Keep Your Career Moving Up and to the Right

Last Updated Nov 2, 2009 2:38 PM EST

The most common career mistake managers make is taking a lesser job than they should. Personal issues aside, too many managers and professionals are too risk averse, pulling the trigger on that critical decision sooner than they should.

It's a common enough story: a friend of mine - a director-level employee at a Fortune 500 company where he's worked for 20 years - gets laid off. To me, this is a blessed event. After toiling in the agonizingly stifling and stagnant shadows of big-company middle management, he finally has a chance to shoot for a top job at a smaller company where he can really make a difference.

We chat for an hour or so about his options and opportunities, when I finally come to the most important point I want to get across to my friend:

"Don, under no circumstances should you even consider a job beneath executive staff level."

"Oh, really?" Don says, surprised.
"Look, I know it's a tough market, but you've grown big businesses from nothing; you've got tons of big-company management experience; and you have great presence. As long as you've got the staying power to last 6 to 9 months - and you do - you'll have opportunities," I say, confidently. "Just spiff up your resume, make yourself searchable, do some networking, and they'll find you, guaranteed."

"Hey, you know that's what I want, but, well, um --"

You don't want to hear how the rest of the conversation went. But I'll lay two-to-one odds that Don takes a job beneath his capability - a lateral, maybe even a backwards move. I've seen it happen too many times. What's sad about it is the guy's a star. And this may be his last chance to break out and test his capabilities as a big fish, albeit in a smaller pond.

So what makes people like Don - and you - so risk averse? Well, it's really not very far-fetched. It takes a lot of guts to spend your hard-earned savings and pass up a sure thing while waiting for an opportunity that may never come. Any combination of strong work ethic, conservative risk profile, lack of confidence, even upbringing, will do it. And it typically gets worse with age.

But the big question is how do you know if you're even capable of moving up and reaching for the stars? Two ways.

  • In my experience, if you're reasonably in tune with yourself, you'll know when you hit your limit. If you're not sure, then you probably haven't hit it yet. Failure doesn't count. Failure is good. Reaching your limit is different.
  • Ask somebody you trust and respect, somebody who's been around, preferably someone familiar with your work. He'll tell you. If you don't have one or two mentor-like people in your business life, well, that's unfortunate.
Almost 20 years ago, I heard Robert Browning's words, "A man's reach should exceed his grasp." It's been a guiding principal for my career ever since. Now I pass it along to you. It's really that simple. Don't make it complicated.

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