely with the key internal folks to understand their needs and to find clever ways to deliver on her promises. If she couldn’t get the assigned graphic designer to cooperate, she found newer and less tainted ones. If she couldn’t get all the sign offs she needed, she acted anyway and used the customer’s delight to justify her bending of the rules.
  • Made allies with less divisive team members. No matter what the reporting relationships were, Amy reached out to some hidden gems in the department. These were people who did not have a power base or loud voices so they were often ignored. Short of creating a shadow organization, Amy was able to get some remarkable work products done for the customers.
  • Established a “no trash” zone around herself. When she was with internal customers and they wanted to gossip about the marketing folks, she shut it down. When team mates wandered into her office to share the latest dust up, she shut it down. When peers around the building wanted to get the inside scoop, she shut it down. It became a no-win for people who wanted to engage Amy in the bullshit so they stopped trying.
  • Kept tight boundaries in her discussions with Samir. When he asked for feedback about the bad apples, she never offered generic impressions or hearsay. She stuck to her own experiences and described the specific behaviors she encountered. She suggested that Samir get HR involved to gather additional feedback so that people could be more open and the process could be more objective.

Taking this approach, you can probably guess how things turned out for Amy and the department. Yes, she emerged as the go-to person for the internal customers. Yes, the less visible and under-utilized team members began to rise to the surface. Yes, the evil doers were marginalized. They were forced to change their ways or be fired. Samir spent several months having one-on-one discussions with these folks (with help from HR) and two-thirds left the organization. As they were departing, new people were brought on board. And, yes, Amy was eventually promoted.

It is very tough to navigate a toxic environment. Find people who are not crazy or harmful and get the work done with them. In spite of the challenges, be the shining example. Above all, find and strictly adhere to your moral compass. You will be recognized as the exception and will become a magnet for the right stuff. Setting yourself apart from the nuts turns up the contrast on them. And that will be a good thing for you.

Making The Hard Choice: A Profile in Courage

Sometimes it’s not about a perfect leader. Someone who excels at inspiration, has a grand vision, challenges everyone to do great things and all those other wonderful traits we all want in our leaders. Sometimes it just comes down to doing what is right and difficult even when you don’t know if or how it will work out. Sometimes it’s just about seeing the problem and having the courage to jump into the deep end and hoping for the best.

Dahlia is one of those leaders. She is the CEO of a mid-sized nonprofit with a mission to effect legislation and policies pertaining to early childhood education. She is passionate about the work and has successfully influenced state and federal laws and funding. When it comes to running the organization, she is a thoughtful and solid leader but no one would say she sets their world on fire. She is well aware of her shortcomings and has worked hard to develop new skills.

Over time, Dahlia has changed the roles and members on her leadership team to amp up the management of the organization and supervision of the talent. She hired me to help develop the newly configured team so they could function more collaboratively and effectively. Without going into all the gory details, let’s just say Dahlia had pulled together a group of smart and well intentioned people who struggled to play well together. I facilitated a series of team discussions to break down defenses and barriers to join in more collective thinking and actions. It was slow and challenging. The team became impatient with my insistence that we keep peeling away the layers to get to more respectful and trusting encounters. They wanted to solve problems and move on.

In my private discussions with Dahlia, she began to surface her increased awareness of dysfunctional team dynamics and her role in them. I coached her to take risks to be more self revealing and open in hopes the others would follow. And they did, up to a point. It was clear there were two team members who preferred to function in their silos and wanted these sessions to end.

An unexpected catalyst left Dahlia with a tough decision. A vital member of the team suddenly left the organization. This person had a very important function and was the most collaborative of anyone on the team. He shared with Dahlia that one factor in his decision was the lack of cooperation from these two team members. He simply had enough. This confirmed Dahlia’s assessment; until these two people had a change of heart no amount of team discussions were going to improve the situation.

We discussed how to proceed. Private one on ones, a team come-to-Jesus meeting, fire one or both of them, some combination of all of them. There were many larger, organizational considerations: filling key functional gaps, destabilizing the staff, derailing projects, creating more departures, making the team’s dysfunction more apparent to all. We talked and talked, testing out each option.

