Blue Eskimo

The only way to career success is not up

When it comes to being truly successful at work, knowing when to stop chasing promotions is probably the toughest lesson to learn.

For many people, the notion of career success is tied to that of getting on. We might not all want to become managing directors, but we probably want to climb as high as we can on the career ladder – and fair enough.

The hard reality is that sometimes our aspirations may exceed our abilities – and gaining that coveted management position can, for various reasons, be the uncomfortable end of a previously successful career.

For example, there are many successful salespeople who believe that their next job should be in management. Some will succeed, but plenty will fail – being a successful salesperson does not provide the experience needed to become a successful sales manager. The roles are totally different – you may not have the ability to manage people well, for example, which is key in any leadership role. You may not be good at juggling management accounts. You may find that you hate internal meetings. You may miss the one thing you love – selling to customers, face to face: finding solutions to their needs.

If you find your new management role is one that you can’t fulfil as well as you thought, you then have the daunting prospect of losing face and stepping back to your old role – or worse, you might find your old role is gone and your only exit path is literally that: one out of the company.

And it’s not just that you’re not effective in the new role – you may find that the stress of the role is too much. You may find that you simply don’t enjoy the role and that every day is a drudge.

The same thing can happen within other learning and development roles – instructional designers, for example, do not always make great L&D managers.

If that sounds depressingly like you could end up in a rut, not able to progress – living the career version of Groundhog Day, nothing could be further from the truth. It’s just that sometimes, to get ahead, we should know when to stop.

If you’re set on a management career, the best thing you can do is to lengthen your odds – so that when you make the change you are already prepared for it, or at least partly prepared for it. Here are some things to think about:

  • Find out more about the skills needed to perform your preferred management role – and try to objectively assess which of those skills you already have, which need sharpening and which you will have to learn from scratch.
  • Enrol on a part-time or distance-learning management course, preferably one that results in a certificate or qualification. Not only will this give you the necessary skills, it will also demonstrate to employers that you are committed to this as a career path – that it’s not just a whim. And don’t think about this in terms of a few weeks’ learning – since you’re already in full-time work, this additional learning is likely to take a year or more.
  • Spend some time assessing your role and the work your department undertakes – and think about how you might better organise it. Think about how those changes will need managing and how long they will take to ‘bed in’. This will help you to think ‘like a manager’ but also could be exactly the right initiative needed to answer the inevitable ‘how do you think you can improve your department?’ question when you do get a shot at a management role.
  • Start to behave ‘like management’. Take responsibility proactively wherever possible – and don’t be afraid of ducking issues or taking the rap when things go wrong. Sharpen your wardrobe. Look at all the things you do and see how you can improve – give better presentations, present more detailed plans, demonstrate commercial awareness.

Doing this will give you a clearer idea of how suited you are to management – both in terms of abilities and your enjoyment of what is a fundamentally different role. If you find that you want to move into management, your investment in time will mean that you will be able to progress far faster than would otherwise have been possible: you’ll be ready, not jumping in at the deep end.

And what if you find that you’re not suited to management? Does that mean you’re stuck where you are and that your job isn’t ever going to be more interesting or rewarding? Not at all.

There’s nothing wrong with being a practitioner, it’s no less a valid role than being a manager. What you can do is to raise your game – to become better at what you do. There’s always room for academic learning to improve the daily routine.

You might also choose to specialise – perhaps either in what you do (focusing on a specific skill, such as project management, or a specific technology so you can become more of an expert) or the way that you do it (for example, you may want to learn to better coach individuals rather than running classrooms of a dozen or so people).

You can learn to promote ‘brand you’ to carve out a niche for yourself in a particular area. So, instead of being passive about your role, devour knowledge in a more proactive way with the goal of becoming something of an expert. Participate in forums, start a highly focused YouTube channel, offer to run seminars on your subject for your employer – you might even consider writing a book.

For some people, a move into management is the right move, but for others it isn’t. A management role often involves more travel, more stress, and more responsibility – and often for not that much more in terms of reward. It may well be that you’re already in the right role for you – you just need to ‘expand the role itself’ to turn it into the ideal one.