The Job – Career Gap

Job vs. Career

A couple of times in my career as a User Experience professional, I’ve worked for bosses whom I considered to be ridiculously (some even dangerously) incompetent. One recent boss would stroll in at 10 am and leave at 3 every day. Even during his limited hours, we rarely saw him, and I can’t remember him pushing a single initiative or idea in the years I worked at that company.

At a busy agency chock full of brilliant, hard-working people, he seemed to maintain a low profile and accomplish nothing. Nevertheless, he was promoted twice while I was there, and shortly after I left, he was promoted once again – this time to the highest-profile User Experience position in the company.

He mastered his career without doing his job. We’ve all worked with people like this, and they’re easy to dislike. Their singular skill is building alliances with people who can affect their career trajectory. They might appear to have a low profile, but they are determined in their back-channel dealings. The worst of them are passive-aggressive and two-faced, never missing an opportunity to take more credit for something than they are due, or stab someone else in the back.

How to recognize them
In job interviews, they spend an inordinate amount of time haggling for more salary and better titles. Once they’re hired, they take full advantage of executives’ open door policies. They figure out which ones they can manipulate, and they spend a lot of time behind closed doors with them. Eventually, this extends to lunches, golf outings and more, where they have ample opportunity to spin stories of their own greatness and the incompetence of everyone else.

What to do about them
If they have cast their spells on the right people, there’s not much you can do. If you work at a company where the execs are fooled by people like this, then update your resume and move on.

What to do if you’re one of them
If you’re one of these people, then you don’t know it. You think you’re awesome, and although most of your colleagues can’t stand you, the ones who can help your career are in your court. Congratulations.

At the other end of the spectrum are people who excel at their jobs but struggle to move onward and upward in their careers. In fact, being great at your job can almost guarantee career paralysis. Your company won’t promote you because it would mean replacing you with someone inferior. On the plus side, these people are much more likable than the back-stabbing, two-faced good-at-career people. You just feel a little sorry for them (or yourself, if you’re in this category) as you repeatedly watch less-qualified people zoom by in the passing lane.

Sometimes these people are vindicated – Al Gore didn’t secure the presidency, but he eventually won an Oscar – but you can’t count on it. And, come to think of it, an Oscar pales in comparison to the most important job on the planet.

How to recognize them
They are the go-to people for solving actual business problems, so their names come up all the time in ad hoc work conversations and meetings – often preceded by “go ask…” These people are in high demand, and they’re always busy with actual work.

What to do about them
If you’d like to see them get that well-deserved promotion, then sing their praises in conversations with key people (the same ones the good-at-career folks are always having lunch with). Be specific about the role you can see them stepping into.

What to do if you’re one of them
You probably know you’re more skilled and more qualified than the people who’ve passed you by, and you’re a bit baffled. You need to get on the radar of the people who can take you places. Start acting a little like the leader you want to be. Figure out how to delegate some of your busy work, then carve off a meaningful bit of your boss’s job for yourself – with his or her blessing of course.

3 Replies to “The Job – Career Gap

  1. This sounds an awful lot like sour grapes to me. Companies are organizations, and sometimes value is measured in terms that aren’t apparent to those not making management decisions.

    Perhaps I’m missing sarcasm here, but, “figure out how to delegate some of your busy work” is terrible advice. I’d recommend making friends with your peers, expanding your professional network, and making your boss look good.

  2. Fair comment John, but I would argue that one of the responsibilities of a good manager or director is to earn the respect of the people who work for you. They don’t have to like you, but they should understand your priorities and goals at least to the extent that they can support you toward something. I’m also a fan of leading by example to the extent that people both above and below you on the org chart can see your commitment to doing good work. At the very least, they should see your face on a regular basis.

    I’ll concede that “figure out how to delegate some of your busy work” is a gross oversimplification. The point I was trying to make is that it’s important not to get so bogged down in details that you miss the big picture. To delegate is not necessarily the right solution, but I’ve often seen these types of people take on work that other people have been hired to do, or pick up the slack of less talented colleagues.

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