Who’s Controlling Your Career? | The Downside of Kissing Up
Your best answer is, “I am.” Unfortunately, the common answer is often, “I’m not really sure.”

That’s because we often don’t know how career growth happens. We’re told that the silver bullets are:

  • Doing a great job with high performance appraisal ratings that validate it
  • Attending training and/or taking outside courses
  • Serving on teams and working on special projects

Then, after we do all this stuff, someone in the next cubicle gets the promotion we wanted without doing much of anything. The boss just liked them.

Kissing up can get you down.

I’ve seen plenty of it, like employees slurping over the boss’s policy decisions, the good ones and the lame ones.

I’ve seen the attention seekers who volunteer for any assignment, whether they have the chops or not.

I’ve seen the flirts and buddy boys who flatter the boss or team up after work on the links or at local events.

I’ve also seen how these moves help some take a career step forward, but I’ve mostly seen it backfire.

Bosses can tell when we’re engaging them for our career purposes. Some bosses love being the center of our attention. It makes them feel important and powerful. Others are turned off.

Beware: When we shift our focus from making a difference through our work to polishing the boss’s apple, we set ourselves up for disappointment.

Stay in control.

When we’re hired, we’re given accountability for our work. We control what we achieve by delivering results according to standards. The boss controls whether or not we advance.

This is the sticking point: We expect the boss to recognize our value and reward it with a next move we think we deserve.

Once the boss knows what we want, s/he now has leverage. S/he can decide to give us what we want, deny it, or delay it.

Of course, not every boss is going to use knowledge of your career desires to manipulate you. But some will, either consciously or unconsciously.

As an HR manager, I was aware of four high potential managers considered future executives. Two of them made plain to executive leadership that they were ready to become VPs.

As opportunities opened up, the vocal two were made to wait for whatever reason. One had to wait several years, much to his public frustration. Interestingly, he ultimately became the company CEO. The path is always someone else’s call.

Take the high road.

Actually, when asked, we’re supposed to tell our bosses about our career aspirations. In healthy work situations, that knowledge helps good bosses work with us to manage our expectations, put together development plans, and position our next moves.

The problem is that too many employees have their eyes on job titles rather than making a difference, growing their capabilities, building a portfolio of experiences, or innovating.

It’s easier for a boss to block your next career move than it is to obstruct your impact. Your brand, your value, and your status are a function of what you get done.

As one of a handful of women managers, I was often asked by executive management what my career goals were. They expected me to say I aspired to become a VP because there was a contingent who wanted me in that role.

I told them, instead, that what I wanted was to be where I could influence executive decision-making. I didn’t care what my title was. I just wanted to be at the table where significant issues were being discussed so I could add my perspective.

They gave me many of those opportunities because of my skills and knowledge. I was still asked about my interest in an executive post, but I declined. I knew that I had more impact as a thought-leader and saw that a VP title had serious limitations.

Kissing up as the low road

Your current job is one piece of your career. You own and control both to a large extent by the choices you make. Kissing up doesn’t help your career; consistently high quality performance does. That’s yours to control.