Why Your Skills Won’t Advance Your Career

Sign showing possible and impossibleCatchy title right? It almost immediately invokes an emotional reaction in a lot of my readers. The point of this title, and this post, is to explain why the skills and hard work that resulted in your current career position are unlikely to be what is needed to go to the next level.

Let me expand on that.

Early in our career – any career – typically “hard skills” are essential to getting a job, keeping a job, and advancing into the next few promotions. I don’t care if you are a hairdresser, call center employee, mechanic, or aspiring sales director. Early on you have to have the ability to do specific tasks, within a given domain, and do them well. Everyone starts out at ground zero and basically proves they have learned very specific activities and ways of getting things done that match expectations. In some cases these are the easy days, as expectations for entry level jobs are clearly set, you can learn them and apply them quickly, and if you keep doing what you’ve learned well you start to advance.

However, I guarantee you will reach a point in your career where suddenly the hard earned skills and “excellence” you have achieved won’t help you step onto the next career rung. In some cases this occurs when you may move into people management – and suddenly you are expected to manage the performance and growth of a team of people that days ago were peers. What is amazing to me is all too often a company will not even provide training on “management”, nor will they have clear expectations on what success looks like. Instead it is a case of “you’re promoted to manager, now go lead the team”.

Talk about stage fright. Everything you’ve learned up to this point may not be applicable to your job tomorrow…and you may not even know if you are doing good or bad as the role is defined in a fuzzy way.

Beyond Management

So being moved into management is often the first indication that your “hard skills” and “know-how” have gotten you as far as they can. Now you start learning about the soft skills – the collaboration, managing people and getting the best performance out of them you can, negotiating corporate politics…you get the gist.

Moving into management, and the pitfalls associated with this at many companies, are the subject of more books and articles than I could read in my lifetime – plenty of material out there on that.

However, this is just the warm up for the future uncertainty you will have to face as your career continues to advance. Picture a pyramid. That is the “career” universe. There are a ton of entry level opportunities at the bottom that a huge number of people are qualified for and can perform well in. However, to keep moving “up” the ladder the number of available positions gets smaller and smaller – even though the number of people aspiring to those positions doesn’t.

So how are decisions made at “rational” companies as to who moves to the next level and who is the larger group that gets left behind? We already mentioned people management as one stepping stone, but as you get nearer the top, and the field is really narrowed, all of your peers will have had this experience – yet only a couple will move into the next position of influence.

So how do executives decide? One major attribute [possibly the most important] is “business judgment”. It’s assumed everyone has the hard skills and most of the soft skills at this point, and can manage a team well. However, when this group looks at a set of facts, plans, issues, etc., each person will invariably come to slightly different conclusions about what they mean, how they align with the business, and what should be done as a result.

The person that consistently arrives at the “best” conclusion, AND can communicate that conclusion concisely, without emotional involvement, and make a compelling case…that is the person executives begin to rely on. More and more. Until a position opens and they are moved up the ranks…to continue demonstrating good business judgment and decision making.

So business judgment is what I’m speaking of. It can be harsh, it can be fun, it can be nerve wracking. But that is what you have to develop if you want to move into the corner offices. Your judgment has to be accurate, objective, and always with the best interests of the business in mind.

I am going to expand on this in a future post, as I have seen little training in the commercial world around how to develop good business judgment. I do not believe this is something you’re born with – it is an acquired skill, and it will take me many more posts to provide my opinion on how to develop it.

Hopefully you found this useful, and it provided enough context to continue researching and reading other business leader’s perspectives.


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