I love talking to people about their careers and I’ve been hearing a couple variations from different levels of folks saying “How am I supposed to be able to get promoted when there are so many folks at my level?” Perhaps there aren’t enough spots working on the hot new project. Perhaps there are not enough projects to lead. Perhaps it’s that there are not enough juniors to mentor. There’s not “enough” of it, and the team feels like a competition.
Those things may be true, but are they helping you find your next step? If you want to move forward, you’ll almost always find that there’s not enough of something entirely different.
A couple caveats before we jump in:
First, maybe you’re someone who is motivated by competition. If so, I’d hope that you’re being an excellent coworker, cheering your “competition” on. If competition is how you psych yourself up and you understand that’s not how many folks thrive and you know it’s not detrimental to the team: you do you. This, however, is not the article for you.
Second, maybe you have some other interpersonal dynamics going on. Sometimes you have to work with assholes. Sometimes you have to work with people you can’t trust. That sucks. This isn’t that conversation. Let’s assume teammates who are competent and generally good humans.
Okay, done with the caveats. So what’s actually lacking?
Not enough senior/staff+ level work for how your org is choosing to hire and staff teams.
There’s no inherently “too senior” team. There are many teams that are too senior for the work that their organization has assigned them. It’s rare, but I was on a team with all staff engineers and we were all extremely busy doing promotable work. Put that same team on an easier project and we absolutely would have been competing for interesting work.
Not enough emphasis on actual growth work
Sometimes we chase promotable/prestige work over the work that will actually help us grow. Sure, you might want to lead on every project your team gets. What exactly would that help you learn? As you dig in, you may find you’re still assigned (or can easily find) work that challenges you to grow.
As you progress in your career, you will need to pass up opportunities that just a year ago, you would have been flattered to be assigned. If you can’t start passing off work to make space for your growth and for the growth of others, the only thing you’ll be guaranteed to learn is how to cope with overwhelm! But you will miss out on other things.
There are many different levels of leadership. When you’re not a point person on a particular project, are you also spending time contributing to or leading on a cross-department initiative? Mentoring an intern? Working on high-priority interrupts that slowly build your network of contacts within a company?
I recently reread Michelle Bu’s recounting of her initially slow career growth at Stripe, posted on StaffEng.com (you’ll want to search for “Stripe is the first company” for the right section). Later in her career, she found that some of the periods of comparably slow growth early in career included lots of non-technical growth that became incredibly valuable later in her time at Stripe. It’s totally valid to want to focus on a single dimension of your skills at a time and that may initially lead to faster promotion cycles. If you eventually want a wider set of skills, perhaps now is a great time to work on those?
Not enough reflection on your part
Even if you don’t have work right now that prompts you to grow, you might still be on track on your current team if you’re able to learn a lot from your colleagues.
Taking a backseat on a project doesn’t mean you won’t learn from that experience. Supporting a co-worker in the lead role while you operate as a peer or junior is actually decent training for helping to support multiple people in that role once you’re above them. When else will you have the time to devote to watching one person operate as senior/staff/principal and learning to understand the support they need but may not get from managers and ICs above them?
You can also learn from your fellow teammates by considering how you would approach their work. For lower levels, technical judgment and a reputation for it is one of the most important things you can have. How would you have done something differently? What do you value that leads you to that different conclusion?
For a staff level person, ask the same questions, but I’d additionally suggest studying your teammates’ leadership and communication styles. As you rise in your career, it becomes rare to be able to see someone doing your job at the same time but with a different approach. If you see them flailing at something, what exact actions would you take to improve chances of success? If they achieve success with an approach you don’t agree with, what do you see that they don’t (and how can you make sure you don’t become blind to the same things?). Spending this time clarifying your approach and values is great preparation for future stretch assignments where you need to rely on gut instinct.
Not enough open honesty from your manager.
It’s hard, as a manager, when you have a lot of folks who need growth assignments. They might know that a teammate is close to promotion and needs one more assignment before the next evaluation round. They might know that someone else is considering leaving without more challenging work. They can’t tell you why they’re making certain decisions.
Now might be the right time to have a direct conversation with your manager about where they see your growth opportunities and what work the two of you can find to build your strengths there.
If you’re still not seeing the assignments you need to grow, you may be getting strung along by a manager who is doing their best and trying to retain a good employee by presenting the most optimistic view of career growth at your shared employer. Your manager may need other employees more than they need you. Your growth might just not be a priority for the business and many managers can struggle to be honest with you and themselves when they’re in that position. Your manager has a job too and that job doesn’t involve sitting you down and saying “Gosh, this is a pretty solid job that could lead to a lot of growth but if you leave the company, you’ll see 25% faster career growth.”
The bottom line
It’s good to watch for when the assignments we want go to our teammates – there are lessons in there about what your company and manager values and how they operate. However, it’s rare that focusing on those decisions is going to help you find growth.
If you’re not seeing growth, try finding it for yourself: focusing on opportunities that aren’t being given to you deflects from whether you might actually still be growing quickly or whether you might need to make a bigger change for your career. If that doesn’t work, consider being frustrated with your company’s and manager’s choices rather than seeing your co-workers as competition. An internal transfer or job search might be needed to find you that perfect confluence of critical business need, challenging work, skills you uniquely offer, and a functional promotion process.