When someone tells me they are blocked from advancement at their current company, I usually take it with a grain of salt. It reminds me of frequent conversations I had when my daughters were competitive softball players. Other parents would tell me that their daughter was blocked because the starting shortstop was the coach’s daughter. Most of the time, the other kid was just a better player than their kid. I know from experience that when my daughters were one of the best nine on the team, they started. And, when they weren’t, they sat the bench. By and large, I believe the same to be true in the corporate world.
So, my advice to you if you are feeling blocked at your current company is first to look inward. Are you really blocked or are the people at the next level just better than you? Do they have skills, experiences, or competencies that you may not that are required for success either by the accountabilities of the role or the culture of your employer?
If the answer is yes, what can you do about it? If you lack the technical or functional skills, how can you develop them? If it’s exposure to a certain set of experiences, can you take a lateral or project role to acquire them? If it’s cultural, can you find a mentor who can coach you on how to effectively manage the complexity of your company? There are always areas for improvement in our performance and presentation and only through self-reflection and a commitment to development can we achieve it.
It’s not fun, it’s not immediate, but it’s necessary, and putting in the work will pay-off for you either at your current company or a new one. One more thing, please don’t tell me you don’t have time. Vladimir Putin finds time to work out an hour every day. I mean, he has time to maintain a set of rock hard abs while simultaneously undermining western democracy. Are you busier than Vladimir Putin?
However, if on that introspective journey you come to the objective conclusion that you are blocked from advancement, what are your options? Again, I think you need to ask yourself some questions as to why and, based on the answers, develop appropriate strategies. Some examples:
- Do people who need to know me actually know me and the quality of my work?
If the answer is no, then how do you get that exposure? Can you find projects that give you that exposure? Are there affinity groups at your company where people who can be influential to your career participate? Or, does your boss like to keep you behind the scenes so they can take the lion share of the credit? If the answer to the last question is yes, it’s time to start working on your resume.
- Does my employer advance executives based on performance or seniority?
If the answer is performance, then you probably need to spend more time working on developing the above referenced skills, experiences, and competencies. If it’s seniority, then you need to have a conversation with yourself about how long you are willing to wait and whether the culture of your current company is a good fit.
- Does my employer value the skills I bring to the table in his or her executives?
I have a client where over 90% of its senior executives have engineering backgrounds. As such, leaders working in that organization’s commercial or finance groups (etc.) are usually shut out of big P&L jobs. Look at the backgrounds of the more senior executives at your company. Are theirs similar to yours? Is there a pattern that doesn’t match up with your career track? If so, is it possible for you to gain those skills? Sometimes it is practical to do so and sometimes not (i.e., going back to get an engineering degree in our mid-30s isn’t in the cards for most of us).
My experience has been that if it’s not a gap in your current skills and capabilities that is preventing you from advancing at your current company, then you’re probably going to have to leave to find the career satisfaction you seek. That’s often a hard message to hear because high achievers invest so much in their careers. However, if you don’t act after concluding that you can’t advance the way you would like at your current company, then the only one blocking you is you.