Frustrated with the slow pace of your career advancement? No obvious job openings in sight? And you aren’t really sure what you would like to do next anyway?
What's more frustrating? A lack of career progress or the feeling that you have so little control over your advancement? What's the stronger reason why people leave companies? Lack of career advancement or resentment based on feeling kept down or undervalued? There may be no clear answers to these questions but we do rationalize our frustrations by blaming others or circumstances.
In any case, career frustration is aggravated by two factors: (1) jobs are boxes that are either open or not and (2) our preference to decide what to do next instead of relying on discovery. Our confidence is undermined by the feeling that we should be able to choose a new career direction as easily as we can choose a holiday destination. This uncertainty makes us doubt ourselves but, instead of trying an exploratory approach to advancing our careers, we get even by leaving.
Because management makes all the decisions, it's not easy to see how you can influence the creation of new roles. An exploratory approach to career management can kill two birds with one stone: helping you choose what to do next and helping you find or create a new role for yourself.
Or, you may like what you're doing now but want a new challenge or more responsibility. Rather than pursuing a new position, try adding new responsibilities and shedding old ones. Often jobs morph into something new over time on their own. But you can drive this form of career advancement yourself.
So, there are two creative approaches to career management: (1) discover or create a new role and (2) grow your current role organically. The starting point is a creative mindset: thinking like a self-employed contractor, a business operating in a market instead of like an employee boxed into fixed roles.
Discovering or Creating a New Role
We like making decisions in a linear fashion. We think through our options, pick one and act on it. This works for planning a vacation but, to make career decisions, you need to discover your best option using a trial and error process.
Analogously, suppose you feel in need of a new wardrobe. You try on some attractive items of clothing before deciding whether you will buy and what. In fact, you might discover some new styles or combinations that you could not have chosen if you hadn’t discovered them. Your purchasing decision is based on discovery, not on thinking and deciding what to buy before you go shopping.
If this approach to acquiring a new wardrobe is obvious, why do people remain stuck in jobs because they can’t decide either to seek a new role or what sort of role to pursue? The truth is that you can explore career options the same way you shop for clothes, without committing yourself to anything unless you see something you like.
A few years ago, someone between jobs was asked what he wanted to do next and he said: “I don’t know, but I’ll know it when I see it.” He recognized that it is impossible to make such a decision through introspection alone. He was prepared to suspend his need to decide what to do until he discovered something he thought he might like. He was comfortable saying he didn’t know what he wanted to do because so many possible options were unknown.
As we were growing up, we made many choices through discovery. We discovered which sports we liked best, which subjects at school most suited us, which friends we liked best. Unfortunately we overlook the role of discovery in decision making to make our choices seem more rational. Moreover, we dislike the uncertainty associated with having to discover our preferences. Liking to feel in control, we convince ourselves that we make deliberate choices rather than seemingly random acts of discovery. The bottom line: to make career progress we need to rediscover discovery as a way of moving ahead.
Finding Jobs Before Others
Standard career transition advice is to network so that managers keep you in mind when new jobs become available. But this is not very creative and it makes managers do too much of the work to figure out how to use you. Also, a one-off networking meeting doesn’t give you much chance to sell yourself. Finally, this approach works best for fixed roles, not for creating new ones built around you.
Thinking like a supplier of services, such as a consultant, you need to diagnose the needs of prospective hiring managers. This can only be done over time through several brief opportunities to talk with your key prospects. The secret is to ask questions that give you insight into their issues, needs and ambitions.
If you can’t get much face time with your target managers, focus on those who are closest to them.
The employee question, the one you don’t want to ask, is: “Do you have a job for me?” Instead, ask what they are doing, their goals, what’s going well and what isn’t. Ask these questions directly of people who could hire you and of anyone who knows them.
You don’t need to come up with a magic solution to their problems. Just asking good questions can achieve two things: stimulate fresh thinking that could help them solve their own issues and, by showing interest, you sell yourself. Instead of having to boast about what you can do, you demonstrate your value by asking good questions.
Over the course of a few months, you can get to know a small set of target managers and their departments. This is like trying on a new wardrobe to help you decide what you might like. Further, you are likely to be higher on their list of prospective candidates than you would be through simple networking. Finally, if your questions are probing enough, one of your target managers might even create a new job for you.
