I’ve been a mentor for many years and I’ve had the privilege of receiving advice from fantastic mentors.
But I’ve had also tons of bad career advice. Advice that has derailed my professional progression, robbed me of opportunities to stretch myself, and fostered patriarchal thinking.
The problem is that because it comes from well-meaning people around us, we’re conditioned by patriarchy to think others know better than us, and we’re trained to want to be liked — to “do as we’re told” — damaging our career in the process.
Here are my top 10 pieces of bad career advice and what to do instead so you save yourself time, energy, and frustration.
[Bad career advice #1] Women don’t help other women
This is patriarchal advice at its best. Are you really saying that 4 billion human beings won’t help their own group?
Yes, there have been some women that have hindered my progression or didn’t help me when it could have made a massive difference for me….
I’ve found many other women that have supported my career progression, made warm introductions, amplified my work, and highlighted my achievements and skills in rooms where I was not present. They have been my mentors, coaches, and sponsors.
What to do instead? If you’re a woman, connect two other women in your network that would benefit from knowing each other.
[Bad career advice #2] If you do a great job, you’ll be promoted
I have bad news for you: doing an impactful job that deserves a promotion is not enough to get promoted. That’s a sad truth that I’ve confirmed over and over throughout my career and from people that I’ve mentored, coached, and sponsored. It’s also well-documented in leadership books and articles.
There are multiple reasons for that. Some of them are:
- Others may not be aware of your work.
- They may be aware but don’t understand what it takes to deliver those results.
- They may know about your work but don’t remember it at the promotion time.
- Maybe only your manager knows about your achievements.
- You deliver great value on key initiatives that are perceived as “one-offs”. That is, the value doesn’t fit the “typical” checkboxes for promotion.
- Your work has reset the baseline of what people expect from you: You consistently deliver fantastic work so, by doing so in each project, you’re perceived as not doing anything “extraordinary” worth of a promotion.
- You are perceived as a “commodity” worker: The business believes you won’t leave.
And there are many more.
What to do instead? Two actions you can start implementing right now to visibilise your great work:
1.- Record your wins — For example, create a “win folder” in your inbox to record your achievements, including those that appear “small”. That especially includes positive feedback from customers and colleagues. This information will be invaluable at the annual assessment time.
2.- Socialize your wins — Make your manager aware of your achievements… and everybody else that can support your promotion or may raise an objection about it. That includes your peers and especially other senior leaders in the organisation.
[Bad career advice #3] If you minimize your work, you’ll be more likeable and get promoted
Since I was little, I was taught by society to minimize and diminish myself and my contributions at each opportunity.
If they’d say “You’re intelligent”, the answer was “I work hard”.
To a professor telling me “Great work, Patricia”, I’d reply, “It was easy”.
Even to somebody praising how well a dress looked on me, I’d learned to reply “Really? It was not that expensive”.
And this pattern of diminishing my contributions and work continued through my early career. I felt the “right” answer to somebody acknowledging I had done great work was something like “It’s nothing”, “Anyone could have done it…”, or “Thanks but…”.
I also learn to caveat my comments with “I’m not an expert”, even if I was, because I internalised that otherwise I won’t be liked.
What’s the problem with that? I’ll answer with another question: How are you going to build a case for your promotion if you keep minimizing your contribution during the year? You cannot spend 365 days deflecting every praise on your work and then pitch during the annual and mid-year reviews that you’ve done outstanding work.
What to do instead? When somebody compliments your work, simply reply “Thank you” or, even better, stress what was the most difficult part. E.g. “Thanks. It entailed non-negligible strategic thinking/collaboration among teams/risk-taking. I’m glad to hear the project/initiative/presentation met your high standards “.
[Bad career advice #4] Everybody knows you want to be promoted
Nope. The world doesn’t turn around you!
During my academic years, the path was very clear. I was studying Chemical Engineering to get a diploma in Engineering. The same with my Master, and Ph.D. in Computational Chemistry. I didn’t need to spell out my goals. They were clear to everybody and that made it easy for people to support me, mentor me, and coach me.
Then, during my post-doc, the goal was much more fluid. It was like being in limbo. People assumed I wanted to be a professor at university — that’s what everybody wanted in the lab but I was not sure anymore… And then I knew that I wanted to work for a commercial company. Still, because I didn’t tell anybody, none knew, and obviously they didn’t think to recommend me if a commercial opportunity came along.
I did get a position to work for a company in France after my post-doc but it was all on my own. I had to look for open positions and apply to them. No warm introductions or help to prepare the interviews. Still, my post-doc advisor was very supportive once I asked for a recommendation to finalise my hiring at that company… I wish I’d communicated to him my intentions earlier.
I learned my lesson. Since then, I’ve been transparent with my managers about my career goals and where I see the next step for me. This kind of conversation helped me to understand the gaps between my perception and theirs about my career ambitions.
What to do instead? Spell out exactly what you want. Do you want to be promoted? Do you believe you deserve it? Say it. Explicitly. Don’t simply say “I want to be promoted” but “I have now the skills, achievements, and experience to be promoted to Sr. Support Engineer”, “Operations Sr Manager” or “Principal Software Engineer”.
And if you haven’t started to discuss it with your manager, don’t leave it to the annual review. Bring it to your next 1:1 meeting!
[Bad career advice #5] If you go after a promotion, you may let other people down
At one point when I was looking for a job early in my career, I reached out to quite a lot of organisations with my CV. One of them replied that they wanted to hire me. The position was not starting until several months later but I was over the moon.
About a month later I got the previous message, I was contacted by another of the organisations to which I’d applied. They were also interested in my CV. What’s more, they were even a better opportunity than the one I had accepted.
I was torn. I didn’t want to let the first organisation down but it was such a good opportunity…
I reached out to my only mentor at the time and she told me I should be cautious. I didn’t want to be known as somebody that was untrustworthy… Long story short, I declined the second offer.
In the very long run, all went well with my first option but I regret that my decision was based on “not letting others down” and not on “this is the best choice for me”.
What to do instead? Every time your brain goes into the “I may be letting others down” rabbit hole, question if you’re letting yourself down instead. Also, I invite you to examine the long-term effect of your decision. In my story, the decision was life-changing for me — it affected my career path — whereas for my employers it would have been an inconvenience but definitely, it wouldn’t have changed the organisation.
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