"Originally published on Harvard Business Review"
As a manager, how can you cultivate a sense of career growth and development for your people, even when possibilities for promotion are limited or nonexistent? I posed this question to my human resource management students recently. (The context was that we’d just been considering some evidence that “Gen Y” employees are likely to head for the doors if they don’t see short-term prospects for career advancement.) While my students generated several promising ideas, some advocated an approach that dismayed me: Companies should increase the layers of management, they argued, to provide for more frequent promotions.
Of course I understood why they might think so, but this was a “be careful what you wish for” moment. Anyone old enough to have worked in the many-layered organizational structure of the past knows its shortcomings.
But what bothered me most about their idea was the reminder of how many of us feel lost without external signposts to mark our success. Particularly for young people, it is a tough transition to leave the familiar and clear markers of school success behind and learn to thrive on the more ambiguous ones that mark a lifetime of employment. Crafting a truly successful career demands a high level of self-awareness and ability to self-direct, capacities that schools and universities don’t always do a great job of developing.
As an example, let me introduce you to Sam. Sam grew up in a close-knit family in a US community with excellent schools. His father is a sales manager, his mother a pediatrician. Always a top student, Sam did well as an accounting major in the honors program of his state’s excellent flagship public university, graduated and took a job with a financial services firm. That is where his story took a more somber turn. He struggled with the work and found the corporate culture alienating. Used to outperforming his peers, Sam was shocked at his first performance review when his boss informed him that his performance ratings were unacceptably low. He had six months to improve.
Having always understood the rules and done well playing by them, Sam felt adrift for the first time in his life. Rather than wait for the ax to fall in a job that made him increasingly miserable, he quit after four months with no idea what to do next and moved back home. Although only marginally interested in a legal career, he submitted law-school applications in order to quell his parents’ anxious daily questioning about his career direction as well as the invasive thought that he was a fraud and a loser. At least, he told himself, I know how to be a good student.
Employees of any age can suffer from a similarly constrained career perspective. I recently coached Thomas, an employee in his late thirties, who was thrown into crisis when he discovered that his new boss hadn’t nominated him for the company’s high-potential program. He found it difficult to focus on anything else. A broader view of career success would be helpful to Thomas, as it would be to Sam and to the students in my classroom discussion. It would enable them to tap into a wider repertoire of responses and gain more learning and insight from their experiences.
People do not advance in the broader arenas of career and life by taking linear steps and acing assignments that are carefully constructed to allow them to prove mastery. They do it by navigating the unpredictable events and conditions that both work and non-work life throw at them — and responding and adapting in the ways that make sense for them. If you’re dependent on external markers to judge whether your career is successful, you will find them, but only in some realms and on certain dimensions of achievement. If you only pay attention to only this limited set of success indicators, you are less likely to experience your career as successful. Imagine going to a sumptuous buffet dinner, but only tasting the salad. It won’t be satisfying.
Visible, objectively measurable achievements such as sales results, salary, bonuses, and promotions are forms of career success that we tend to fixate on—sometimes to the point that we overlook other aspects that are just as valuable to us. It’s important to consider both objective and subjective markers of success. The perceptions and feelings we have about our work experiences and what we achieve affect us as much as the extrinsic rewards do. Consider the fact that there are plenty of people who look successful, who hold high-level positions and earn impressive salaries, yet who feel unfulfilled in their careers.
Be mindful, too, that a piece of work can prove “successful” through individual experience and through interaction with other people. You can feel success when you accomplish your own goals as an individual, when you develop greater understanding of a problem and perceive a solution, or when you express your identity or your values through your work. You can taste success in interpersonal settings, when for example you develop an excellent mutual understanding and rapport with a supervisor or mentor, or help other people to grow, or have a positive impact through your work on the organization or its external customers. Research shows that such subjective and relational experiences contribute enormously to assessments of career success.
Finally, if the promotions and raises a boss can dole out are the only forms of career success you recognize, then at times when there are no higher-level openings to move into, or when budget cuts prevent salary freezes, you have set yourself up to become demoralized. Being able to think broadly about career success and to identify your successes for yourself is essential to resilience.
With this in mind, I encourage you to take a few minutes now to reexamine your own work experiences, and identify successes you might have overlooked. Not earning as much as you’d like? Perhaps you’ve gained creativity by working with highly talented colleagues. Concerned that it’s been several years since your last promotion? Don’t negate the value of your having grown into a recognized subject-matter expert in a strategically valuable area for your firm.
To stimulate your thinking, here are some additional indicators that may help you recognize your own career success more fully, or help you identify pathways toward greater success:
- Performing work that you find interesting and fascinating
- Overcoming challenges
- Having autonomy in how you perform your work
- Developing new skills and deepening existing ones
- Having work and personal life complement and enrich each other
- Doing work that gives you new insights into yourself, your organization or your industry
- Being recognized as an expert
- Having the trust of your colleagues and superiors
- Building valuable relationships inside and outside of your organization
- Contributing to shared knowledge in your organization by training others
- Enjoying career stability and employment security
- Collaborating effectively with a team of talented colleagues
- Receiving recognition for your achievements and contributions
- Seeing the positive impact of your work on end users or on society
- Leaving a legacy that you’re proud of
Now consider: as nice as external markers and affirmations are to get, would you really rather have them than any of the above? Yes, you deserve both. But keep in mind that careers are long, and that it’s rare to experience all forms of career success simultaneously.
You need to develop the awareness and adaptability to notice, appreciate, and exploit opportunities to enjoy career success in all its different forms, even if the most explicit, generic forms of recognition aren’t currently available. With practice and attention, you can reap your own harvest from a wide variety of work experiences, and as a result, enjoy a richer and more satisfying career.