How to Say No to Non-Promotable Work

You’re asked to head up the mentor project, pull together some resources, or plan the national sales meeting. You say yes, because it will help the organization. But is it furthering your career? Maybe not.

Last week I had a conversation with Lise Vesterlund, the author of The No Club.  Her research uncovers the true cost of doing dead-end, non-promotable work, and I’ll have to tell you, these are some lessons I wish I learned much earlier in my career.

Many of the assignments that keep you busy aren’t necessarily core to your job. It’s not the work you were hired to do, and these tasks take time away from the high value work that will advance your career.

Here are three tips from our conversation about identifying (and saying no) to non-promotable work.

Know the “tells” of non-promotable work.
This is work that helps your organization but doesn’t help you advance your career. The research behind The No Club reveals that non-promotable work typically has three characteristics:

  • Work that doesn’t contribute directly to the organizations mission (For example, if you’re in a sales organization, it’s revenue. If you’re in a University, it’s research)
  • It happens (mostly) behind the scenes and lacks visibility
  • Lots of people can do it; you don’t need your unique skills to accomplish it (think an economist or surgeon doing admin work)

Recognize, the “promotability” of a task can wane over time.
Early in my career as a sales rep, I was asked to plan our district sales conference. It wasn’t directly related to my job, but I said yes. It was a great opportunity to meet internal stakeholders, show off my creativity, and take an informal leadership position. I worked hard and got great feedback about the meeting I planned. So great, that I got asked to plan it again the following year. And then again, the year after that.

Here’s the challenge: Over time, while I was continuing to plan the meetings, my peers were starting to be asked to speak at the meeting. They were using the meeting time to make an impression on senior leaders. Many of them ended up getting promoted. Although I worked hard on the task of planning the meeting, the work wasn’t related to the org’s mission (produce revenue) it happened almost entirely behind the scenes, and over time, my efforts became less “wow” and more expected (even though it wasn’t my job). The more you commit to non-promotable work, the less valuable it becomes over time.

Identify (and share) your unique skills.
Leaders often make the mistake of assigning non-promotable work to the person least-likely to say no, instead of the person most capable of doing this. This typically happens unconsciously and the research behind The No Club revealed that women are more likely to say yes to non-promotable work. So, people keep asking them. If you’re a leader, it’s an imperative that you recognize (and put a stop to) this trap.

If you’re an individual contributor, you can help fend off “because they’ll say yes” requests by being very clear about what is (and isn’t) within your unique skillset. Being transparent about the high-priority tasks you’re working on and where your skills are most necessary to contribute to the organization’s goals can, over time, lessen the amount of non-promotable requests you receive.

Everyone has to do some non-promotable work, but the concern is ending up with too much, to the point when it takes away from your high-value promotable work. You owe it to yourself (and your organization!) to spend your valuable time wisely.