Your Career Q&A: How to Get On-the-Job Development

By Martin Yate Feb 14, 2017
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​Best-selling author Martin Yate, a career coach and former HR professional, takes your questions each week about how to further your career in HR. Contact him at the e-mail address at the end of this column.  

Hello Martin. My supervisor suppresses all my attempts to be proactive and grow my involvement in projects or become more visible to other management members—simply, anything that would allow me to develop myself. 

At first I thought I wasn't doing my job well enough to take on more work. However, I never received feedback that would support this suspicion. Now I am noticing my supervisor blocking my attempts even more, as I really try to anticipate where I could be of support. These projects could be a crucial part of my development and without being involved in them, I cannot grow in this job. And there is little room for proactivity with the other standard tasks of my daily work. 

I confronted my manager about it a couple of times now, and she said that I have to tell her what I want to do and where I want to develop myself. I only hear excuses. 

I really don't want to leave, as there is still a lot I want to learn and I like the environment. I also don't want to have to start establishing my position from scratch at another company. I've been in this job three-and-a-half years, but I feel like I am spinning in one spot and not moving forward. I have some self-motivation left, but I'm not sure if it's worth it to put my energy into the job anymore. 

Is there something I can still do about this situation? How I can approach my supervisor? 

Anonymous 


Could it be that your manager doesn't understand that it is her job to prepare you for career growth? It's a mutually beneficial process: A manager can earn her next promotion by having a successor in place. 

Your desire for professional growth is only natural. Many of us have also experienced working for a manager who seems to want to hold us down rather than help us rise. Further complicating matters is that traditional corporate hierarchies have been flattening for 30 years and now offer far less upward mobility. Given these considerations, I think there are a number of steps that you need to keep in mind to guide the trajectory of your career.

Map out Your Progress

You say you confronted your boss and she said "that I have to tell her what I want to do and where I want to develop myself." This could be a simple communication issue. All too often we want to grow but don't take responsibility for that growth. 

It's your responsibility to map out achievable long-term goals and then work backward to determine what your next job should be to take you along that path. Carefully analyze the required skills of that job and identify the skills you need to develop.

It's possible your boss is hearing you ask to work with other managers and to be allowed to do specific projects without obvious benefits for the department. If you tell her the skills you want to develop, maybe she'll offer an alternative development opportunity that delivers on your needs—and those of the department.

Focus on what you need to learn, communicate your interest in specific areas of development and give management what they're asking for. In return, you may get the skills that qualify you for promotions while delivering enhanced credibility and visibility to your company's leadership. 

Look for Opportunities

Once you know the skills that will be most beneficial to your career, you can share the specifics with your manager. You can also casually get to know the people already applying these skills in their work. Be friendly, show interest, but don't be pushy. When you hear about a project that needs help or a new one about to start, informally ask if you can pitch in. If they say yes, ask your manager for her blessing. Be on top of everything already within your areas of responsibility so that she won't worry that you will neglect your usual tasks. 

Protect the Job You Have

Even if this job is no longer right for your professional goals, you need to keep your income stream steady. Your No. 1 career mandate is to always protect the job you have until you have another lined up and can resign at a time that best suits you

Get on Better Terms with Your Manager

You said you met with your manager and you used the term "confronted" to describe your interaction, which implies conflict. This concerns me. If your manager remembers these meetings as confrontational, she may see you as difficult to deal with, which greatly lessens the chances of her letting you do special projects. It also increases the chances of your name going to the top of the list in the event of a layoff.

A manager's job is to get work done through others, which can include hiring and firing workers to maximize productivity. A manager with a dissatisfied and confrontational employee (and I've been there and done this) would be on the lookout for a replacement that will make life easier and be less likely to quit unexpectedly, causing further headaches.

So if you feel these meetings have been confrontational, take responsibility and go clean up your mess by apologizing and reassuring her of your commitment to the work. Tell her that in communicating your desire to gain skills and do a better job, you didn't mean to come across as rude or ungrateful. Now this might not be the exact truth, but play the game and protect your interests. 

Start Your Stealth Job Search

I believe, in your situation, there may be no opportunity for growth in your job due either to the flattened hierarchies we discussed earlier or the fact that your manager may only be interested in you continuing to fill your current slot. In both instances your best interests are served by executing a confidential job search.

With three-and-a-half-years of experience in this job, you have a steady work history and you needn't worry about starting from scratch. You will find a new and better opportunity that builds on your existing skills and allows you to start with a clean slate. 

Have a question for Martin? E-mail your queries to YourCareerQA@shrm.org. We'll only publish your first name and city, unless you prefer to remain anonymous—just let us know. We look forward to hearing from you!

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