Career Advancement is NOT One Size Fits AllAug 26, 2023
Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” And in terms of career advancement, this couldn’t be more true.
While it can be tempting to compare our careers to others and try to follow in their footsteps, this is not the path to success.
That’s because career growth is NOT one size fits all. And assuming that it is, it can be incredibly discouraging, especially when you’re not experiencing the rapid growth that you expect.
In this post, I’m sharing major reasons why career advancement is unique to every person and how following someone else’s career path can limit your growth potential.
9 Reasons Career Advancement is NOT One Size Fits All
Because career advancement is so individual, it can be helpful to look at the big picture. Here are nine concepts that I wish I knew when I began my career:
1. Career paths are like Chutes and Ladders
We always hear about career advancement in simple terms climbing up the “career ladder” or working along a “career path.”
These paths are totally linear, like a breezy sidewalk, moving forward through time. But this isn't reality.
Career paths actually look more like the game of Chutes and Ladders. Sometimes, you’ll reach a ladder you can climb up quickly. Other times, you may hit a slide and plummet back a few spots.
This is a much more realistic view of what your career path will look like. Setbacks are 100% normal and it’s reassuring to remember that.
2. Advancement isn’t a ladder – it’s a rock wall
You heard it here first – the traditional career ladder is dead.
Hyperbole aside, a career path often looks more like a rock wall than a ladder these days.
In rock climbing, to survive, you have to take steps back down the wall, or from side to side. Then, you have a chance to reach the very top. The same goes for your career.
This analogy is especially important for people who want to climb into executive ranks. Often, you need to be a lot more cross-functional to manage executives in several different domains.
You’ll also need to build relationship skills across departments and get a grasp on broader perspectives.
This makes a lateral move a common and beneficial step in your career path. Lateral moves can help you get the breadth of knowledge needed in order to make future jumps. It’s also a great way for someone who finds their career ladder is propped up against the wrong darn wall to get a fresh start.
Even if you need to take a backward step, this can be essential for you to gain the skills and knowledge necessary to become a broad leader, able to manage across industries and domains.
3. Careers have seasons
I find that it can be useful to talk about career advancement in terms of seasons. This circular focus, rather than a linear path, reminds us that careers have ebbs and flows.
In any given season, you may experience slow growth, a sudden jump, maintaining the status quo, and so on. Kim Scott talks about the concept of steep growth trajectories and gradual growth trajectories in her book Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity. It is crystal freaking clear that it is A-OK for someone to have periods where they aren’t focused on setting the world on fire and getting promoted the fastest.
Your desired growth trajectory will correlate to your personal life, what’s happening at home, what you have time for, and how you’re adjusting within a role.
Remember these seasons at times when you’re seeing less career growth and remind yourself that a new season is right around the corner.
4. You’re responsible for your own career growth
Say it with me – you are responsible for your own career development.
Or, as my friend Andy Storch loves to say “Nobody, and I mean nobody, are as much about your career as you do!” (It’s even on page 12 of his book Own Your Career Own Your Life.)
It doesn’t matter who you work for. Your company or your boss will always be a secondary source for your career advancement.
While talent management might have a true, vested interest in helping grow your career, their primary goal will always be to advance the company’s agenda, not the individual.
It’s like they say - and by they, I mean ME – waiting around for your boss to tell you what your career path should be is a really great way to never have a career path.
5. A domain or industry change doesn’t mean starting from square one
It’s scary changing fields – especially when you’ve already invested time in career growth in your current domain.
But changing fields doesn’t mean you need to start from square one. You likely hold transferable skills that will allow for a lateral switch.
And, if you do have to take a step back, that’s ok! You’re climbing a rock wall to fulfillment, not a ladder to nowhere.
Taking a small cut for the opportunity for future advancement in the field you want can be worth the risk. Remember that career advancement is far from linear.
6. Age doesn’t matter as much as you think
There’s a common notion in industries like tech that if you aren’t in an executive position by the age of 35, you’ll never make it to this level of management. Others even roll back that age to 30.
This couldn’t be further from the truth.
Case in point: A client of mine worked in IT Operations for her company for over a decade. In 2021, after serving as an analyst for over 10 years AND being a couple of clicks past 40, she was promoted to management. She’s crushing it and helping her company grow its IT maturity every day. Definitely not too old.
Another client of mine switched industries AND was promoted to a director-level role in product management in her 50s.
Bottom line: there is no age cap on career advancement. The notion that you’ve maxed out your potential by 35 is way off base. Is it harder to get some employers to buy in to a shift or a promotion later in your career? Yup, it sure can be. But it’s possible, so don’t let fears of ageism keep you from pursuing your career potential.
7. Move past black-and-white thinking
When it comes to career advancement, everyone has something to say.
Some say that staying at the same company for your entire career is the best way to grow. Others swear that it’s the worst.
In my opinion, either school of thought lends itself to black-and-white thinking. The real answer is: it depends!
Whether it be a small or large company, there’s no way to generalize whether or not “company loyalty” will help or hinder you.
And even if you’d love to be loyal, in some companies, there just might not be room for you to grow. In others, there might be amazing growth opportunities, they just aren’t right for you.
I experienced this years ago while working at Cerner Corporation (now part of Oracle.) I spent almost 5 years there progressing from programmer to business analyst, to QA testing manager, to Business Process Architect at what now seems like lightning speed.
Towards the end of my tenure, I hit a wall. The coolest jobs that interested me most required a clinical healthcare background. I didn’t have that, and as a person who regularly has to close my eyes during icky scenes on medical TV shows, I didn’t have one molecule of desire to get that background. So, I found somewhere else to apply my skills and grow.
Take the advice of others with a grain of salt and understand the nuance of growth within any particular company. Based on your own experience, you should be able to determine when it’s time to go and when you should stick it out.
8. There’s more to advancement than networking
We hear it all the time – network, network, network! But are politics truly the most important thing for career growth?
I’d argue that while relationships are very important in managing your career, they’re not the only thing that matters, especially not in healthy organizations.
Your skill set and work ethic both contribute to your reputation, something that is essential to career advancement. Even more impactful? Having some killer results as a key contributor on a team.
9. A little laziness can be your secret weapon
It may sound a bit like an oxymoron, but laziness might actually be an under-utilized way to advance your career.
Hustle culture tells us that hard work and self-sacrifice are the only ways to get ahead in life. Not only is this concept a recipe for burnout, but it also has an expiration point.
While hard work can get you far, it only works up until a point. At some point in your career, a little bit of laziness can be helpful to both your position and your work-life balance.
As you progress in our career, especially if you are a people leader, your ability to influence others - peers, direct reports, and your own managers, becomes more important than Doing All The Things.
Unlocking your delegation and influence skills is critical to unlocking opportunities to lead at work. You’ll find yourself becoming very creative in finding more effective ways to accomplish your work. Some examples of healthy laziness include:
- Using new technologies
- Delegating tasks
- Partnering with others
- Streamlining processes
- Eliminating low-value work
Final Thoughts from the No BS Career Coach
We talk about career advancement with the “path” analogy more often than not. But I hope these examples show you how much a career is like a maze.
There will be ups, downs, and redirects. Because life is a lot more circular than it is linear.
Remember this advice as you go forward in your career progression, taking with you the sentiment that we began with – career advancement is not a one-size-fits-all all plan. And when we stop comparing our careers to others, that’s when the real growth begins.
If you’re ready to get some help planning your next career move, I’m here to help. To learn more, just send us a message telling us what you need!