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Careerwise, You Need To Know What You Don't Know

Is your career not progressing as quickly as you think it should? It could be that there's a negative perception about you that you just don't know about. Time to man up and find out.

Careerwise, You Need To Know What You Don't Know

Is your career not progressing as quickly as you think it should? Are the promotions not coming as fast as you feel you've earned? It could be that you really haven't made as much of a contribution as you have thought or it could be that the organization just doesn't have that many openings to allow people to move up the ladder. But it could also be that there's a negative perception about you out there that you just don't know about.

There's a great scene from the comedy series Malcolm in the Middle in which the mom, Lois, is frustrated with life. When told that fate might be the reason for her troubles, her response is classic, "Fate? Ha! That's what you call it when you don't know the name of the person screwing you over!"

In the business world this saying is more true than perhaps you know. Many times there may be a perception out there about you, your performance and/or your potential of which you're not aware. It may be held by your manager, the executives above him and/or executives that are outside your chain but have a say in your progress. If you want to advance you need to know what they think of you. So how do you go about doing this? Here are three steps:

Talk to Your Manager
First, at the appropriate time, sit down with your manager and ask directly about what the perception of you is within the organization (please note, the conversation should be in the context of asking for career advice, not about complaining about your lack of progress). Ask him or her about what the executive team thinks about your contributions to date, your potential and what you need to do to progress. Then ask if there's anyone in that group that may have a negative perception of you that you need to address.

Talk to Key Executives
While this is a good start, you should also set up some time to talk with the executives in your management chain and those that can influence your progress to get their input as well. Again, the conversation should be in the positive context of going to them for career advice. Get their views directly on their perception of your performance and potential, then ask about any roadblocks that may be in your way. You may find out there are key executives out there that are holding up your progress.

Having these conversations helped me at least three times in my corporate career. By seeking out higher-level executives advice and asking honestly about what I needed to do to move higher, I was told that certain execs had perceptions that I needed to address if I wanted to get promoted. In one case it was a fair knock but in two others I didn't agree with that person's assessment. However, my agreement or disagreement was irrelevant—I needed to change the perception to make progress. But knowing this information was the important first step as I was able to use it to work on those perceptions over the next months to change them for the better and move up in the organization.

Change the Perception or the Situation
Assuming you find out there is a negative perception about you, then you have two options; work to change the perception or, if you think that's not possible, change your situation. If you think the executive is open to changing his or her view about you and you think you have the ability to do so, then by all means go for it. And don't just work on it; ensure you communicate and illustrate through your actions and communications that you are doing so.

However, sometimes the situation arises in which you know there's little possibility that you can change perceptions. It may be that the person who holds a negative view of you just never changes their mind about people or there's a bridge you've burned in the past that cannot be rebuilt. If that's the case you may be better off moving out of the organization to another part of the company or even going as far as taking a new job with a new firm.

It doesn't make sense to let "fate" decide the course of your career. Take the steps now to find out what you don't know, then take action.

Mark McNeilly is the author of three books (including the popular Sun Tzu and the Art of Business: Six Principles for Managers) and an adjunct professor of marketing at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. Prior to that he was a marketing executive with experience at IBM and Lenovo. You can follow him at @markmcneilly or learn more at

[Image: Flickr user Theen Moy]