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What If You Have No Vertical Path For Career Development?


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Your organization may not have an obvious vertical career path for you. It may not be clear how you will move up, or there simply may not be enough spots. The company may not be growing fast enough to support more managers. You don’t want to leave, but you want to keep growing.

How do you continue to develop your career so when an opportunity does present itself, you’re ready?

The answer starts with your mindset. I’ve found that people get easily stuck in their own perception of their position or role at the organization. Instead of focusing on how they can grow, expand, and add greater value to the organization, they’re fixed on, “Why didn’t I get that promotion?” It’s a very limiting frame of mind.

When you don’t see a vertical path for career development, you have two non-traditional options. One is to make a lateral, horizontal, or diagonal move to another position in the company, and the other is to create a job that doesn’t yet exist.

Climbing across the jungle gym

In Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg introduced the concept of career as a jungle gym, rather than a ladder. This is a particularly good fit for people in organizations who’ve flattened their inner tier of management, because making the next step up a pretty big jump. A few years in another department could give you the needed depth and experience for a high level job that seems unattainable right now.

For example, let’s say you currently are a project manager. You decide to take your great project management skills and put them to use in a brand new area for you, which is marketing. The marketing team are thrilled because they’ve never had professional project management before. Here you can add value in new ways. Make sure you are getting noticed for your unique contributions to the marketing team.

In turn you get to work on exciting and important projects. You learn about the marketing process and product launching steps. As you build up time and experience adding value and delivering results, you’ll be a much better position to qualify for a new leadership role. Or you may discover that you love your new marketing department so much that you don’t want to leave.

Had you stayed in the same department for all that time, you might have worked yourself into a rut and with that, a negative mindset.

A new job starts in your mind

Another option is to create a position that does not exist.  First, find the intersection between the three parts of this Venn diagram:


Where-do-I-focus
  1. What are your strengths? An excellent resource is Now, Discover Your Strengths by Marcus Buckingham. You want to uncover your core talents so you really maximize those and own them.

  2. What are the organization’s needs? This is an element many people miss or gloss over. It’s imperative to reach out to different individuals and departments to learn what the challenges are in the other parts of the organization. What issues are the top executives wrestling with? Only when you understand the challenges of the organization, can you propose yourself as part of the solution.

  3. Where do you want to contribute? What do you really love to do, where do you want to make a difference by adding in your energies and passions?

Once you’ve hit the center of that Venn diagram and you’ve identified the job you want to create or the need you want to fill, now it’s time to write a plan.

What actions will increase your chances? What relationships do you need to build? How will you do that? Where do you need to expand beyond your comfort zone? Come up with concrete objectives, actions, and a timetable that will make them happen.

Sell your plan

Before presenting your plan to the key stakeholders, test your concepts and proposal with other departments. Socialize your ideas and get their buy-in. This paves the way for a successful transition because other departments have already bought in to the concept. Next, sell the idea of your new position to the key decision makers. By doing this in a proactive way, you are showing your readiness to innovate, create a new solution, and lead the new initiative. If this does not work, try it again later when new issues present themselves.

Feeling stuck with no vertical path for development? Which of these two non-traditional paths could you take? Please add your comment below, or share with me on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook or email.

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