I received some great feedback from readers last week on my post about the dilemma of wanting to advance despite uncertainty about your career aspirations. Several people wrote to say they were in exactly that situation: unsure if they wanted to stay on their current track but wanting to move up while they figured out their career goals. The challenge they found, as most do, is that earning promotions absorbs so much time that it was difficult to both do their job well and keep new options open. Several others, however, wrote asking me to clarify what I meant by learning being both a creator and destroyer of freedom in our careers. So today I want to flesh out exactly what I meant by explaining what I call the “promotion snowball effect.”
Success can become the enemy in your career if chasing promotions crowds out your other career goals. The prospect of recognition and promotions may motivate you to work hard and develop skills, but it can also distort your vision. This is especially true if you are wired to crave tangible progress and constantly need to feel like you’re “winning” at your job. Unfortunately, that describes many of us in our early twenties – another way in which school shapes our reward systems. Success is addictive, and addictions cloud your judgment about what’s best for you. Now don’t get me wrong: the idea that whatever you do you should do well is perfectly admirable. But if you only pay attention to tangible, near-term success, it’s easy for your first career to become your lifelong career. Why? Advancing in your job requires you to continuously develop industry and company-specific skills. That can easily absorb nearly all of your productive hours. On top of that, you accumulate valuable institutional knowledge that makes it increasingly hard to walk away from your profession as time goes on. Starting over is daunting, and your company will often entice you to stay to prevent the loss of institutional knowledge. If you know you’re in the career you want for the long haul that’s great. Unfortunately most of us fall somewhere in the middle of the uncertainty spectrum. Without a clear direction, it’s easy for you to only master the skills you need today and not ask what skills will get you closer to their career goals.
How the Promotion Snowball Effect Sneaks Up on You
Let’s say you’re hired right out of college into the marketing department for a major hotel corporation. You wanted the job because you love the blend of strategic and creative skills it requires of you. You’re helping run focus groups, pitching new ideas, designing loyalty programs, and learning a ton about the business. Then you find out that your manager has a problem. The team needs to able to analyze the data they’ve got more easily but don’t have the expertise to do it, and you see an opportunity to become an authority. You read a book, maybe watch some online tutorials, and in a month you’ve learned just enough of the basics to get the job done for her. It’s fun to solve new puzzles, and you’re recognized for your contributions, which feels great. A few months later, your boss needs your help again with a similar project. “No problem,” you say, and you dive in once more.
Six months go by, and now you’re the team’s “data person”. When people need help, they come to you. Your manager is delighted that she can rely on you for this and heaps praise on you. You learn more about data analysis techniques and even start splitting some of your time between marketing and the customer analytics team. You take a Coursera class to polish your fundamentals, and after a year of off-and-on investment, you’ve got real chops. Another six months go by, and a position opens up in the analytics team. Your manager recommends you, and everyone tells you that you’re a perfect fit. Did I mention the job comes with a 20% salary increase and a title that has the word ‘Senior’ in it? You feel conflicted about doing less of what you originally wanted to, but the people you look up to are encouraging you to make the transition. You swallow hard and take the promotion.
For the first year or two of your career, you were so focused on doing well and getting that first promotion that you barely considered what comes after. Now you realize as soon as you hit one milestone, new ones immediately take its place. The difference now is that you’ve got more things pulling on your time and even more to learn just to do your job. Before, you were exceeding expectations. Now, it’s just part of the job. Far from coasting, you have to sprint even harder after your promotion to justify your managers’ faith in you. Part of you still wonders if you made the right decision, but you’re also learning more about how the organization works: how budgets are allocated, how promotion and hiring decisions are made, how you can wield greater influence, and lots more. You understand the game better now in your new seat, and that makes you feel more comfortable. After a few months, you’ve settled in and you don’t look back. Pretty soon, you’re wondering how much your raise will be at your next promotion…
So is this story a triumph or a tragedy? It’s entirely dependent on what you want. If you love your new work and discover a talent you never knew you had, then great. But if what you still really want to do is design and implement your own marketing strategy, instead of crunching numbers for the people who do, then you may have let a promotion make a bad decision for you.
The promotion snowball builds steam quietly before it flattens people. When young professionals chase promotions to the exclusion of their other goals, they lose track of whether they’re learning skills as a means or an end. Later, the gap between the skills they have and the ones they need for their desired career can grow too large for them to close easily. Sometimes it takes people a few promotion cycles before they sober up and realize that their career has gotten away from them. If you should find yourself at this point, you will see that all of your options have significant drawbacks:
- Stay on the path you’ve accidentally chosen, and watch other people ascend through the career you wanted (sad)
- Go back to school full-time to re-tool your skill set to make a career change (expensive)
- Try to re-tool your skills on your own while staying in your current role (doable, but hard)
Staring at these options is the “hangover” moment in which a quarter-life crisis can take hold. The first option is so grim that it need not be discussed. The second option, grad school, is the one many young people choose to engineer a career switch. In the best cases, grad school can allow you to transition into the field you want and do work that you enjoy. In the worst case, you may only succeed in losing another few years of career development while taking on a mountain of debt. By contrast, re-tooling your skills on your own is cheaper but harder to do the further along you are in your careers. Not only are you busier, but employers are less enthusiastic about hiring people making big career changes as they get older (a degree makes them feel more comfortable). Early on, managers tend to cheer you on for trying new things. After a while though, they will expect you to have figured out what you want to do in your career. And remember that if you want to move to a totally different position within your current company, the company has to eat their investment in training you for the things you’ll no longer do. Swapping an experienced X for an inexperienced Y is not most managers’ idea of a great trade.
The moral of the story is to not let near-term success distract you from what you really want out of your career. The point isn’t that you shouldn’t set your sights on promotions if you’re uncertain about your ultimate career. I believe you still should, and I have a few rules of thumb to help you avoid falling prey to the promotion snowball effect:
- Say No - Don’t let yourself be pigeonholed by skills you acquired solely as a means of building your advocate network and elevating your profile.
- Be Proactive - When you learn things opportunistically to pitch in on something, parlay that goodwill into opportunities that interest you, not more of the same stuff.
- Learn Broadly - Don’t slow down your broader education until you’re sure that the career path you’re on is the one you want.
There are unfortunately lots of reasons why you might not be in the job you want, but forfeiting control over your career choices should not be one of them.