Crucial Skills®

A Blog by Crucial Learning

Crucial Influence

How to Advance Your Career in a Down Economy

Al Switzler

Al Switzler is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.


Change Anything

Q  Dear Crucial Skills,

I’ve approached my superiors many times to let them know that I would like to be involved in other projects or roles at work, but I haven’t received any responding offers or opportunities.

What’s the best way to let management know that I’m interested in branching out?

Looking for More

A Dear Looking,

Whether at work, at home, or in the community, people often feel they are limited in their opportunities to do more, develop more, or take on more responsibility. They feel boxed-in by policy, provincial thinking, or limited resources. With the backdrop of a down economy and all the downsizing or rightsizing that has occurred, more and more people are feeling limited or boxed-in at work. Some have simply accepted the situation as the new normal and have been prompted, either by others or by themselves, to feel gratitude that they even have a job.

I admire you for refusing to accept the situation and for striving to grow professionally. I hope my advice will help you as you work to achieve your goal.

Avoid the harbor trap. The first bit of advice is a variation of a quotation attributed to a New England chamber of commerce and often used by John F. Kennedy: “A rising tide lifts all boats.” If that is true, the reverse is equally true. “A falling tide lowers all boats.”

This quotation also applies to corporate culture. Corporate culture can be defined as what people do habitually and voluntarily at work, particularly in the absence of supervision. When the tide is rising, the workforce is generally optimistic and opportunities abound. But when the tide falls, due to a pessimistic and cynical culture, many people are weighed down and become trapped in negative thinking. I congratulate you for maintaining your ambitions despite any cynicism around you. I encourage you to avoid listening to the messages about, “not rocking the boat,” or “keeping your head down and your nose clean,” or “just being grateful for what you have.” While these messages can be subtle or overt, they can also be persistent. Run from them, don’t listen to them, and don’t sink with the tide.

Manage your own vital behaviors. Now you may not work in a negative culture. Instead, your problem may be that your boss won’t or doesn’t want to listen to you, or doesn’t see your potential. In any case, my advice is the same. You need to be the captain of your own ship. You need to manage your own vital behaviors—the choices or actions that are most directly connected to the result you desire. In your case, your desire is more opportunities and responsibilities at work.

When we were writing Change Anything: The New Science of Personal Success, we researched what it takes to manage your own career or get unstuck at work, and we found that there are three vital behaviors that can help you advance your career. These three vital behaviors will help you step up, branch out, and build a reputation that can increase your opportunities:

  • Know your stuff. The top performers we studied made regular efforts to ensure they excelled in the current technical aspects of their jobs. This means you should study, attend classes, and read the most current information about your field. You want people to know that you are in the top 10 percent of innovative leaders who can execute in your chosen field.
  • Focus on the right stuff. In addition to being known as competent, the top performers kept their finger on the pulse of the industry. They were knowledgeable and competent in areas that directly applied to their organization’s strategic imperatives. I’ve known individuals who, by asking the right questions, networking with the appropriate experts, and studying the latest literature, changed their reputation as a mediocre contributor to that of an influential leader in about three months time. You can do this, too.
  • Build a reputation for being helpful. There are many areas where you can be helpful without anyone’s approval. In order to improve your influence, start a Toastmaster class, find someone to mentor, volunteer for various committees, or become the source of clear information in your area of expertise. This list includes just a few suggestions for being helpful in ways that require little to no approval from your manager. When people are known for being problem solvers, rather than for who they know or for their charm, opportunities follow.

Be explicit in your requests. It seems like you have already asked your boss—maybe repeatedly—for new opportunities. Congratulations again for refusing to remain silent and sink with the tide. If you haven’t already done so, make sure your request is clear and vary the way you ask. Rather than asking for new opportunities and responsibilities generally, ask for the opportunity to serve on a specific team or committee and note the ways you think you could contribute. Or, ask what you would need to do or learn to be a candidate for the next opportunity or promotion and ask for your manager’s support in that development.

If you are clear enough, you will get an answer or you will continue to be stonewalled—which is also an answer. If you are stonewalled, I suggest you steer your own boat and ask for advice or mentoring from others in the organization. I’ve never seen an organization that didn’t have some individuals who had a personal goal to help others succeed.

I hope this advice will help you captain your own ship and manage your own career. If you follow this advice, I believe that although you may not achieve a specific position you are seeking, you will step up and branch out. I wish you well in your quest.


You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Influence

1 thought

  1. Henrieta Riesco

    Yes, be explicit – In my experience, the fastest way to get more opportunities was sharing my enthusiasm about the past projects (not just with the boss, but with all sorts of people around). For example: I really enjoyed working with 2 other teammates who were totally different from me, I found it exciting to start from scratch and create something that made our team visible to others, I love the challenge of taking something that didn’t work well and making it useful… When others heard of related opportunities, they remembered my name and they let me know who to follow up with.

    I also feel that we pass on many great opportunities by not following up after something inspires us.

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