I was talking to one of my oldest and dearest friends recently and almost fell off my chair when she told me she turned down a promotion because she “wasn’t ready”.  She is smart, talented, capable and clearly her workplace agrees with these descriptions of her to offer the promotion. Yet she felt she needed more time working in her current role building up her knowledge of the organisation and job before she could handle greater responsibilities. This story is not a new one. We hear about it all the time when talking about the differences between men and women when asking for pay rises etc. The conversation made me think deeper about how this isn’t necessarily just a gender issue. Rather, there are (I believe) common mistakes I observe being made by friends and colleagues, that have held them back from career progression.

1.       Not recognising the value you deliver to the organisation

This is distinctly different to recognition of your capabilities. What you are capable of doing is not always aligned with what your workplace requires of you. Here is an elementary example. In my university years, I had a casual job selling womenswear in a store. My job was straightforward: tidy the shop floor, provide customer service and put through sales at the register. I was certainly capable of completing all these tasks very well. However I think I delivered additional value beyond what was required of my role. I had a very strong knowledge of our competitor’s products almost at an equivalent level to those of our own (due obviously to having a shopping problem). Consequently, I was able to have very in depth conversations with customers not only about the products we had on offer but how they compared to many other similar products available elsewhere. That sweater you’re not sure about? It’s great value here, it’s the same fabric as a similarly styled one at Manning Cartell and Zimmermann, but they’re selling their versions for more than double the price.

That additional value that you deliver beyond the objective expectations and requirements of your role is often forgotten about. It is important that you recognise this because not only does it give you something to point to come performance review/bonus/promotion time, but more importantly allows you to identify if there are opportunities to progress either within your organisation or elsewhere.

2.       Not voicing your development objectives to your manager

Humility is a great character trait to have, however it should not translate into being silent on your expectations and goals. Many people think that if they work hard at their job they will be rewarded. Whilst this is partly true, the other important aspect is the need to articulate what objectives you are working hard towards. Is it a pay rise? A promotion? Specific work opportunities you’re seeking? Your manager can’t read your mind, and equally you can’t assume that if all you want is a promotion your manager will give it to you just because you work hard. Different workplaces will have different approaches to the development of staff and formal versus informal performance review processes. Make it a habit to check in at regular intervals with your manager to discuss your objectives and what you want to work towards. This will ensure your expectations are clear to your manager so that if they are not met, they are accountable for explaining to you why so you can genuinely work on your development.   

3.       Saying no

Saying no to opportunities. To work projects. To promotions. It happens too often and truly has a negative impact on your career as well as your own professional development. I have come across various different reasons why people say no, from individuals who turn down work tasks because “it’s not in my job description” to those like my friend who would love to say yes but feel they are not capable. Others I know of have been reluctant to take on a different area of work because they have a preconceived notion that they are above the level of work or that it is not beneficial to them. All of these are not good reasons for saying no to things that could essentially add to your skills and experience.  

Several years ago when I sat before a panel of CEOs and senior business leaders for an interview, the former Chairman of PayPal said to me, “You have to be like a sponge in your career and soak up all the experiences you possibly can”. I couldn’t agree more, and I think the onus is on you not only to say yes to opportunities that come your way, but also to seek them out when they don’t. If you are having a quiet week at work, it doesn’t hurt you to take the initiative to try and learn something about other teams in your organisation or even offer to help with their work. This not only expands your knowledge but will also help you build further relationships with colleagues you might not otherwise have much to do with – both of which are important things to successfully developing a career.  

4.       Being impatient

You might be doing all the right things, but at the end of the day you have to be patient. This is something that I battle with myself. As a self-professed obsessive enterprising individual, I work towards objectives and I want the outcomes now if not yesterday. My husband likes to make fun of me to this day, about how early on when we were dating I had said “I want to make partner at a top law firm by 30”, and that I would consider myself a failure if I did not. Those in the law will know exactly how difficult if not down-right ridiculous and near impossible this is.

You can only ensure that you are taking the right steps to nurturing your professional development. However also appreciate there are genuinely other factors at play that may mean your expectations or goals are not achievable in the timeframe that you would like. Keep an eye on the things going on in your organisation that you can objectively see will impact on the goals you are striving for, however clearly if your manager is repeatedly feeding you excuses (a la my previous article on abusive workplaces) then that might be a red flag to look at progressing yourself elsewhere.

It is important to be focussed in your own mind on what you want to achieve in the short, medium and long term in your professional life. This will help guide you in ensuring you take the right actions highlighted above. Often we focus too much on the short term, day to day, and get caught up in tasks, conversations and meetings we have in the week ahead. It is healthy to take the time now and again to reflect on what you personally achieve from accomplishing those day to day things and to question whether you are chugging along on-track towards the something bigger that you are striving for. If you discover you are off-track, then you can think about why and what to do about it.

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