I must admit that in my head I knew the right thing to do. But I thought it was too risky so I kept offering safer options. In the midst of one of these conversations Dahlia simply said, “I think what needs to happen is to bring this to the team for resolution. If we still can’t come together for the good of the agency after all the work we have done, then I will need to make some very serious changes.” Dahlia chose the risky, and right, option. This was a team problem and the team needed to get its act together.

Dahlia was never clearer or more forthright when she began the next meeting. “We have been working for months to let go of our individual agendas and act as a united leadership team to serve the organization. We have failed as a team. Alan’s departure is our evidence. Unless we can collaborate effectively we will fail the whole organization. I fear we already have. We are going to roll up our sleeves, say the hard stuff that has not yet surfaced, figure out how we are going to proceed without Alan and sort out what we are going to tell the staff. Anyone who is not up to the task, can leave now. Anyone who does not step up to do the right thing will be asked to leave.”

Long story short: one person got the message and was able to shape up and the other person was removed. The leadership team turned a corner and accelerated the path to well coordinated collaboration. The conversations were difficult at first but eventually everyone experienced the benefits of saying the hard things, abiding by a set of new and more functional norms and not feeling so isolated from each other. The staff was anxious at first with all the leadership changes but came to experience the new energy and support of the leaders. It took five months from the moment of Alan’s departure for all the changes to settle in and for the organization to stabilize.

For Dahlia, life got much easier. She had a functional leadership team that she trusted to co-manage the organization and staff. She kept taking risks to try new leadership behaviors because she was less uncomfortable and had a big win under her belt. She worried less about losing other key talent. She even got to a place where she was grateful that the crisis had kicked her in the pants.

As for me, I learned a good lesson too. Don’t underestimate the courage of a reserved, decent leader. With so many other bolder leaders I never hesitate to push them to put themselves and their teams on the line for the greater good. I had acknowledged loads of growth in Dahlia but wasn’t sure she was ready to call the team out and address all the defenses and bad behavior. I will remember this with the next Dahlia I meet.

What’s Wrong With A New Leader Making Massive Changes Immediately?

All conventional wisdom suggests that when a new leader is hired to make significant changes, s/he must be thoughtful, strategic and measured. The mandate for change must be clearly understood by the entire organization, even if there are pockets of resistance. The leader must understand that change does not occur “because I said so” but rather through the engagement of those whose lives are going to be altered (supporters and naysayers). Real organizational change that gets fully implemented can only happen when the leader forms productive alliances and relationships with key constituents and influencers. This requires loads of listening and learning about this operation the leader has now been asked to lead.

Too often, however, new leaders charge full steam ahead thinking that ramping up in the first 100 days only means taking urgent action. A more careful read of all the best literature (see Michael Watkins) states very clearly that a balance between learning the culture, people and key relationships with some early winning actions is the key to success. After all, pronouncing a slew of directives will usually leave the leader with few who will follow orders. Without building those connections early on, all subsequent edicts will be met with (at best) skepticism or (worse) resistance. Et voila: no change.

So rather than emulating the mistakes of the person who currently occupies the Oval Office, here are some recommendations for new leaders brought in to make changes.

