Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Should I stay or should I go? 4: the challenge of limited career advancement opportunity for those who seek that as a higher overall priority 1

Posted in career development, job search, job search and career development by Timothy Platt on December 14, 2015

This is my fourth installment to a series on intentionally entered into, fundamental job and career path change, and on best practices for deciding both when and how to carry through on this (see Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development – 3, postings 416 and following for Parts 1-3.)

I started this series by offering an at least brief list of scenarios where pursuing a more meaningful work life and career path would probably mean asking the “stay or go” question (see Part 1 for that list.) And I began addressing those scenarios in Part 2 and Part 3.

I turn here in this series Part 4 to consider the third entry on that list, which I repeat here:

3. You seek to actively advance in your field and up the table of organization where you work and into management and even senior management positions. But you work in the nonprofit sector and the headcount limitations that these organizations essentially always face, limit the possibility that there is or will be an opening for any next step up that you would seek promotion to at your current place of employment. How do you best analyze and understand your current situation, and your options, and how do you best decide your best path forward, and particularly where moving on to find a new next opportunity would involve at least some bridge burning – from leaving your current position with its steady paychecks if nothing else.

And I begin this by citing the career path lessons of a colleague who is now Chief Executive Officer of a nonprofit, and who I met while he was still working his way up towards his first senior executive position. At the time he was nominally a vice president in a Marketing and Communications department according to his title, and he was a senior director or at least its equivalent for the level of authority and the range of responsibility that he actually held. And he was definitely considered to be middle management there.

He works in nonprofits and has from the start of his work life, and he has had ambitions to rise to the top of one, and of a larger and more influential nonprofit organization at that, from early on. And he has developed his entire work and career strategy around that goal. I cite his work life story as a working example in a perhaps extreme form, of how an individual can even build a career path out of strategically asking and resolving the “stay or go” question.

• He carved out a career path in an area of marketing and communications that could only become more and more important, and both for whatever specific nonprofit he might be working for at any given time, and for any other that he might seek to move on to in taking a next career step up.
• He has always selected the projects and initiatives that he would pursue at any job he has held, with a goal of creating value for that organization.
• And certainly when he was still just working his way up and in less of a position to select his own assignments, he sought out opportunities from early on to carry out extra work projects if need be in order to achieve this goal.
• But he has always done this with an overriding personal goal as well, of being able to develop performance and achievement bullet points for his resume, where he could demonstrate both what he could do and the level of quantifiable value that his effort can achieved. (Note: “have used tool or technology X” or “have worked on task or responsibility Y” bullet points on a resume can never offer the impact or value as “have achieved” bullet points, and particularly quantifiable ones that more clearly indicate the level of success achieved and the value created from work performed.)
• And he has always looked for opportunities to both learn new skills that would help him where is now and for his next step up, and for opportunities to achieve credentials for having mastered those skills that he can market himself better with.
• And for this career developer, his goal was and has been to stay at any one job long enough to develop a quality performance track record there, but no longer. He has worked at nonprofits and nonprofits do keep their headcounts to a minimum and they are reluctant to expand that number with new positions, and particularly with new positions that are higher up on their table of organization. So particularly as you rise higher in them, the only path forward and up in the nonprofit world is through moving on to work with another nonprofit organization. And in this regard, when a possible next level up position does open in a nonprofit, and particularly for more senior positions, most nonprofits preferentially seek to bring in fresh ideas and outsiders with experience from other nonprofits anyway. So this career minded executive has built a career out of moving in and staying for four years or so, and then moving on as a next level up opening does arise, and in a next level up nonprofit.
• In this case, a major transition, as for example from middle management to senior management can make sense going from a larger nonprofit to a somewhat smaller one, if that is it is a nonprofit with real potential for growth and for being able to help make that happen. But if you can take that next level up step to a same size or bigger nonprofit, so much the better.
• No, I am not recommending this type of single minded “advancement as the only long-term priority” approach to career development. But I do cite it for its working elements, where they can be used in wider career development contexts too.

The individual who I write of here is one of several who I know and have worked with over the years who have moved up to become Chief Executive Officers of large and influential nonprofits. But I cite his story here for its single minded upward focus, and most probably from his first entry level job and from well before I first met him. You do not have to pursue advancement as a sole goal and priority or even as a primary one to succeed and to advance. But you do need to take ownership of your own work life and your own career path and you do have to be willing to ask the “stay or go” question, and dispassionately so – and not just if you find yourself working in a business that by its very nature cannot offer much opportunity to advance upwards where you are. And you should not only ask that after you have reached a point where you are, where the only realistic answer should to “go!”

And at this point, I admit that I decided to write and offer this series, at least in part with this specific colleague in mind, who I am still in at least occasional contact with. His jobs and career story is extreme, perhaps, but it is informative for the lessons it offers.

• And as a down-side to his approach, I have to add that a single minded goal of advancement and of developing those performance bullet points for your resume can lead to conflicts of interest too. Your always next-step up goals can, for example, lead you to focus mostly if not entirely on the short-term needs of the organizations that you work for, as that is where you can achieve more immediate resume bullet point-generating success.
• If you work where you are with your own longer career goals and priorities in mind, which is good,
• But focus on the longer-term needs of the businesses that you work for too – as that at least over the longer term of your career path, is as good for you as it is for your employers. My above cited colleague has not always been as successful at finding that balance, though I will leave that set of issues with that observation, at least for here.

I am going to turn in my next series installment to consider the next scenario as initially listed in Part 1 of this series:

4. You work in a field and a functional area of that field where the state of the art is always moving forward, but you find yourself falling behind and becoming more out of date in what you know and can do, and can demonstrate that you can do. And you do not feel supported by a current employer in developing your skills and experience set there, to become and to remain more cutting-edge relevant again, in what you know to be a highly competitive workplace. How can you best address this set of challenges, and in ways that build bridges rather than burning them?

Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings at my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development – 3 and at the first directory page and second, continuation page to this Guide.

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