Browsing the archives for the Career Challenges category.

Knocking down leadership barriers

Barriers to Leadership, Career Challenges

How do you break a leadership barrier?  As a single person, how do you change biased processes and attitudes?

If you’re looking for a simple answer, you won’t find it here.

Some leadership barriers take generations and social and political movements to overcome or at least mitigate.  Consider the work of the civil rights movement.  The civil rights movement put legal protections in place for minority workers.  It was a huge step forward in changing hiring and promotion processes.  However, it was only a first step – many of the biases still exist.  Over the past few decades, we’ve seen improvements in equality but it is a long journey.

So if you don’t want to wait for decades, what can you do?  Here are some thoughts:

  1.  Be aware of the leadership barriers facing you
  2. Evaluate your situation
  3. Determine whether or not you can overcome the leadership barriers in your company
  4. Don’t dwell on protesting the injustice.  If you want to build your career, the workplace is not the right place to dramatically challenge the system.
  5. Become more than the stereotype(s)
  6. Focus on your own career
  7. Use organizational savvy to build relationships
  8. Stand up for yourself in a respectful manner
  9. Seek leadership opportunities
  10. Do a great job.  Outstanding work overcomes many barriers and gets you noticed in a positive way.

Four steps of the Self-Driven Leadership Development process

  1. Own your future
  2. Break down barriers
  3. Learn critical leadership skills
  4. Apply your skills to your work

Leadership Barriers model:


leadership barriers model

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Why do leadership barriers matter?

Barriers to Leadership, Career Challenges

In the last post, I defined the term “leadership barriers” which are an important part of the Self-driven Leadership Development process.

 Leadership barriers are important to individuals who want to progress to leadership roles, and they are also important to organizations that want to stay competitive and adaptable.

 The first reason is easy to see.  People do not want biases and negative attitudes to stand in the way of their career advancement.  These barriers are about groups the person belongs to and not about the person.  It is a combination of intentional and unintentional stereotyping.  Women and minorities and geeks and others get labeled as having certain characteristics.  That labeling can keep them from career advancement.  Some people belong to multiple groups – like a woman with technical geek tendencies – that have negative biases and get a double or triple whammy.

 The second reason is more indirect.  Organizations should be concerned about leadership barriers that exist in their talent development processes.  There is a lot of research that shows that diversity – of groups and of thought – is critical to business success and flexibility.  If an organization is systematically denying groups access to leadership roles, the organization will suffer.  It also strengthens the employment brand for a company to support diversity.

Four steps of the Self-Driven Leadership Development process

  1. Own your future
  2. Break down barriers
  3. Learn critical leadership skills
  4. Apply your skills to your work

Leadership Barriers model:


leadership barriers model

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What is a leadership barrier?

Barriers to Leadership, Career Challenges, Leadership Development, Self-driven Leadership Development

The second step in my Self-Driven Leadership Development model is about breaking down barriers.  What does that mean?

 Definition:  A barrier to leadership is a systemic process or attitude that commonly prevents a group of people from moving into leadership roles and being successful in the workplace.

 The “systemic” part of the definition means that barriers are broad-based and apply to most if not all people of a certain group.  It is a shared experience, instead of being a unique situation applied to one person.

Leadership barriers can be process based.  This refers to specific policies and procedures in an organization that might work against some people who aspire to leadership roles or to other types of career advancement .  With advances in civil rights and equal workplaces, these are less common.

More commonly, leadership barriers are about attitudes that keep certain groups out of leadership roles.  Attitudes can refer to overt discrimination, unintentional discrimination, social norms, perceptions and more.  These are often ingrained psychological beliefs and biases that many people are not aware of.  Their subtlety is what makes them so dangerous.

Different barriers exist for different groups.  We’ll consider barriers for geeks and women and minorities and the disabled and even career changers.  In addition to these group-specific barriers, there are some common leadership barriers such as stereotypes about successful leaders and person-organization fit.

