Do you feel like your career is stuck? Do your managers and mentors say you’re doing a great job and give you sparkling performance reviews… but then assign you the same type of project, treat you the same way in meetings, and never discuss promotion? When they look at you, do they see you as you were three or more years ago, or do they see who you’ve grown into?
You’ve fallen into the pigeonhole perception trap. Everybody has confined you to a category, and they’re not letting you out (the work equivalent of the ‘friend zone’).
We’ve discussed three common career self-sabotage maneuvers and strategies to get noticed by executives. This time, we will cover the best ways to escape the pigeonhole perception trap.
Lesson 4: Escaping the Pigeonhole Perception Trap
Why is getting pigeonholed so devastating to your career growth? First, career advancement is tied to perception; being pigeonholed is entirely about the perception that you have not grown. Second, the people you’re counting on helping you advance (mentors, managers) are the ones holding you back. They think of you as somebody junior they “help” rather than as a peer. Third, not only does it prevent your growth from being recognized, but it prevents you from getting broader opportunities.
Tip 1: Change Your Appearance
I know this advice sounds ridiculous. Remember, though, we’re dealing with perception, and perception is heavily influenced by appearance. I’ve heard VCs and recruiters seriously discuss whether potential CTOs “looked” the part – on both the “too slovenly” and “too slick” ends of the spectrum. People notice. Therefore, there is value in a change in your appearance; it forces people to re-evaluate you.
After I was sidelined for immature behavior at work, my wife insisted I stop wearing t-shirts, jean shorts, and sandals to the office. I upgraded to polo shirts, jeans, and sneakers. While that doesn’t scream “executive”, it was enough to signal that I was maturing. At least that’s the Director of Engineering said when she promoted me. Appearances influence people’s opinions.
It’s possible to go too far in changing your look; it still needs to suit you. When I joined EMC, the Data Domain team joked about their first post-acquisition EMC encounter. The EMC Executive Team apparently wanted to prove that they weren’t uptight corporate suits… so they all showed up in new, pressed and creased jeans, white polo shirts, and loafers. Years later, the Data Domain team still mocked the EMC “West Coast Executive Uniform”. You want people to re-evaluate you, not ridicule you.
If this all feels staggeringly shallow when discussing technical roles, it is. But remember, the people evaluating you aren’t qualified to evaluate you based on your skills, even if they had all the information in front of them. Therefore, they go by the perception of how a senior technical leader looks and acts.
To reset someone’s perception, change your appearance… within reason.
Tip 2: Let Them See You in a New Context
You cannot debate away somebody’s perception. Whether you tout your accomplishments or somebody else endorses you, people discount statements that don’t match their preconceptions (besides, who isn’t skeptical of LinkedIn recommendations – especially when you and a colleague endorse each other at the same time?). You need to demonstrate your new skills and leadership to your management, so they can draw their own conclusions.
You can display your changed role by showing that your peers (or your manager’s peers) treat you differently. An engineer who I’d been mentoring for years invited me to a key project meeting. I assumed that he needed me to pull everybody together and get things on track. Instead, I silently watched him lead a cross-functional team with a shared vision and strategy, executing beautifully. Even more, I saw everybody in the room defer to my mentee as the unquestioned leader of the initiative. Seeing him in that new role relative to his peers made me finally realize that he’d made a “career leap”.
You can also demonstrate skills in a context that your management team might not have seen. We’ve all worked with people where we ask – “Why is this person still working here, much less in a senior role?” I saw one of those engineers at customer briefing, and immediately worried about the impact she would have on the meeting. However, when I struggled to connect with a customer, she stepped in, took control of the meeting and turned my catastrophe into a huge success. Seeing her in a new context – with customers – completely changed my perception. As a result, I was able to put her in a position to succeed; a promotion and a more visible role soon followed.
To change someone’s perception, show them your new skills in a different context.
Tip 3: Go Away (for Awhile)
It can be difficult to recognize somebody’s growth when you see them all the time. When people see children after a year, they immediately cry – “You’ve gotten so big!” Of course, parents don’t notice because they see the kids every day. The same is true for growth at work. Incremental enhancement is difficult to notice. Therefore, sometimes it’s best to go away for awhile. When you return, people will notice how much you’ve grown.
Changing groups is a great way to “go away”. First, learning new things is always beneficial – whether a different part of the product or a different role (e.g. development, QA, support, delivery, etc.). Second, your new boss does not have preconceptions about you. Third, you increase your visibility because you’re working with new people. Engineers often resist transfers because they believe their growth is tied to subject matter expertise. Remember, though: senior promotions are rarely tied to technical expertise. Managers discourage transfers because they depend on that engineer to meet their goals. (In the next post we’ll talk about how to your manager to help grow your career). If you can make the transfer happen, it can make a huge difference.
One of the great “turnaround” stories came from a group switch. During a project, I worked with a new college hire that drove me crazy. He publicly questioned every decision, constantly asked for more complex parts of the project, but never got his assignments done. I finally went to the team manager and demanded that he be fired (actually, I might have asked for him to be dragged through the parking lot tied to the bumper of a Geo Metro). The manager, who was a miracle worker, put the engineer on a 6 month stint with support. When the engineer returned, there was a 180 degree difference. He had gained empathy for customers, worked well with the team, and delivered on his commitments. The 6 months of separation had also helped me drop my baggage and see him as he currently was – a stellar engineer. For every subsequent project, I asked for him to be on my team. (Note: I never did tell him I tried to get him fired. It’s probably funnier to find out a decade later by reading it in this blog, right?)
Sometimes, a geographical transfer can be even more profound. Early in my career, I blew up at a VP of Engineering in an All-Hands Meeting* and he had HR discipline me. In the wake of this career self-sabotage, I took at an opportunity to work overseas. For a year, I stayed out of sight and my main connection to headquarters was the monthly newsletter I wrote about working abroad. By the time I returned to California, that VP of Engineering held me up as an example for cross-site engineering and pushed for my promotion (proving that my popularity is inversely proportional to how much time somebody spends with me). The time away gave me time to reset everybody’s perception of who I was.
*It was the VP’s first All-Hands meeting. He stood up and said, “Our top priority is Project A.” Somebody asked – “What about Project B?” He said – “That’s our other top priority.” Another question – “What about Project C?” His response, “Another top priority.” At this point, I asked, “Could you rank order those top priorities?” He said, “They’re all priority #1.” I stood and challenged, “OK, which one is 1A?” He started to sweat and bleated, “They’re all 1A.” At this point, I retorted, “So you either don’t know what priority means, or you don’t have any idea what our priorities are. What, exactly, does a VP of Engineering do?” This extreme example of “needing to be right” will get you banished to another country. It also demonstrates that disappearing for a while really can rehabilitate your image.
Taking time away from people can help reset their perception of you.
Nothing can stagnate you career like being pigeonholed. Unfortunately, you can’t simply tell people to notice how much you’ve changed. To change somebody’s perception, you need to jar them out of how they’ve categorized you. Then you need to demonstrate that you’re at a completely different level in your career. Changes in appearance or disappearing for a while can help reset their expectations. Then you need to get them to view you in a new context – e.g. with respect to how your peers, customers, or external organizations work with you. They need to see you in action, through others’ eyes.
In the next post, we’ll talk about how best to get your manager to help grow your career.
You can only break out of the pigeonhole trap by resetting people’s perception.
Stephen Manley @makitadremel