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Viewpoint: How to Avoid Being Overshadowed Early in Your Career

A silhouette of a businessman sitting at a table in front of a window.

Early on in your career, there will be times when you feel like your manager is getting more attention for your work than you are. While there is typically a corporate hierarchy that you need to respect, it's also important to establish yourself and receive credit for your hard work.

Behind the Scenes

Early in my career, I felt overshadowed when I worked on a project sponsored by a senior leader. Although I was doing the work, my manager often became the face of the project.

I don't think it was intentional; managers usually have more established relationships with senior leaders. Moreover, when project updates were made, it was typically one of the many items included on the senior leaders' meeting agenda. Although I would receive updates after meetings, I didn't want feedback filtered through my manager.   

So one day, I did something about it. I e-mailed the senior leader with whom my manager was meeting, and asked to meet. The response was favorable; I was able to secure an appointment within a week. The night before the meeting, I didn't sleep well.

When you've been in your manager's shadow, your confidence dwindles. I experienced imposter syndrome, and I began to doubt that my project was worth discussing. Overnight, I nodded off and awoke, contemplating what I could say about my project that my manager hadn't already shared.

The following day, I was uncharacteristically quiet at work. By mid-morning, I was ready with all of the meeting materials, including the project charter, timeline, milestones and an overview of the anticipated deliverables.  

Although I began the meeting uncertain, I left confident and excited. Here's why:

  • The senior leader shared positive feedback on my project.
  • They gave me suggestions for other deliverables that would be helpful for the organization.
  • They asked me to stay in touch with them and reach out if I ever needed help.

Standing Out

Here is my advice for early career professionals that find themselves in a similar situation and want to receive recognition for their hard work.  

1. Have an honest conversation. Talk to your manager and tell them that you're seeking exposure within the organization. Let them know the more people you interact with, especially senior leaders, the more you'll receive feedback and make improvements.

2. Build internal relationships. Projects are a great way to build relationships with senior leaders over time. You can share project updates via e-mail or during meetings. You can also reach out to other peers. As a Harvard Business Review article advised, a good litmus test for determining whether your boss is overshadowing you is seeing if you can name three people outside your department who understand your job and the value you bring to the organization.

3. Demonstrate your expertise. As you start building relationships internally, subtly share your skills and expertise. I find listening more than talking helps you figure out what people are working on and how you can help.

4. Seek out a mentor. Often, it's helpful to speak with a mentor who knows and understands the organization's culture. They can help you figure out how to connect with senior leaders aligned with your project, while not stepping on your manager's toes. Looking back on my career, having a mentor early on would have helped me figure out things at work above and beyond doing my job. 

5. Change jobs. Sometimes getting out of your manager's shadow means that you'll need to change jobs. However, that shouldn't be your first step. Early in my career, I worked for someone who discouraged me from talking to others at work—especially senior leaders. They'd often say things like, "I'll take care of that," when I asked if I could provide project updates. While I didn't make the decision immediately, I ultimately left the role. I didn't want to be in a position where I had to sneak around my manager. Further, they couldn't see the negative impact their actions had on me. It was a lose-lose situation.

Change the Game

In closing, I know from personal experience that being in your manager's shadow can be demotivating. However, there are steps you can take to change the situation. In the meantime, continue contributing at work; people will soon realize your value. And if they don't—that's when it's time to move on.

Kyra Sutton, Ph.D., is a faculty member at Rutgers University School of Management and Labor Relations in New Brunswick, N.J., where she teaches courses in training and development, as well as in staffing and managing the 21st century workforce. She also has served in lead HR roles at Pitney Bowes and Assurant.