  • Communicate a compelling mandate. Most new CEOs have been handed a very specific agenda by the board; such as improve profits, weed out the under achieving products and people, grow or prepare the business for an IPO. Staff may not be aware of these concerns so early communications that balance what needs to be fixed with a desired better future need to occur. Big meetings, small gatherings, one on ones. Lots of explaining in hopes of gaining early support for the new direction.
  • Learn, learn, learn. Each organization is so unique even if they all have marketing, finance, R&D and all the other disciplines. The culture, how things formally and informally get done, the cliques, the early adapters, the institutional wisdom, the pent up potential, the wisest advisors, the bad pennies, the antiquated systems, the hiring practices, the compliance parameters….all of it must be absorbed. This doesn’t happen in the first 3 months. It can take 6-12 months depending on the size of the organization. But appreciating what is before making a bunch of changes is essential to being a credible leader.
  • Base decisions on data. In organizations there can be “felt” needs and “actual” needs. Both are valid but in the end the leader must see the data to assess the need for making changes. Feelings can be a warning sign of problems but are not sufficient for decision making. The leader will be seen as erratic if s/he makes emotional or impulsive decisions.
  • Select 2-3 early wins. Bite off small pieces that are doable out of the gate. You may telegraph that a big change is coming but start with something that has a high probability of success. Even better, pick something that staff would feel is a good thing rather than a threat. It could be some technical training that hasn’t been provided but most want that dovetails with that something bigger down the road. It could be eliminating a low performing product line and reassigning those resources. Pick a no-brainer or two.
  • Engage staff support for change. Form an extended leadership council that helps to shape, lead and implement the bigger initiatives. Tap the informal leaders lower in the organization for key roles in the change efforts. Remove a stinker or two that no leader before you had the guts to do to gain staff admiration. Conduct ongoing conversations with all levels of staff to uncover the biggest pains and empower them to fix it. In short, make the change agenda “our” agenda rather than yours.
  • Take the long view. The most sustainable and high impact changes in an organization take place over an extended period of time. It is important to understand the pieces of the journey, how it will effect the staff, what is flexible or not and how fast you need to move. Oh, and there is the rest of the business to run while the changes are afoot so the best laid plans usually get altered. Not a sprint.

There isn’t a high performing professional who takes a new leadership role who doesn’t want to come out of the gate raring to make stuff happen. I wish I could say that I have followed my own advice to a tee but I seem to have a habit of wanting to “add value” immediately. And by “add value” I mean “proving how smart you were to hire me because I can really get great shit done quickly.”  And by that I really mean that I have to prove to myself  (and others) that I am going to be great at this job. We all need to understand that we are adding immeasurable value by taking the time to cultivate good connections in the organization even if it doesn’t look like a flurry of activity. Activity and orders do not equal effective leadership nor is it a winning formula for facilitating change.

So if you are a new leader who is expected to make some significant changes, take a breath and get to know the people and how things work. You will gain much more traction, support and respect for whatever happens next.

Can You Lead People Without Understanding People?

What do these things have in common? The new technology is ready to launch and there is push back from the staff. The CEO has been explicit with the executive team about creating a more inclusive culture and the message falls on deaf ears. The marketing team has presented the new branding approach and the CEO tears it up. The operations team receives the lowest customer satisfaction ratings yet insists that everything is going great. The CTO complains that his terrible 360 feedback is simply sour grapes. The employee engagement survey highlights a lack of confidence in the senior team and the executives gloss right over it.

Wrong strategy? Wrong implementation plan? Wrong communication process? Maybe a little of all those things but the common thread is: people. We are funny creatures, we human beings. We will go to great lengths to ignore any input that differs from our own sense of just how fantastic we are. We will dig our heels in when asked to change because we do love our comfort zones. We will outright reject criticism to fortify our fragile egos. At the heart of organizational and leadership effectiveness is skill and insight about what makes people tick.

Sadly, most of us only get on-the-job training about human behavior. And by on-the-job I mean living life. As we move through school, friendships, families, jobs and communities we encounter lots of people. We have experiences that shape how we see ourselves and those around us. In the best case scenario, we have a propensity towards self reflection, listening to others and seeing people in all their nuance and complexity. The norm, however, is to lock into an image of ourselves as we wish to be seen and to simplistically categorize others. This is a unique challenge in the workplace. Whereas we might work hard to create a great relationship with our spouse, we don’t have that same commitment with our colleagues. When a spouse says, “You aren’t listening to me” we will dig deep to focus better and absorb the message. When a direct report says the same thing we might counter with, “I don’t think you are hearing me!”

So if you don’t have any formal training (courses, therapy, coaching) how can you develop some understanding about human beings including yourself?

