Ready to move up to the next level?
The most commonly cited reason people state for making a change to a new company is for an opportunity to move up – to grow and develop faster than in their current organization. It’s a common problem in the workforce: new employees begin a job with high energy and expectations to climb the ladder, but something unforeseen prevents them from doing so. Sometimes it’s caused by market forces working against the company, other times it’s a change in direction by senior management, and occasionally people are simply duped into taking a job under false pretenses. Regardless of the reason, I often have conversations with ambitious people who want to make a job change to get a higher title, more management responsibility, and more money.
That’s good news for me and the client companies I help fill important positions. We want to find ambitious, talented employees with lofty leadership goals. Those folks are commonly referred to as “A Players,” and all organizations want them (including the employers at B and C companies). But a significant challenge exists in trying to move up while moving over to a new company: that company has the option of moving an existing employee up (an internal promotion) and take a chance on a known quantity, rather than on a person brand new to them from another organization. Most reputable firms would prefer to promote a promising, junior level employee who is already on the team rather than promoting an external person who has not worked at the more senior level in the past.
For example, in filling first-line management positions (often referred to as “Director” at many organizations) nearly all of my client hiring companies will require prior first-line management experience to consider a candidate. Their order of preference would be to first find another Director at a competitor who wants to move laterally because the company offers a better path for long-term growth. The next best option is find an internal person that is ready for a promotion into a leadership role and give them a chance. And finally they may consider a Manager or Sr. Manger at another company who is stuck and is looking for a Director role.
There are some notable exceptions to this, in particular the situation where people at the hiring company already have a pre-existing relationship with the external, junior level candidate they are considering for promotion. If a VP of Marketing worked with a talented Marketing Manager at another company in the past he/she may be strongly inclined to hire that person as a Director at the new company based on direct familiarity with past performance. Another, less common, exception is the case where someone is moving from a large company with big budgets and lots of highly relevant experience, to a smaller company that needs that experience, and that is having trouble luring senior people to make a lateral move.
So what can be done to improve the situation if you’re a talented person with career advancement ambition? I always encourage people to try to get to the next level while they are still at their current employer. The vast majority of organizations are looking for opportunities to promote good people, except in those cases of merger and acquisition where new management teams want to bring in new people with whom they’ve worked in the past. And since decisions are so often made based on cultural fit and personal chemistry, it stands to reason that you will be able to leverage positive relationships in your current company much easier than in a place where you are unknown.
But what about the dire situation where there are few opportunities to get to the next level within the current organization? Sometimes we have to consider moving laterally in terms of title and responsibilities, with a modest bump in pay, in order to get to a company with clearly better opportunities for growth and development. Think of it like riding an elevator in a skyscraper – sometimes the elevator bank you’re in will only go so high, and you have to cross the hallway to another elevator bank that is going higher. In those situations we have to really vet the new organization, their technology and their leadership to feel confident that it’s worth the effort to make the change. Very often analyst reports about a company’s financial backing and pipeline prospects are helpful in making that determination.
Before I agree to represent a company as their agent in filling a position I try to make sure those reports are positive, the leadership is trustworthy, and the technology has positive long-term potential. It’s a terrible feeling for me as well as the new employee’s I place when a company does not deliver on promises – or they get acquired and install a new management regime. We all know there are no guarantees out there, but when it comes to career management often the best thing to do is be extremely practical about the realities of the job market and do your homework before making a change.