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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.

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