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How to Climb the Ladder, Even When the Ground is Shaky

As we approach what is typically “performance review season” many high performers are faced with two seemingly competing inner voices:

  • I should be grateful I even have a job
  • I still want to climb the ladder

It’s not a false dichotomy. You should be grateful. And you should also continue to build your career, even if seemingly nothing this year went “according to plan.”

For months, the 2020 mantra was, “let’s kick the can down the road.” There was an assumption that we can wait until this is “all over” to be strategic, focus on learning and development, grow the business, etc.  Wishful thinking.

This is not going to be “all over” any time soon and you can no longer kick the can down the road when it comes to your own career. You’re in control of your destiny.

Here are five tips for climbing the ladder, even if your ladder is seems to be resting on quick sand.

  1. Be clear about what you want 

Everyone’s brain is on ambiguity overload; that includes your boss.  If you’re speaking vaguely about “future opportunities” and “professional growth,” you’re likely speaking into an exhausted void. Your request will be filed in the “eventually” folder.  If you want to climb the ladder, identify the specific rung that comes next.

If you’re after a promotion, say it. If you’d like to take on a big project, express that. Your boss or the people in HR can’t read your mind, and their ability to pick up on conversational cues gets worse as they become more tired. Be specific about what you’re after.

  1. Think outside the box  

Climbing the corporate ladder typically depicts a very linear journey, with title bumps and salary increases at perfectly spaced intervals. As organizations (and the job market in general) face more uncertainty, you may have determined that now is not the time for a major move.

That doesn’t mean you have to stop the professional momentum. A promotion may be out of the question at the moment, but heading up a new initiative could lay the ground work. A pay bump may not be on the horizon, but a title change may be possible, especially if you’re at a smaller organization. Think about new ways to grow yourself and show that growth on your resume.

  1. Know that surviving is the new thriving (at least for today)  

For a high achieving, ambitious person, “surviving” has never been the bar. Yet, in what can only be described as a year-long curveball, surviving is quite the accomplishment these days.

In performance conversations, we typically highlight the forward movement we made. Know that articulating the backwards movement you prevented can be equally if not more impressive. If you or your organization didn’t hit your goals this year, think about what you did to fend off an even steeper decline.

  1. Talk impact over action. 

Instead of rattling off a list of all the things you did, talk about the impact of your work.. For example, if you came up with a great marketing idea, lead with “This enables us to get more leads, connect deeply with existing customers, and grow our brand. I’m proud of this concept because it will continue to generate even more results in the future.”
Identifying your impact, versus, “I worked really hard on this” positions you as more strategic. It helps others see not only how great you are personally, it also helps them see how much value you bring to the table.

  1. Don’t be afraid to find a new ladder 

Yes, the job market is turbulent right now. But it is not impossible. Yes, starting a business in a pandemic is a bold move. But there will be new businesses who emerge victorious. Career changes during this time deserve more of a “proceed with caution” than a “do not enter” sign.

It is scary to throw even more uncertainty into your life. It also might be a great decision. I wrote last week about how career tangents often lay the groundwork for great achievement.

While many organizations may have “kicked the can down the road” on new products, hires, or initiatives, you cannot do the same with your career.

Keep pushing forward, even if the ground is shaky.