If one such manager expresses surprise at your curiosity, don’t say you want to work in his or her department. Instead, say that you are simply interested in learning more about the business and developing a broader business perspective.
Why should you avoid admitting that you want to work in someone’s department? Because, that immediately changes the conversation and you are back in your employee box seeking a new job. You can then expect to be told that they will keep you in mind if something comes up. This is the equivalent to having the door slammed in your face before you have had a chance to sell yourself.
Suppose you are really put on the spot: “Are you interested in working here or not?” If they don’t know you yet and you aren’t sure whether it is for you, the honest reply is to say: “I am merely trying to learn about other parts of the business at this stage but, if I see something I like, I would be open to discussing it.”
However, if you are asked this question after you have shown what you can do and you are convinced that it is for you, then of course, you should say that you are definitely interested. Expressing enthusiasm for what others are doing is critical. Always talk about what they are doing and how interesting their work is rather than what you want to do. Putting them and their needs ahead of yours is another great way of selling yourself.
Finding a new role and selling yourself can take a few months so maintain lines of communication with key prospects as frequently as possible.
The Organic Career
Thinking like a self-employed business person, you can “develop your business” by taking on new responsibilities and shedding old ones thus proactively driving your career rather than simply letting your job morph into something new haphazardly.
Adding new responsibilities can be done on a trial and error basis. Get involved in projects that are dear to the hearts of your prospective hiring managers so you can demonstrate how much value you can add while, at the same time, you are “trying on” working for them. You can shed responsibilities you don’t want by selling them as development opportunities for someone else.
Taking charge of your career starts by thinking differently about your role. Instead of feeling like a powerless pawn who just works hard and hopes to get noticed, you need to see your employer as a land of limitless opportunities. Don’t think of it as a static hierarchy with fixed roles, but as a living, breathing organism that is continually evolving.
New roles continually emerge as managers devise better ways of working, new services and new markets. We all invent our own roles by focusing on the aspects that most interest us, so nothing is cast in concrete.
You don’t need a crystal ball to help managers think of new ways of organizing. It’s about planting seeds. Even if none of your questions bears fruit, showing interest regularly over time is a powerful way of selling yourself. Your task is to be a catalyst, a facilitator, someone who helps others think through their own issues.
Keep in mind that showing interest on a regular basis doesn’t mean bugging them about whether they have a job for you yet, but rather asking how their goals are progressing. The key is to focus on their needs, not your own.
To manage your career creatively, you need to be comfortable with ambiguity. This means being OK with not knowing what your next move will be while you scour the organization for opportunities. You need to pick people’s brains about emerging trends without having any answers yourself.
Think of your career as a search for leadership opportunities, not vacant slots, but opportunities to help the organization become more effective.
It helps to position your career management activities to yourself and to others as a desire to learn more about the organization, develop yourself and find new ways of contributing rather than as an employee’s search for a new job.
This article has been all about advancing your career within your current organization. This is important because we so readily take the path of least resistance when facing career frustration - go elsewhere. However, if you do want to pursue your career in a new organization, you can apply many of the same tips suggested here. However, it's much harder to gain access to hiring managers in other organizations and you can't volunteer to get involved in their projects. However, it is possible to get meetings with them through your network or directly. The key is to create a good business reason to meet - like sharing best practice, including meeting them for future reference.
To get a meeting with a potential hiring manager, it's a good idea to use a disclaimer like: "I don't expect you to have any openings for me at the moment, but I'd still love to meet you to learn about your work and for future reference." It's a numbers game: some will meet you on this basis, many won't. When you do get a meeting, the key is to ask lots of questions about what the person meeting you is doing and what the company is up to. If you show genuine interest, your hiring manager could turn the meeting into an interview. If not, offer to keep in touch and ask for other names in the company or industry who you could approach.
See also: Engage Yourself, Should You Always Play to Your Strengths?, The Post-heroic Manager, How's Your Confidence Today?, Cultures of Disengagement, How To Be An Engaging Manager. Also, more recently: Collaborative Assertiveness.