Career Progression

When you look at a career in business you see that it is not a smooth line but a series of steps. Some are upwards, and some are not. The point is that there is movement, maybe not continual, but regular movement. There are always new roles, new responsibilities and new challenges to take on. There is not an exact science on when and where to make your moves and take your steps. There are however a few topics, traits and activities to be aware of when contemplating your career progression.

When discussing career progression it isinteresting to note the number of seemingly opposing forces that will act on a career. The first of these dichotomies will be how long or how short each business assignment’s duration is. Many prospective employers or managers like to look at an individual’s past assignment durations to get an idea of how long they may stay in their new role. A history of short assignment durations can indicate a “job hopper”, or someone who is just hopping from role to role. This could be for any number of good or viable reasons, but in general can be seen as a negative. A history of long assignments can also be negatively looked at as someone who may be “too conservative” and either cannot or will not take on new or added responsibilities. There is always the search for the perfect balance between the two extremes.

As I have noted in many past articles, I am something of an old school throwback when it comes to business. There was a time where businesses wanted candidates and employees that had a broad background and experience set. This multi-discipline type of background was seen as an indication that the employee or candidate had the capability to be flexible in what they were asked or needed to do as well as were able to take on other and greater responsibilities. The idea here was that businesses were looking for the best overall business “athletes”.

Now it seems that this approach is no longer the case. The business world seems to have evolved to a level of specificity where the search is no longer for the best potential overall athlete, but the best within that specific discipline. This approach now brings into question whether or not it is good to search for or even accept new roles that require a change of discipline. If a business is looking for a marketer, they are now looking for the best marketer available, and more specifically the best marketer in their specific market for their specific product type, not the best athlete who has the capability to not only become the best marketer, but also has the capability to go on and assume roles with greater or broader responsibilities.

While this approach may provide a better short term or immediate return to that specific part of the business, it does tend to generate somewhat more one dimensional (single discipline) career paths and leaders. As leaders hit the senior level positions where they will be required to provide broader leadership, they will have a narrower experience set to draw on. I am not proposing that career discipline changes (Marketing to Finance, or Engineering to Sales, etc.) cannot or should not be made. What I am saying is that the current business climate does not encourage or reward these types of career changes in the same way that they were in the past. It is something to be aware of when contemplating potential changes and progression.

Another aspect of career progression will depend on the relative perception of the business aspect that you are currently in. What I mean here is that if you are associated with a business unit or function that is in relatively high regard, the opportunities for continued career progression in that specific business unit or function, or even other business units or functions can be stronger. As an example, look at Apple. They had been so successful under Steve Jobs leadership that they primarily looked to members of his team to assume the leadership role to assure continuity and continued success. They looked internal.

When a business unit or function is not performing to a desired level, it unfortunately seems that all members of that team whether it is justifiable or not will be associated with that poor performance. In most cases like this an organization will look external of that business unit or function for its next leader. These changes of leadership events can be opportunities for leaders outside of the poor performing business, but unless they are in a similar business function this again would seem to run contrary to the previous point I made earlier regarding the apparent single discipline verses multi-discipline experience preference in candidates.

Either way, there will always be the question of the need for continuity playing against the need for new approaches in a leadership role. Both can be either opportunities for or detriments to career progression. Knowledge of both the business situation and perception of the business will be needed in order to ascertain what or where may be the next career progression opportunity.

Along a similar line here, I have always found that taking on a new approach change of leadership role has been beneficial to my career. I have taken to heart the advice of an executive that I received early in my career when I was pondering just such a move. The executive told me to never be afraid to take on a bad or underperforming business (he actually used the word “catastrophe”). He said that if something is truly in bad shape, that you can’t help but make it better. Across my experience in business, I have found this to be true far more times than not. These types of career moves can result in some of the most challenging of assignments, but in order to achieve the return of career advancement there will need to be the risk of taking on difficult performance objectives.

There are those that consider a proper career progression to be a series of upward movements and assignments with ever increasing responsibilities. This type of progression has not been my experience, nor has it been one that I have seen. There will inevitably be situations that evolve where there will simply be no opportunities for advancement. There may already be several high quality leaders in position and hence no new opportunities. On the opposite side of that equation, there may be several managers in place who may not be supporters of the leadership traits and characteristics that you want to employ. The business may be undergoing a contraction and along with that action there is a reduction in opportunities. For whatever reason there can be an opportunity logjam.

In situations like this it may be time to look for a lateral move instead of waiting to try and make a promotional one. In effect you can try and step around the business impediments to career progress. It may be possible to step outside of an underperforming business unit (where you may be associated with that underperformance) and get into a better performing business unit. Once outside of the poorly performing unit you may become eligible for consideration due to your past experience and knowledge if and when a leadership change is considered there.

Moving laterally in an organization can also provide monetary and earnings opportunities. Better performing business units can receive better bonus opportunities during annual reviews. Moving into sales or into different units within sales can provide better sales and commission opportunities. Some lateral motion for whatever reason should be expected in almost any career progression.

I will come to conclusion here without commenting on where a career progression may slow or even stop. You may be happy where you are and remain at that level of responsibility or you may not. Instead I’ll finish with a few quotes or axioms and let you decide.

Laurence J. Peter
and Raymond Hull in their 1969 book The Peter Principle, defined the Peter Principle as that the members of an organization where promotion is based on achievement, success, and merit, will eventually be promoted beyond their level of ability. The principle is commonly phrased, “Employees tend to rise to their level of incompetence.”

Robert Frost wrote: “By working faithfully eight hours a day you may eventually get to be boss, and work twelve hours a day.”

And finally Sloan Wilson said: “Success in almost any field depends more on energy and drive than it does on intelligence. This explains why we have so many stupid leaders.” I suspect and hope that he was writing about our political system, but I thought I would throw that one in as well.

Good luck on your career.

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