The problems identified around leadership/management seem to be twofold:
- there are good people who are not moving into those roles/positions
- there are people in those roles/positions who are not doing the kind of job we’d like them to be
The piece from the HBR blog and the parody of it highlight one contributor to this situation: some people actively manage their careers to increase their chances of being promoted into leadership/management positions and others are passive.
From an organizational point of view, I agree (with the parody) that it might be worthwhile to have systems in place that identify strong candidates even amongst the pool of passive hard workers. I also support the efforts of some institutions to offer professional development workshops to develop the skills and knowledge needed to do well in those roles.
However, I’d also like to think aloud about how to encourage people to be more active in managing their own careers.
This is not sleazy
I recognize that the whole idea of actively managing your career may feel icky. Those negative images come into play here. Furthermore, the fear of appearing arrogant is very real.
Let’s get one thing straight. I am not advocating that you exaggerate your abilities, take credit for others’ work, or in any other way lie about what you have done or can do in order to get ahead.
I am not advocating “boot licking” (and equivalent terms that are even less polite) or any other form of dishonesty.
Step 1: stop downplaying your achievements
When someone comments on something you’ve done, don’t go into “Oh, it was nothing” mode. Really. Stop that. Now.
Your strongest skills don’t feel like skills to you. They feel natural. They are not, you just have lots of experience using them and have forgotten how you learned them. When someone comments on how good you are at something, say “Thank you”.
Make a mental note that this is a contribution you make. The fact that someone notices and remarks on it suggests that not everyone can (or does) make that contribution.
The same goes for your knowledge. No matter how you acquired it, if you have knowledge that others remark on, it is probably valuable knowledge.
Identify what’s important to you
Figuring out what kinds of difference you want to make in your institution or in the world will help you identify what steps you might take to get there.
You don’t want a management position or leadership role because you are power hungry. You want it because you can make a difference. You feel slighted when overlooked for a promotion because you think you could have done a good job and made a difference.
What gets you really excited? What kinds of decisions and policies make you really frustrated? When do you find yourself talking really fast, or getting a bit ranty?
This is the basis of decisions about opportunities that arise. It also helps you create opportunities or at least put yourself in positions where opportunities you are keen to pursue are more likely to arise.
Figure out who influences policy and practice in that area
Who makes decisions about this? What committees deal with these issues? What is the process?
If the thing you are passionate about extends beyond the university then how does the university currently engage in that area? Or how does it do similar things? Who makes decisions about building new relationships between the university and outside organizations?
These are the areas you want to get involved in. This is the stuff you want to say “yes” to.
Connect with other people who are active in this area
You want to learn more about how these processes work and how you can get involved. This can start with informal conversations, perhaps over coffee or lunch. Introduce yourself to people. Or ask people in your network if they can introduce you.
If there are calls for nominations to committees you are interested in, put yourself forward. If there are open meetings, attend. Speak up if you have something to contribute. (Take the thesis whisperer’s advice, and speak after others’ have spoken. It’s less scary and makes you look smarter.)
Talk to your head of department
S/he is already connected into a wider network within the universities, if not by inclination then by the role. S/he can’t recommend you for committees or roles if s/he doesn’t even know you are interested.
This conversation may also help you align the tasks you do within the department more closely with your interests and strengths. It’s easier to have people stop asking you to do things than to say no. If they know what you want to say yes to, they are going to ask you to do that stuff.
Be prepared to be asked about the contribution you think you can make. You might have to talk about the skills and knowledge you have and how that’s going to help you do a great job. You will not be bragging. You will be providing facts to support your decision to be more active in a particular area.
That should get you started
Career management is an ongoing process. You reflect and adjust as you develop more skills and knowledge. You meet people and see new opportunities that weren’t visible from where you are now.
And yes, I can help. If you have ideas but find all of this frightening or overwhelming, I can help you get clearer about what you want and what steps you can take. You can also practice talking confidently but not arrogantly about all the stuff you are good at :-)