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Managing Principals by Julia Kramer Brake Lights Ahead

Career stalled? Try these rules of the road: Stay alert for tailgating, traffic jams and new intersections.

By  Julia Kramer

Last week on my drive home from the office, I was pleasantly surprised to be zipping along on the typically congested George Washington Parkway. The lack of traffic put me in a good mood, so I turned up the radio, relaxed and cruised along. Then, rounding a corner and almost within sight of my exit, I saw brake lights up ahead. With no forewarning and no time to rethink my route, I ended up sitting and stewing in stalled traffic for what seemed like an eternity. My good mood? Don’t ask.

Careers are sometimes like my frustrating commute. They begin with a bang and seem to be moving along well, so you relax and start to enjoy the ride. Then BAM! Brake lights. Given the inevitable starts and stops in everyone’s work experience, how does one avoid getting stuck in career congestion? The following are a few simple tips that may help an ambitious employee stay on the open road.

Don’t tailgate. There’s nothing about blindly following the person ahead of you or doing things because “it’s always been done that way” that will help you make headway toward your career destination. If you mechanically perform job tasks, without any real understanding of their meaning or significance, you will probably not be making suggestions to improve efficiency, initiating changes to increase effectiveness, or identifying unnecessary tasks. Take the time to analyze each task and ask yourself: What’s the value of this task? How can I do it better (i.e., increase quality)? How can I do it faster? Then start communicating your suggestions, or better yet, take the wheel and start making the changes now.

Share the ride. No one succeeds alone, and most succeed supported by strong, positive relationships. Check your success quotient. Identify your internal customers and pretend you’re a consultant. Then ask yourself: “Would Colleague A hire me or fire me if she could make the decision today?” If the answer isn’t “hire!” then those brake lights are beaming bright red. Go out of your way to communicate with, support and reach out to those you work with. You don’t have to be best buddies, but you do want them to view you as a positive member of the team—as opposed to a barrier or someone to distrust. Openness, honesty and courtesy go a long way to this end. Responding quickly to requests and questions also gets you into the fast lane.

Check the rearview mirror. If you’re a manager, you should check on those who may be following in your path. Are they operating at peak efficiency? If not, what can you do to help them accelerate their own learning? If so, are there new tasks that you can give them that will free you up and at the same time teach them new, higher-level skills? Are they following too closely? If so, you might want to step up your own pace to avoid any appearance of redundancy between your position and those who report to you.

Whether or not you are a manager, take a look at your peer group. Do you feel that the level and quality of your work is in line with, or more advanced than, your colleagues’ in similarly situated positions? If so, then keep cruising. If not, put the pedal to the metal, seek out additional opportunities, and make it known that you are open to new experiences. If you want to take on more or different projects, come up with some suggestions on your own and pitch them to your manager.

Explore a new route. To quote poet Robert Frost, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” At some point in most careers there is a fork in the road—one way may be familiar, safer and with fewer roadblocks. The other route may be unclear or frightening, and you might have to find your way alone. In these instances, think about your goals and primary motivators. If you’re happy in your current career and enjoy a slower, more relaxing ride, you might want to pick the familiar route. But if you relish change and new experiences, enjoy the risk-reward dynamic, or are just ready to spread your wings, pick the path that offers those opportunities. There is no wrong path, but never taking a new route limits your opportunities for advancement as it limits the range of your experience.

No matter what your destination or how fast you’re moving, the ultimate goal is to enjoy the ride. To avoid rounding a corner and being surprised by career brake lights, be alert, scan the environment, check your progress, and always anticipate a fork in the road ahead.

Kramer is The Council’s Senior Vice President, Office of the President.

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