THERE’S TRADITIONAL career advice, such as clarify your goals, master essential skills, promote yourself, network and work smarter, not harder—whatever that means.
While this general advice is great, it’s no sure-fire formula. There’s no guarantee that if you work hard and smart, you’ll get a promotion and a pay raise. Traditional career advice tends to assume that you, your boss and the company are all behaving logically, and that the system reflects that logic.
What if they aren’t? Believe me, I’ve been there. I had to advocate for myself and, after some struggle, I succeeded. New job entrants, including my sons, their peers and some friends, have asked me for career advice. Looking back over my work life, here are my top three recommendations:
1. Know what kind of manager you really have. Your manager is the person who can make or break your career. I am not talking about a bad boss who creates an overtly unhealthy or even toxic work environment. If you’re working for one of those, leave as soon as possible.
No, I’m referring to the sneakier kind of boss. They’re nice people. Everyone likes them. They talk in terms of the team and compliment you in their evaluations. Despite the pats on the back, however, they just never seem to promote you, no matter how hard you work or how good your work is.
I had my fair share of managers like this. Several years ago, one of these nice managers gave me excellent reviews. I asked him for a promotion to senior analyst because, for more than a year, I’d taken on senior-level responsibility.
He told me that I needed to continue doing senior-level work at my lower pay level to prove myself for “a few more years.” When I asked him if he would follow his own advice and do higher-level work at lower-level pay, he refused to answer. I knew then that, to move ahead, I needed to leave.
If you’re lucky and you have a good boss, be grateful. Work diligently to support him or her, as well as the rest of the team. I had several good bosses who coached, mentored and guided me. They advocated for me even when I wasn’t in the room.
One boss put in the paperwork to move me up even though he knew he was on the way out. His position was eliminated, and yet he made sure my promotion would be approved before he left.
Another boss selected me to join a leadership pipeline program, even though the program’s workshops and training would mean less time for my work. He gladly filled in for me at meetings and delegated some of my work, so I could advance.
You can’t choose your manager, of course. Still, just being aware of which kind you’ve got can help you know whether it’s better to look elsewhere or stay put.
2. Pursue what interests you. I know this one sounds like typical advice. From my perspective, however, being actively involved and learning in areas that interest you will keep you engaged and inspire you to do better.
Even if it’s not obviously beneficial to your current job, and even if your manager discourages it, pursuing your interests will help you stay in the game longer—and make work more fulfilling. And you never know when you might get a job in that new field you’re learning about.
When I was an analyst back in 2002, I was interested in structured query language (SQL). I asked a colleague in the IT department to teach me basic SQL. My then-manager discouraged me from learning it, calling it an IT job, not mine. But I enjoyed SQL and continued to learn it on my own.
About a year later, I was approached about an internal transfer to a new job with a substantial pay increase because the hiring manager was looking for an analyst with SQL skills. After my transfer, I continued to improve my SQL skills, which opened up more opportunities for me.
I built on my SQL skills and learned the statistical analysis system (SAS) software to further develop my analytical skills for credit risk management. Although I couldn’t have predicted it back in 2002, pursuing my interests—even against my manager’s advice—helped my career years later.
3. Don’t ignore non-monetary benefits. Sometimes, the intangibles are as important as money and—in some cases—more important. As a single mom, I burned out early in my career, putting in many hours at work to climb the corporate ladder. While my career took off, it came at a cost—my time with my toddler son.
After that, I left the company and vowed never again to work that much. At my new bank, I took a pay cut for a job that was less demanding, so I could have more time at home. Later in my career, I learned to value other, non-monetary benefits that gave me greater flexibility and a positive work-life balance.
For example, I stuck with my employer because I was allowed to telecommute for the last seven years of my career. During that time, I got to see more of my sons during their high school and college years. That reward was worth far more to me than any title or raise that I might have received.
Jiab Wasserman, MBA, RICP®, has lived in Thailand, the U.S. and Spain. She spent the bulk of her career with financial services companies, eventually becoming vice president of credit risk management at Bank of America, before retiring in 2018. Jiab lives in Texas with her husband Jim, who also writes for HumbleDollar. She’s an advocate for addressing the issue of gender inequality. In addition to writing and playing tennis, Jiab creates and sells art, which is available through her online shops. She and Jim are working on a new book, due out in 2023, that examines the impact of social media influencers on youth consumerism and identity development. Head to Linktree to learn more about Jiab, and also check out her earlier articles.