 As an example, a well-known barrier to leadership for women is “the glass ceiling”.  That phrase even creates an image of a physical barrier.  The glass ceiling is a statement about the fact that a barrier exists.  It does not actually define the meaning or cause of the barrier.   The concept of the glass ceiling is related to attitudes such as role stereotypes, the “good ole boy” network and “good girl” socialization.

In this model, leadership barriers do not cover personal weaknesses such as poor skills and behaviors.  Those are covered during step 3 of the Self-driven Leadership Development process that deals with individual competencies needed to be a successful leader.

Four steps of the Self-Driven Leadership Development process

  1. Own your future
  2. Break down barriers
  3. Learn critical leadership skills
  4. Apply your skills to your work

Leadership Barriers model:


leadership barriers model

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More career trouble and bounce back

Career Challenges

I’m still puttering around with the changes to my Geek 5 model and approach.  Until I finalize that, here is a good read from BNET’s The Corner Office.

I’ve written about running into active and passive career crises and how to bounce back from them.  Steve Tobak wrote an entertaining piece called “10 Classic Career Disasters and Lessons Learned” on some of the career challenges that he has faced and the lessons he learned from them. 

If you are working hard and always looking to do things better, you will inevitably run in to some friction and trouble along the way.  Consider it a testament to the fact that you are proposing positive change.  The reaction is not always pleasant, but you can still make progress and learn something. 

The comments section offers some other incidents from readers.  I could add some career mis-steps such as challenging the wrong sacred cow and violating some unwritten rules.

One of the commentors talks about how you should never stay with one company for more than 5 years.  If you do, it starts to feel like a partnership.  However, the company will dump you in a second if they need to, so don’t get too attached.  That view is a bit too extreme for me, because some long-term careers at one company can be very rewarding. 

I would agree that you should not let the company or your job define you.  You need to have a life and an identity and a sense of self-worth outside of your job.  Many people find that through friends and family and hobbies and church and volunteering, etc.  If you are defined by your job and you lose that job, it does a major whammy to your self-esteem. 

Protect yourself from job crises – sometimes sh*t happens.

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The dark side of conscientiousness

Career Challenges, Outside Articles, Random, Uncategorized

Conscientiousness is usually a good trait, but sometimes  it can be tough to be a highly conscientious person.  In this case, we’re discussing the impact of conscientiousness on unemployment and the job search.  

There is a lot of job search advice floating around out there. Check out Career Alltop to find some of it.  This blog does not normally talk about the job search, but I’m diverging for a moment.  In the last post, I made some suggestions for “mixing it up” during a job search to try and get out of a rut.

Anita Bruzzese at On The Job presents an interesting perspective in her post “Could being conscientious make unemployment worse?”.    She discusses how people with strong conscientiousness may have a harder time with unemployment.  They feel more guilt and shame about their circumstances and are more likely to attribute it to a personal failing.  Usually conscientiousness is a good trait.  It helps people get things done and be responsible.  In this case, it might be detrimental. 

In today’s economy a lot of good and talented people are out of work due to no fault of their own.  Conscientiousness might make some folks suffer more than needed due to circumstances out of their control. 

If you are one of those people, keep your head up, your spirits high and do some things to change your approach to finding a new job.

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Changing the Game

Career Challenges, Org savvy

We’ve been talking about the dark side of the workplace. What happens when you make a performance mistake or ruin a key relationship?

Your reaction to a career set back can be summarized into three actions:

1. Change your situation – This is the direction of the previous advice about steps for active career bounce back and passive career bounce back. It is taking action to get back to solid footing in your existing job.

2. Change you – Another option is to change yourself. This could mean making a dramatic change to your work style. If you are perceived as being too aggressive, you work to become more collaborative. Or if you are disorganized, you set up a new organizational system.  It is always useful to continue your personal development and to learn to adapt to your situation. However, it is really tough to make dramatic changes and to sustain them.

