Don't Let Your Boss Write Your Future

Pete Ross

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Let’s be as real as possible — the business world is a crapshoot when it comes to advancing your career. You need just as much luck as you do work ethic and skill, because even though you might be the best at what you do, unless things go almost perfectly for you in the world of office politics, you might find yourself stuck in a position for many years longer than you’re happy with.

You may even be stuck there for good.

One of the biggest hindrances to career advancement is performance and talent reviews. This is when your boss is forced to rank you against your peers in terms of both results produced and much worse, potential. For the people that get the tick of approval and the label of “high potential,” they get the career momentum of a fast moving freight train. One good rating leads to another, which leads to more opportunities and further good ratings.

Getting the “low potential” rating, on the other hand, is the business equivalent of the scarlet letter.

After that, good luck getting a promotion, stretch projects, development opportunities and so on. The worst part of it is, this may not have anything to do with your work itself. You might have been going through a personal crisis at home. Your parent might have been dying. You might have earned the disfavour of someone higher up. It doesn’t matter what it is, because all of a sudden your boss has written your future, and it ain’t good.

In a world of “potential”, it’s hard to imagine what, exactly, a career conversation looks like once you’ve been shunted off into the lo-po dungeon. — Nine Lies About Work

The result is that you’re now stuck. You have no career momentum, and it’s incredibly hard to turn the prevailing sentiment about you around. You’re now going to have to work many times harder and achieve far more than others around you to turn it around. The reality is, you might never turn it around. Believe it or not, this happens in every single company around the world. It could happen to you. So the question is, what the hell can you do about it?

The harsh solution

For a long time, the US military has had a policy of “up or out.” That means if you’re an officer who is passed over for promotion twice in a row, you’re forced to retire from the military. The Big 4 accounting firms and many other consulting firms practice the same system. It’s regarded as archaic and responsible for losing many good people just because there aren’t enough slots for promotions.

And as an individual employee, it’s your greatest guidepost to career advancement.

Think about it. If you’ve been in a job for a few years at whatever company and you’re passed over for a promotion once, that happens to the best of us. Twice? I honestly think in most circumstances you’d be stupid to stay. By then you’ve been in a job for 4–5 years and people now have a fixed idea of who you are and what you’re capable of. You don’t have any momentum. That means when the next opportunity comes up, it’s highly unlikely anyone is thinking of you.

The caveat here is if you’re on a development path to the next position. If you’re higher up the chain and you’ve got people higher than you taking an interest and helping you develop, that’s a very different story. If on the other hand, you’ve just been rejected and given a couple of platitudes with nothing further, it’s time to look at your options.

The benefit of “Up or Out” thinking

It may be an archaic practice from a management perspective, but for you as an employee, it’s vital. Knowing that every few years you’re going to be looking for a promotion or new opportunity means that you’re not going to get lazy or coast by. You’re going to be hungry, looking to achieve, looking for opportunities — whether they’re at your current workplace or another.

That means you aren’t going to be one of the people who puts all their eggs in one basket. Too many people make the mistake of thinking that the promotion is theirs, so when it falls through they feel shocked, betrayed and rejected. Their whole world collapses because that was the only option in their mind.

For the up or out employee, they know going into those opportunities that if it doesn’t pan out, it’s time to start looking to get out and find something better elsewhere. They’re already planning their next step.

Get it through your head…

A company and the people in it don’t care about your career ambitions. They’re happy to let you sit there doing the same thing for decades at a time with no increase in pay, because it’s easy for them. They aren’t going to reward your loyalty or give you anything just because you hang around.

Let's face it, loyalty is for suckers who are willing to receive what someone else believes that they deserve. Now if you’re just happy to sit in the same position for years because you’ve got good benefits, good pay and good flexibility, then more power to you. You’ve found your niche, so congratulations.

If you’re ambitious, however, and you’re putting in the hours, levelling up in your skills and always looking for more, the “up or out” mentality is absolutely for you. You’re going to get better pay and have better upward mobility if you proactively jump to the next opportunity rather than looking to stay comfortable where you are.

Always remember: you own your career. Unless you’re one of those marked as “high potential” — in which case stay put and ride that rocket as high as it goes, no one is going to come offering you a promotion just because you do good work or put in huge hours. You’re going to have to take it yourself.

Up, or out.

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I write about career, performance, psychology, self development and business humour. I'm an author, former national competitor in judo and strongman and a former military instructor.

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