In many organizations, it’s not at all clear how ambitious individuals can progress in their careers. Promotions can seem arbitrary and no one—either from the managerial hierarchy or human resources—explains what the criteria are, what path to follow to move ahead, or how to be recognized as someone with potential for growth.
Often, when I’m working on a consulting project with a client team or coaching someone who has been designated as needing extra attention to succeed in management, midlevel managers share their concerns with me about the struggles they’re having with moving up, and how challenging it is to understand their organization’s management and leadership intentions.
These questions and answers came out of one of my recent client conversations.
When You’re Tired of Being Underappreciated
Q. Why do they keep bringing in outsiders who don’t know anything about our work, rather than promoting from within?
It could be that they’re looking for someone they believe can do the job today, rather than having to groom someone or wait until you reach a particular level of accomplishment. It can feel more straightforward to come up with a job description and interview and choose a new hire from a pool of strangers rather than thinking about someone from the inside. It’s sometimes harder to assess what role you, as a current employee, might be good for, or how people might have to move around to backfill your position. Plus, they know more about your messes.
Q. But I shouldn’t have to figure out where I could fit—they’re supposed to know more about the business needs than I do!
It would be great if there was a consistent process for figuring out who’s performing well, what their potential is, and what support would help them move up to the next level—which would feel more like having the cheat codes in a game. But you may need to find an ally who can tip you off about how to be considered for the next level: a sympathetic ear to whom you can make your interest known who’s also adept at organizational culture and politics. It’s important not to think about the conversation as a chance to express your frustration, but as a way to show what you can do.
When there isn’t a standardized process, you need this kind of partner or sponsor to give you guidance or speak for you. What you want to hear is: “Let’s figure out a schedule to get you the right skills and experiences to ensure you’re delivering enough for us to get you to the next level.” Is there anyone senior to you who recognizes your potential? Approach them as if you’re inviting them to a dance: What you’re saying is, “I’m so willing to do my part. And I’m hoping you’ll do yours to help me.”
When You’re Stuck in the Middle
Q. I keep getting mixed signals. I’m supposed to act like I want promotions, but when I do, I’m seen as too aggressive.
A. When a boss wants results and change, but the results and change make them uncomfortable, they could get upset that you are pushing them too hard. The reality is confusing. It’s like they’re saying, “We’re not ready for change. But when are you making the change? We’re really not ready for change. Why weren’t you here sooner, making substantive changes?” It’s a seesaw. This situation occurs because the truth is that although they’re frustrated with things as they are, they’re not ready to face the work that change requires.
Q. How can I figure out what I really need to do, what they really want from me?
A. Sadly, this is not necessarily about being your best self. Of course it’s better for you if you’re being your best self, and for everyone around you. But when you’re in the middle and you are truly trying to lead, there can be people below you who are pushing you forward to do more, who want you are out in front to catch any incoming fire. And at the same time, there may be people above you who throw grenades at you to deter you from reaching where they are.
This is the struggle, and you have to decide if you’re up for it: Are you really ready to suit up and go in? That’s number one. Number two: You don’t get to wait for direction. You actually have to figure out the equivalent of your secret plan. What is the best way to blow the doors off your sales forecast, build a knockout product that no one’s expecting, or increase quality by 300 percent? You need to come up with a real strategy as well as a bare-bones implementation plan. And then you have to figure out how to sell it in a way that helps the people who can influence on your behalf.
When You Build Your Own Path Forward
Q. That seems dangerous. I’ll be too much or too little and some people may be trying to stop me. How can I possibly make this work?
A. Most people avoid anything they believe will cause them discomfort or loss. So see if you can get assistance from people who are happy with their current positions and have good ideas. Look for ways to build relationships with them and show them what you can contribute. But don’t do it with a tone of “I have the way.” Pitch your proposal like a question or an offer: “I’ve been thinking about X. Is there a way we could work together on it?”
What does this net out to? Looking for ways to build both relationship and the business. If you’re doing both, you’re much more likely to be noticed and appreciated, even if some colleagues would prefer that you lay low. It may not be fair, but you’ll have to craft your own path if your organization hasn’t invested enough in plans and processes for nurturing and rewarding talent.
Onward and upward —