  • Do some learning. Read books on human development and behavior. Attend seminars, spend a week at the Center for Creative Leadership, seek out the regular guidance of a professional expert. Watch and study people who excel at human interactions. Commit to a course of disciplined action just like you would if you suddenly decided to learn how to play the piano.
  • Set on a path of self reflection. Developing the habit of taking a step back to review your actions and underlying motives will sound like belly button gazing to many of you. But understanding others begins with understanding ourselves. Quinn, Kouzes and Posner are business writers who do a good job of speaking to business people on this topic. They even have workbooks you can use to ponder their questions. It’s a start.
  • Get help. Okay, this is coming from a former therapist. A good therapist or coach provides a safe and supportive place to say out loud all those things that have been swirling around inside you that block your growth. At the same time you will be getting help understanding other people’s behavior. Having an objective expert in human development and behavior whispering in your ear and listening to you is invaluable.
  • Practice new skills in safe settings. Once armed with some insight and ideas about what new things you want to try, find safe people and places to experiment. A good friend, a trusted colleague, a family member. Ask for feedback and suggestions for improvement. You are trying to develop new muscles so think of it like going to the gym. You need to push yourself a bit without injury to yourself or others.
  • Ask for forgiveness as you take it live. One of my extremely introverted CEO clients preferred staying locked in his office over engaging publicly with the staff. After months of discussion he was ready to come out of his cubby hole. At the all staff meeting he announced, “I have received the feedback about how I am always behind a closed door and that you want me to be more accessible. I am terribly shy and socially awkward but I am committed to trying some new things. So if you see me wondering the halls or cafeteria like a lost puppy, please be kind and help me out.” It was so endearing and the staff couldn’t have been more supportive.
  • Ask, don’t assume or guess. Someone raises his voice with you and it sets off alarms. Is he mad at me? Is he just mad? Is this passion about the task? Is he trying to exert some influence to go in a different direction? And even before you get through your whole list of thoughts you probably return the favor and raise your voice. Remember, we are apes originally and we do imitate. When you hit those panic moments take a breath and ask him what’s going on. “Why are you raising your voice?” This serves two purposes: it alerts the person that he has shifted gears (which he may not be aware of) and you don’t have to read his mind.

When we have overdeveloped technical skills but limited interpersonal skills we are only using half of our capacity and that other half is critical to effective leadership. The probability of using analytic, intellectual, technical thoughts and methods to understand self and others is very high. But it is also wholly insufficient. Good head skills are useful but they need to be paired with good heart skills.

It seems so odd to me that it is not mandatory to take courses on human development and behavior before you enter the work world or take a leadership role. Nutty idea, I know, but if people will always be the engine for accomplishing organizational goals don’t you think we ought to develop some knowledge in this area? Play it in reverse: would you go to a doctor who has amazing interpersonal skills but very limited medical know-how. Seriously?

If You Don’t Manage Your Career Path, Someone Else Will

As you reflect on your accomplishments of 2016 and think about what you want in the coming year, consider some of these stories.

Maxine changed jobs mid-year to join a company that she felt fit her ambitions and outlook much better. Initially she was so relieved to leave her old dead end job. She had been promised multiple assignments and promotions but they never materialized. She was done waiting and decided to find a better opportunity elsewhere. Her new company was abuzz with excitement and possibilities. She connected easily and quickly to her manager and team mates. But within four months she became aware that there was lots of activity and interaction but very little to show for all the hard work. When she began to talk more candidly with her colleagues she discovered that trying new things was more important than showing results. When she inquired about how a person gets rewarded or acknowledged she was told that teamwork is valued over individual efforts. Maxine remembered hearing this in the interview process and appreciated it. What she didn’t understand was that her singular efforts were not going to get her ahead in this new company. She is now wondering what to do about her career.

