How to advance when there is no career ladder

November 5, 2014, 5:44 PM UTC
Climbing to Victory
Climbing to Victory
Illustration by Retrorocket—Getty Images

A generation ago, many companies offered a straightforward career ladder. If you performed well, you could count on a steady climb in salary, job title, and responsibilities until receiving a gold watch for 25 years of loyal service.

Today, organizations freely reassign and fire employees as needed. Management ranks that were clogged with Baby Boomers before the Great Recession are now even less likely to see turnover, as the organization’s oldest employees seek to rebuild their retirement savings.

Young professionals must create their own career paths by seeking out opportunities to develop skills and experience, networking with the right people and plotting each turning point along the road.

“There’s no question that most organizations expect people to take responsibility for their own careers, says Bruce Tulgan, consultant and author of The 27 Challenges Managers Face and It’s Okay to Manage Your Boss. “There’s no longer a one-size fits all career path in most organizations.”

If you’ve been in the same role for two, three, or five years, and are itching for the next opportunity, chances are you need the secrets to the do-it-yourself career path. There are three key ingredients.

Build relationships

We’ve all heard it’s important to network and find a mentor and sponsor. But the most successful do-it-yourselfers build a diversity of relationships and rely on those individuals for honest feedback, advice, insight, and information throughout the course of their careers.

If each of us must be the CEO of our careers, think of these people as an advisory board. The group should include peers inside and outside the company, higher-ups in your chain of command and in other divisions, someone in your company’s human resources department, peers and leaders in your industry, family and trusted friends from college and elsewhere. You’ll rely on them to help you evaluate yourself and where you should develop and grow, as well as to learn where there are opportunities and to understand your role and how the company and industry work.

“You have to have those conversations early and often,” says Dan Black, immediate past president of the National Association of College and Employers and Americas director of recruiting for EY. “It’s a lifelong pursuit and an exercise to go through at regular intervals. Make sure you’re weighing your goals against the environment you’re in.”

Join industry associations, clubs and affinity groups, such as corporate women’s or minority networks. Reach out to colleagues and industry peers, with a goal to helping them as much as they help you.

“Networking for the sake of networking is wasting the time of very busy people,” Tulgan says. “The number one rule to getting to know people is show up. The number two rule is: be valuable.”

Instead of simply calling up a senior leader in your company for advice over coffee, you could volunteer to support a company-wide initiative, such as a global internal meeting that will include many senior leaders. In that kind of role, “you’re big and visible and touch lots of functional areas,” says Brigette McInnis-Day, chief human resources officer at software firm SAP Global Customer Operations. “Those help you get a name and show you’re broader than just to be a worker at your specific role.”

A recent SAP and Oxford Economics workforce report found that only 7% of Millennial workers received professional development through networking, as they rely more on formal training and mentoring for skill development. Also, 29% of Millennial workers globally expect more feedback than they get and 39% would consider leaving their jobs due to a lack of training and development.

Christian Hughes, 33, a project manager for an insurance company in New York, got to know a senior executive at her firm when she volunteered to become a subject matter expert for corporate responsibility, his area of expertise. Before long, he was suggesting other people she should meet with internally and externally to talk about opportunities. “It’s really opened up a door … because every month or so he wants to talk to me about my career,” says Hughes, who doubts she would’ve developed such a strong relationship through an official mentoring program.

Always be learning

Relationships alone won’t get you far. You also need the skills and experience to advance to the next level in your career. Here’s where many young professionals grow frustrated with the following catch-22: you can’t get the job you want until you can demonstrate experience in that role, but you can’t build the experience without an opportunity.

“We’ve all grown up being told you can do whatever you want to do [by] working hard,” says Hughes. “But a lot of companies are not hiring for potential … they’re hiring for skills.”

Sometimes, it can all hinge on how you ask for an opportunity. Someone who’s been grinding away at a company for five or six years will chafe at a newbie who asks bluntly, “how do I advance?” Instead, ask more broadly for information that will help you learn about opportunities to gain experience and learn more about the company, its divisions, and how you fit in.

To understand how you’re perceived professionally, ask peers for feedback on your work or participation in a meeting, for instance. Their input can help provide the informal feedback that more than two-thirds of Millennials would like in greater amounts, according to the SAP study. You may learn that you’re the loudest voice in the room or have a tendency to be too quiet, McInnis-Day notes.

“Make sure you understand the areas where you are weak and need to develop,” she says, encouraging ambitious workers to be open to opportunities that may not be as flashy or exciting. “Take lateral moves to broaden your skills.”

A colleague of Hughes’ moved from the distribution side of the company – which she liked – to operations in order to land a promotion. “Operations is not really her interest, but she was tired of what she was doing and wanted a new challenge,” Hughes explains.

You may learn something you don’t expect from scut work or entry-level tasks, such as how the organization works with clients or how different divisions fit together. “See if you can showcase, ‘I’ve picked up the fundamentals of our business and I’m ready to utilize them and move to the next level,’” suggests Black.

Care for yourself

Young people coming from a college or business school environment may be used to burning the candle at both ends. That doesn’t go over well in a professional setting.

“People notice and it means you’re not at your best,” Tulgan says. “Take care of your mind, take care of your body, take care of your emotional well being…. If you’re really in business for yourself, letting your well-being degrade is like letting the factory fall apart.”

Shortly after joining IBM as a consultant based in Washington D.C., Nancy Geronian, 22, found herself overloaded, working 60 hours a week on client projects for which she didn’t want to lose ownership. She reached out to a 40-something project manager who was more senior but not in Geronian’s chain of command.

“She said, ‘You are the only person who knows how busy you are,’” she recalls. As a result, Geronian prioritized the items for which she was responsible, analyzed the time each would take, and made sure she only took on what she could handle. “I made a decision to work that out so it works in everyone’s favor because the work gets done,” says Geronian, who spoke only for herself and not on behalf of IBM.

If it starts to seem that your career path is leading outside the company, consult a trusted ally in the human resources department or higher up in the company first. You may learn that the firm is about to launch a new line of business that would be perfect for you.

A young auditor who Black hired was being recruited by an outside firm, which tempted him because he was growing tired of the audit track. But when the man asked an audit partner for advice, that executive advocated to move him to the advisory practice – where he recently made partner.

“He knew he wasn’t excited about staying on the same path … and felt comfortable talking to someone,” Black recalls. “He kept his longer term goals in mind.”

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