Another way to change yourself is to change your expectations. Suffering a career set back can cause you to go from being a star to being average or from being average to being perceived as a problem. Can you live with that? Can you accept your new standing – at least until you have time to bounce back? For many formerly successful people, this would mean separating their sense of self from their jobs. Don’t let your job define who you are – you are also a parent, souse, sibling, child, volunteer, athlete, etc.

3. Change the game – The final solution is to change the game. By this I mean moving on. Leaving the job to pursue success somewhere else. Sometimes this is the best way to go. If you have determined that your career mistake is fatal, it is time to move on. Some situations are not worth the effort of fighting against the negative perception. If you stay in your current job, you face an uphill battle every day. If you move on, you can start fresh. Just make sure you don’t make the same mistakes in your new job!

Career set backs happen to everyone. How you deal with them is up to you.

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When You Bounce Flat on Your Face

Career Challenges, Org savvy

As we’ve been discussing, everyone hits an occasional career set back. Some of these are active issues and some are passive ones. There are steps you can take to fix each of those and to improve your damaged reputation. The steps usually work. Usually. Most career set backs aren’t fatal, but some are.

How do you know when a set back is serious? So serious that you will not be able to get back into good standing or it might even cost you your job or worse.  Part of being organizationally savvy is understanding the difference between recoverable screw ups and career fatalities.

“The worse” happens when a career set back crosses legal and ethical lines. Think about some of the disgraced Enron and Wall Street leaders. They crossed lots of lines. They lost their jobs, ruined their careers and some even ended up in jail. That’s about as bad as it gets. You don’t bounce back from these situations – unless you completely reinvent yourself in a new area. Of course, the Wall Street folks are so rich that they probably still laugh themselves to sleep at night.

Some mistakes will cost you your job. You’ll get fired for violating a policy or making an expensive or embarrassing mistake. Sometimes, once the mistake is made, there is no recovery. What’s done is done and you pay the price. In those cases, you needed to proactively avoid the mistake.  Know the rules, pay attention, do good work.  That’s easier said than done, since hindsight is 20/20. If you get fired, you can hope for severance and try to exit gracefully. If you are fired over a serious performance issue, there is not much you can do to appeal.

Some mistakes propel you into a limbo state. You are still employed, but you are marginalized and treated like a lame duck. Here’s where it gets trickier to assess your situation. How do you determine what the best step is for your career. Here are a few thoughts:

1. Don’t quit – I always advise people to stick it out in a tough situation. You might feel angry and bitter, but you won’t get more than momentary satisfaction from a dramatic resignation. Hang on as long as you can while you figure out your next steps.

2. Consider your recovery probability – Ask yourself a few key questions about your situation and your company. Have you seen co-workers overcome similar mistakes? Do you have a champion elsewhere in the organization? Do you have a valued skill set? Is your boss likely to move on, so you can start fresh with a new boss? Would a big win help others forget about your mistake? If you think you have a chance at recovery and you like your job, then tough it out.

3. Look for a new job – If recovery seems unlikely, you should start job searching. It is a lot less stressful to look for a new job while you still have a paycheck. Also, companies still prefer to hire folks who are working versus those who are unemployed. It makes you seem more marketable.

Be honest with yourself as you assess your situation.  Continue to monitor it.  Be planful with your career or you could find yourself frustrated and unhappy in a dead-end job.

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First Aid for a Damaged Reputation

Career Challenges, Org savvy
Alright, you hit a rocky spot in your career. But you followed the steps for either active career bounce back or passive career bounce back. You have the situation stabilized. The immediate danger is over. You take a deep breath, look around and realize that the crisis is over but your reputation still has a black mark. What now?
Here are some steps to consider to give first aid to your damaged reputation. Some of them are similar to the bounce back advice. The difference is that these actions are not about crisis management, they are about fixing your ongoing reputation.
1. Accept responsibility – As with earlier advice, accept responsibility for what went wrong. If you run from the problem, your co-workers won’t trust you.