Simon is an HR executive who is highly regarded by the senior team and staff. After six years in the position he is wondering what comes next for him. He enjoys the HR function but realizes that the only career opportunities in his future are other senior HR roles at other companies. He gets bored just thinking about the next 15 years as an HR executive. He wants to branch out but can’t figure out how to do that. He likes the company, has a great relationship with the CEO and feels pride in what he has been able to accomplish for the organization. When he discussed his desire to spread his wings with the CEO she was sympathetic. They explored running a small unit of the business, overseeing communications and greater involvement with the board. Nothing made Simon’s heart sing. When he thought back to grad school and choices he was making, he always knew this moment would come. He understood that the HR path is a narrow one and didn’t create many options. The CEO is thrilled with Simon and has no intention of replacing him but he is thinking about his future and wondering what will keep him engaged.

Isabella has been in a senior marketing role for five years. She has received raises, great reviews and respect and praise from her boss and colleagues. But she has not been promoted to a more senior role. She has a long list of accomplishments that have translated to increased sales and profits for the company but when she asks her boss about a promotion he is vague. He offers high praise on the one hand and minor corrective feedback on the other. When Isabella asks him directly what it will take for her to get promoted her boss replies, “We are trying to keep the organization flat and are holding off on any promotions.” When she challenges him about the recent elevations of Jason and Martin her boss explains that their functions required it. Isabella is left wondering what the real story is about her standing in the company. Is she as valuable as she is being told? Is there a gender issue? How can she get an accurate fix on her future?

These are just a few examples. I’ve got a ton more stories but you get the point. You think you are doing all the right stuff but then you hit a wall. Is it you? Is it the company? Is it the sector? Maybe all of the above? For the sake of this discussion let’s assume that you are in fine shape. You have great functional and interpersonal skills and a strong track record. How, then, can you smash through the walls or ceilings or boundaries that are keeping you standing still?

Do everything you can to not paint yourself into a corner. From early in your career and all the years that follow, learn new stuff and work outside your chosen path. If you are an engineer with aspirations to move up, get involved in a talent management task force or external partnerships or internal liaison to marketing. If you are in HR take on operational responsibilities or learn about budgeting. In other words, build a resume that reflects more than functional expertise. The more you explore, the more you will discover what you like and what you don’t like. And you will show that you are a utility player.

Be proactive and assertive with your boss about your professional growth. Make it your responsibility, not your boss’, to identify what you need to learn and demonstrate to continue to add value and be noticed. Your boss is invested in you but won’t always have the time or attention to think about your career. But if you take the initiative s/he will be quite responsive. Set up a conversation to discuss your aspirations, get feedback from your boss about how realistic that is, what steps need to be taken, what resources are available to you to support your learning and what assignments your boss can provide. Set up regular check-ins and come prepared each time. You need to run the show.

Do your research. If you want to stay with your current company but wonder what it will take to move up, talk with HR or an internal mentor. Press for the whole truth and nothing but the truth. If you want to leave your company, do your job hunting while still in your current role. Read everything you can about companies that interest you, talk with friends, use LinkedIn to connect with folks for informational conversations and explore places that are not your usual suspects. Think of making a bold move to shake things up for yourself. If you have the chance to be interviewed, ask to speak with some staff so you can dig deeper about the culture and how things really work. Find people in your network who can answer your shitty questions. Look before you leap.

Think growth, not title. I know you are disappointed that you aren’t getting the promotion or salary bump you expected but don’t make that the end-all-be-all. That’s another corner you are painting. Take the long view and consider what skills, responsibilities and experiences you want to gain. Imagine yourself ten years from now. What capabilities do you want? What do you want your story to be? What will make you look back and feel satisfied? What will make you say “wow” or “I can’t believe I really did that”? If title and status is your primary aim, look forward to a lot of disappointment. First, consider the math. There are a small number of senior roles and many times more up and coming staff. The probabilities are not in your favor even if you are a star performer. But more importantly, you will become an insufferable asshole.

Lots of things are beyond your control when it comes to managing your career; company constraints, economic ups and downs, functional limitations. But the more you take control of those things that are within your reach, the better off you will be. I can’t promise that you will get everything you want but I can guarantee you will feel in charge of your own destiny.

%d bloggers like this: