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The Career Management Trap

Appraisals for the year 2018 are over. The results are out. It’s a fair assumption that acceptance of the results is at best ‘Satisfactory’. Most feel ‘Good’ about it and then there are the few who feel they are justifiably ‘Outstanding’.

Therein lies the rub. 

The people with ratings less than ‘Outstanding’ are the ones feeling cheated or at best disappointed. They worked hard and feel that their work isn’t recognized. The individual words (ratings) can be replaced with ‘Met expectations’ (Good) and ‘Didn’t meet all expectations’ (Satisfactory). We can agree on the exact terminology, but phrases capture the intent better than single words are currently doing. For ‘Outstanding’ I think ‘Exceeds expectations’ works well.

Expectations are a list of objectives that are identified for every individual (including myself) for the year, in advance. Some lists are more specific and hence can be quantified (like sales numbers) while others are more qualitative (like mine which talks about developing SAGE India’s Senior Management). In an ideal situation the manager and the person being managed agree on objectives at the start of the year and periodically review progress against it. 

This is the theory of how work should be appraised, and I can talk about its practice in a future article. In this article I want to focus on ratings and their influence on careers. What happens if you get rated ‘Outstanding’ (Exceeds expectations) two years in a row. In the first year, the rating is benchmarked against a list of objectives that the manager feels is achievable but is difficult to exceed. As the diligent worker, you exceed it. The next year the manager, in all probability, will have a list of objectives that is similar or slightly challenging from the previous year. In year two you exceed this new list of expectations and are awarded ‘Outstanding’. The most natural thing for the manager to do then is to raise the bar for the third year. It is here that even if you achieve all the objectives of a raised bar that you will only be ‘Meets Expectations’. And this is the trap that causes the most problems. 

The problem with building careers is that individuals focus on the here and now. Almost 90%+ of people who are good performers quit because they feel they are not being valued OR they don’t have a career in the organization. I completely agree that for a small percentage of individuals, a company’s pace of growth will be much slower than what these individuals can and are achieving. But for the rest, the rating of Outstanding (exceeds expectations) is a trap!

For an organization it is difficult to evaluate the following scenarios:

1.    Can a person who is great at managing his workload automatically become an effective junior (level) manager?

2.    Can a junior manager outperforming in this role take on the role of a manager?

3.    Can a manager take on a larger role as a senior manager or even be a part of the senior management of a company?

More often than not, it’s in the first case where a solo performer consistently outperforming his objectives thinks he is ready to become a manager. In my career I have seen some of the greatest disasters and very few successes at this level. Before engaging with the issue any further, it’s important to approach career from the employee’s perspective.

Almost all junior level exit interviews have these standard responses:

1.    Am leaving for better prospects

2.    I don’t see a future here

3.    I am being paid better

4.    I am at the same position for the past many years

It’s possible that these statements could be completely true. But what if they are notWhat if these statements are assumptions and not factsHow do you test each of these for factual accuracy? The answer to all of these questions is HAVE A CONVERSATION WITH YOUR MANAGER. This is by far the simplest solution to career management and development and surprisingly the one most often ignored. 

“Leaving for better prospects” is an assumption that there is no future growth in the role or for the individual in the company. Similarly, “I don’t see a future” is again an assumption. The worst assumption though is the one on salary. It is very possible that in a given role someone offers a better package than the one an employee is currently receiving. But is the increment for the same roleor for an enhanced one? If it is for the same role, then the increment is not going to last very long. Every company, no matter which industry, has a limit to how much they will pay for a role.

When the ceiling is hit, the salary is frozen, or the position is repurposed. The question to ask yourself is, will I be able to qualify for an enhanced role in a new organization? Sometimes the answer stems from being delusional about one’s capabilities.

We believe we are super performers for whom no role is too small, nor any responsibility too large to shoulder. We consciously refuse to see our own shortcomings. Jedi Master Yoda tells the young Skywalker “do not underestimate the power of the dark side…” and in senior management the dark side is the TITLE and the perceived POWER that comes with it. In my career of over 3 decades, I have only encountered one individual who refused to take on additional responsibility or carry a title that he believed he wasn’t capably of justifying. On the other hand, I have had several who left stating that they were clearly made for more than I was willing to offer, or the organization was willing to give.

Today, the same individuals continue to struggle with their careers. Some have abandoned paths they pursued diligently for decades and have struggled to gain acceptance in their new avatar. For the one who refused to take on the additional responsibility, he remains valued in the role he continues to be in. 

It is important to be focused on growing your career, but it is even more important to remain clear on career growth drivers. A salary increase or ‘Outstanding’ rating are NOT indicators of successful careers. Believing you are ready for more without truly testing yourself only leads to disasters. You need to assess your skills and your readiness for the future before believing you are ready to take it on. If you don’t, you will hit a roadblock in your career, and it will be at this point that you will revisit this article and try to understand it, again! 

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