2. Be humble but don’t over apologize – Be humble and apologize where needed. But here is a warning – don’t over apologize. Don’t repeated apologize for the same issue or offer to “pay penance” over and over. Focus on moving into the future. If you constantly dwell on your past mistakes, it makes you look weak. Don’t let your mistake define you going forward.

3. Express commitment to doing things right – Make sure that coworkers whose work depends on your work know that you are committed to doing the right things. You’ve fixed the previous problem and have put structure or processes in place to prevent future occurrences. Don’t assume that everyone knows what you have done to fix the situation, make a point of telling them.

4. Do things right – This is key advice. You can’t just commit do doing things right, you have to follow through. You need to do your work well and do it consistently and ongoing. If you can’t sustain the initial improvement, then you might need to consider that the job is not a good fit for you.

5. Rebuild relationships – Don’t just fix the problem and the process. Pay attention to re-building relationships. Once lost, trust is hard to regain. Sustained improvement in your performance will help rebuild trust.




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5 Steps to Passive Career Bounce Back

Career Challenges, Geek 5, Org savvy

In the last post, we covered crisis management – responding to a specific, negative career event. There are also Career Bounce Back strategies for passive issues. In this case, a legacy of passive problems like having no visibility or being underestimated have added up to a career setback. Here are five steps for passive Career Bounce Back:

1. Accept where you are – Let the past go. Don’t waste a lot of time mourning the fact that you have arrived at a bad spot. Be honest with yourself and where you currently stand.

2. Diagnose what happened – Although you shouldn’t dwell on your state (see step 1), you do need to diagnose the behavior that got you to this point. What have you done or not done in the past? Think about specific actions and behaviors – you can change behaviors. For more tips about diagnosing the problem, check out previous posts about under-political behavior.

3. Seek input from key influencers – have a future focus not a blame focus. Ask co-workers and key stakeholders to give feedback on your strengths and opportunities. What could you have done differently to be more successful in the past? Don’t be defensive about the past, be open to feedback for the future.

4. Develop a plan – create a thoughtful approach to overcoming your career setback. Focus on behaviors that you can control. It may need to be a multi-step plan that plays out over time.

5. Be transparent about intentions – let your coworkers know that you are working on some changes to your style/ behavior. That warning will prepare them for changes. It will also put them in a good position to continue giving feedback and support.

Hopefully these five steps will get you back on track to a healthy career. Don’t expect to fix everything overnight. After all, it took you time to get here and it will take time for your Career Bounce Back.


Six Steps for Active Career Bounce Back

Career Challenges, Geek 5, Org savvy

As discussed in the previous post, sometimes a mistake leads to damaging career situation. How you address the situation influences whether you successfully bounce back from the issue or not. In this case, we’re talking about how to react to an active career issue.  Something bad has happened (like you made a performance mistake) and you need to fix it.  Fast!

For Career Bounce Back, consider the following six steps:

1. Assess the damage – Figure out how serious the problem is. Does it impact key customers? Is the issue visible to key stakeholders? Does it derail important work?  This is an important step, so you understand the sense of urgency for correcting the problem. Also, you don’t want to overreact to something that is not actually a major issue.

2. Stabilize your emotions – Get your own emotions under control. Make sure that you are thinking clearly and that you won’t explode at a coworker or your boss.

3. Be humble – Accept responsibility for your mistakes. Don’t waste valuable time and energy trying to point fingers at others. Admit your role in the problem and then you can focus on fixing the issue. There will be time to debrief the cause of the problem later.

4. Fix what can be fixed – Pretty self-explanatory – correct as much of the issue as you can as quickly as possible. Over time, you’ll work through to the final fix to the problem and implement those changes.

5. Do a post-mortem – After the issue is corrected, sit down with any other involved folks and discuss what happened and why. Also discuss the reaction and the fix to the problem.

6. Prepare a prevention plan – Once you know what happened and why, you can put a plan in place to prevent similar problems in the future. This might be a process for double-checking work, getting additional training or many other things.

These six steps should get you through the immediate crisis. Later, you’ll need to work to re-build your damaged reputation.

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