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Pig in a Python Syndrome

Q: I'm in my early 40's.  I spent the first few years of my career in various technical positions and eventually, through job changes, progressed to middle management.  While nothing is wrong with my current job, there's absolutely no room for advancement.  I'm considering a change that would allow me to move higher on the corporate ladder, but I don't know where to start looking.  How can I achieve my goal?

A: It sounds like you’re caught in the “pig in the python” dilemma, where Baby Boomers are hanging on to their jobs because their 401Ks and other retirement resources have been decimated. Add to that, the increasing emphasis on leaner organizations and automated information systems that severely decrease the need and opportunity for mid-level managers.  At the same time, more 30-45-year-olds have moved into the professional pool and have found themselves competing for fewer jobs. 

While this may sound depressing, there still are plenty of options for people who want to advance their careers.  If you're willing to apply hard work and political savvy to outshine your competition, here are some suggestions that can get your career moving again:

  • Look for a new project that will increase productivity, save money, uncover a new market, improve your performance, etc.  Taking on responsibility beyond your job description offers a learning experience and increases your visibility with upper-level management.  Choose a project that excites you and has genuine benefit for the firm.  Be sure to write a report summarizing your results and recommendations, and, if possible, present it orally to your vice president or the executive committee.

  • Consider enrolling in continuing education courses or studying for an advanced degree. Engineers are encouraged to keep up with state-of-the-art advances in their specialties. A masters degree in your company's field might give you the expertise required to move ahead of your fellow mid-managers.

  • While an M.B.A. doesn't guarantee advancement, an engineering background and business degree continue to be a favorable combination.  If your supervisory experience has been in technical departments, some business courses could broaden your perspective and encourage your superiors to see you as someone who understands both the technical and bottom-line aspects of the business.

  • If a promotion isn't possible in the near future, consider a lateral move.  Supervising another department can rekindle your enthusiasm, spark new learning, add valuable contacts and increase your management expertise.  Japanese firms structure lateral moves into their training for top positions.  For them, breadth of experience is as important as depth.

  • Have you thought about creating a new job for yourself? Perhaps this could be a logical extension of your special project. Or, if you examine your company's structure, you may uncover a need that you can fulfill by developing a new department.

  • Expanding networks within your organization and industry is an excellent technique for gaining visibility and discovering new opportunities.  Increasing in-house contacts can also enhance current job effectiveness by building cross-functional teams with other department heads.  Industry contacts and professional organizations give you access to openings outside your firm and valuable information about how competitors are managing their business.

  • If your efforts to advance within your firm aren't fruitful, pursue a position outside the organization. Small to midsize companies will be where future advancement is most likely.

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