Dear Plucky #3: Stuck, but Ambitious

airplane traffic

Dear Plucky,

I’ve been waiting for a promotion for a long time and keep getting passed up, but my manager says I’m doing great. Should I just ask directly for the promotion? Is this seen as too self-centered?

Thank you,

Stuck but Ambitious


Heya Stuck,

I’m picturing you in a holding pattern, like planes who must circle the airport for a while until they get clearance to land. We often look to our managers for promotions or next steps along our path… it’s the way we’ve been taught the system works. Employee shows up and does work, manger reviews employee and tells her what to do next. Voila: career path.

What a frustrating situation it is to feel you are not in the driver’s seat, that you must wait for someone else’s permission to grow!

Have a look at this:

“Pathmaker, there is no path;

You make the path by walking,

By walking you make the Path”

— Antonio Machado, Spanish Poet

I heard this translation of Machado’s poem while listening to a lecture by David Whyte last month and mentally bookmarked it for the next person who wrote in about career path. You’re the lucky winner!

A while back I worked at an agency where I was in charge of Annual Reviews. I spent many, many hours talking to people about what they wanted next and often the way they conveyed what they saw next was through titles. “Creative Director” or “CTO” or “Senior Strategist” come to mind. (Incidentally, these were not titles that the company even offered.) These conversations were usually fruitless until I realized that I wasn’t asking what those titles represented.

So when you say “promotion,” the question that immediately comes to mind is “what does this promotion mean to you?” Do you want more responsibility? Do you want to rally a team? Hold vision for the work? Deal better with conflict? Plan, execute and launch a project? These details are more helpful than “promotion” because you can spin on the concept of “promotion” for a long, long time before anything actionable or fulfilling comes out of it.

You spend 40 hours a week walking in some direction. What path have you made by walking? Is it the one you want? Or have you landed where you are because of momentum, an inability to change course, dig deep and honor what you really value?

There is no path. Even in large organizations that have salary bands and matrices… there is no path. There are precedents that have been set by other humans, but none of those are your path. Your path is the only one that’s authentic to you, the one that gets you excited on a Sunday night about the next morning. Your path is super-connected to your values, the way you appreciate the world and the vision you have for your contribution to it. What are you here to do? And how can you be doing more of it?

Every single day that you don’t line up how you spend your time with what’s authentic to you is a day lost; you’ve spent eight working hours wandering deeper into the jungle. I say this in the imperative form, in French for emphasis: BOUGEZ-VOUS! Move your ass! Get clear, friend! You must be an active participant in building your future. No career path fairy is going to swoop down to recruit you, especially not when commissions are involved. (Ha.)

It is not self-centered to ask for what you want but the mere fact that your question includes the word “promotion” suggests to me that you’re not asking for the right thing. You’re wandering deeper into the jungle, attracted by the fact that someone once walked that way before or you think there might be an easier road down this ravine. There isn’t.

Opportunities come when we know what we want and when our energy, demeanor and motivation supports that vision. When you convey power behind your vision, ways forward emerge. Call it The Secret or call it the power of conviction… you make the path by walking. By walking you make the Path.

(Incidentally, sometimes making the path means walking away from where you are. I’m just giving you permission to consider all options…)

Schedule a meeting with your manager. Show up with a list of ideas for how YOUR thing on the planet can be leveraged by the organization you work for. Do not mention the word “promotion.” Instead of role, talk about responsibility. Suggest a way that your authentic path and the company’s can merge, a way to leverage your talents and the company’s needs. THAT’s a conversation worth showing up for.

And when your manager says “well, I do know we need someone to head up community outreach…” in response to your desire to connect people to the company’s mission, ignore how that pivot will look on your resume. Instead imagine what your commute will feel like heading to work for that new responsibility. Are you energized? Do you have a million ideas that flood to the surface? Then say yes. Say yes and leap fully onto the next hopping stone on your path.

Or if it doesn’t feel right, say, “no but let’s keep talking; I’ll bring more ideas again soon.” Your conversations about career path will no longer center around you waiting for permission… you’re an active participant, showing up with valuable insight about what makes you tick and intuition about what the company needs. I’ll be damned if you don’t start getting somewhere, if the path you’re walking becomes as effortless and true as you’d ever hoped.

Good luck out there — and be brave. This stuff is hard.


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