You don’t really own your own career…duh…


Warning – this is one of my corporate culture rants so strap yourself in and prepare for the ride.

“You own your own career.”  This has become the mantra of many organizations – shifting the blame for their lack of leadership/sponsorship and support of their staff to the employee.  The line is classic management double-speak.  What they really are saying is, “if things don’t work out the way you want…well…that’s all on you.”  It is a big jumbo-honking Corporate Overlord lie, aimed at shifting responsibility away from those in charge and focusing the blame for career failures on the victims themselves.

When I hear the often muttered phrase about owning my own career, I usually respond, “Bullshit.” (Usually in my head, but sometimes out loud.)

Unless you’re talking to an entrepreneur or someone self-employed, a person’s career is always the result of cultivating the right relationships of individuals who helps sponsor them; who finds opportunities for them and makes those promotional opportunities available.  Ironically for many “successful” people, now they are in charge, they believe it is the responsibility of the employee to manage, handle, cope, and grow their own career.  The rub here is:  “Don’t do as I do, do as I say.”

Back in the day – your manager was rightfully responsible for your career advancement.  That didn’t mean they automatically promoted you – but they had an obligation to coach you, position you for new roles and opportunities, and to help you prepare for advancement.  They took you under their wing.  They taught you the ropes – told you what you needed to do to get ahead.  Today it’s called, “mentoring” but it used to be, “being a good manager.”  When they heard about advancement opportunities, they tossed your name in the hat and fought for you.  You, as the employee, had the obligation of undertaking the changes necessary to make you palatable for promotion and growth.  This system had flaws but it worked. You still had bad managers – but they were responsible for their people.

The old manager/employee relationship model has deteriorated because managers/leaders often job hop so often that you don’t have that kind of legacy in an organization.   On top of that, such managers are deliberately instructed to not get involved in employees careers.  The push, starting 15 years or so ago, “make this the employee’s problem – not yours.”  Managers were all over that idea as if it was leadership-crack to them.

Then in the late 1990’s some asshat came up with the idea of “Let’s make this all the responsibility of the employee.”  At the same time they did nothing to actually empower the employees to be able to fill those gaps that the managers were now abdicating.  Managers latched onto this because it was less work for them.  It removed burdensome responsibility and made it so they didn’t have to have those difficult coaching conversations.

It sucked – but the people in charge loved it.  They were already in positions of power in their careers.

If I sound bitter, well, I am.  I have earned that right and I don’t believe I’m alone.  The reality in almost every organization is that senior leaders have choice or favored employees that they ensure get to the best opportunities and are advanced.  The introduction of the “philosophy” that we own our own careers didn’t alter that in the least.  So while leadership is able to absolve themselves of their guilt in this process by blaming the employees for their career failings, they still maintain their old “good old boy” approach to taking care of their favored children.  This is not about any one organization – this is a problem that is systemic in US business culture.

I say again, “Bullshit.”

That’s not to say there aren’t things I am responsible for in my career bucket.  I am personally accountable for:

  • The quality and timeliness of my work product.
  • My interpersonal interactions and professional relationships with others.
  • I am responsible for finding new and exciting roles and applying for them.

The reality of owning your own career when you work for someone else is, at best, an illusion.  We have all seen it before…the people that are just hired in many levels above you that can’t find their collective asses with a flashlight and both hands.  We’ve seen people promoted who, on some level, should be institutionalized (mental or other – your choice.)  We get the list of annual promotions and there is an audible groan in the organization as we see individuals who have advanced past us who we feel shouldn’t have.  (I often look at that list with the questions, “Who ties your shoes?  How do you find the office on a daily basis?  Wow…ass-kissing apparently does work still!)

How does this happen?  Well, it’s because there are massive parts of your career you don’t own.  Your leaders hold the reins on your career much more than they will ever admit.  They have a role in advocating your advancement — spotting those insider opportunities that would be a good match for your skills. Your advancement is hindered by others in the upper strata of the corporate foodchain because:

  • If you move ahead, it creates gap in the current organization that may be difficult to fill.  Let’s face it, your experience and understanding of your organization’s inner workings may not be easy to come by. Your current manager has a pretty solid incentive to keep you right where you are because recruiting your replacement is painful.
  • Your leader really has no idea about your background, strengths, skills, and qualities. As such, they have no idea how to queue you up for new jobs.   How many times, if ever, as your manager reviewed your resume’?  Zero?
  • You have been labeled – tagged rightfully or wrongfully, as someone that should not be advanced.  (Often times you have never been told this…but it is true.)  This is akin to being accused of a crime, having it on your record, but never having been told about the incident or given a chance to defend yourself.  It is like a black-balling scenario when joining a fraternity or sorority…someone drops a black ball and you are invited to leave.
  • The leadership team feels your personality is inconsistent with their stereotyping of what leaders should be like.   Rather than introduce diversity in the leadership-clique, they seek individuals who are like themselves – people that won’t rock the proverbial boat.  Sometimes this is as limiting as someone only advancing people based on them working at a particular company or with specific experience in an industry.  This is a twisted form of career profiling aimed at keeping you right where you are on the org chart.
  • Your career is simply not important to someone in authority.  The demands on managers have increased exponentially in the last decade to the point where this is something they simply don’t have time to engage on.  Frankly It only comes up once or twice a year for the review process, and even then that is more of an administrative exercise than one aimed at actually growing the leaders of tomorrow.

Technically speaking the issue of career management is often institutionally flawed because of the performance management processes.  Many leaders focus more on past performance rather than on future growth and advancement.  The review processes in many organizations emphasizes rating what you’ve done in the past and providing feedback on past-performance rather than talking about “what are we doing to advance Bob to the next level?”  When the topic is forced, leadership concentrates on what the barriers are for advancement rather than putting forward a plan to move the employee upward.

Often time’s managers have asked myself and my colleagues to “put together a plan for getting yourself promoted.”  What a riot.  Seriously?  First off; I seriously doubt I have that kind of power.  If I did, I assure you, I would have misused it years ago and would be CIO, CEO, or C-something.  With that kind of thinking, I’d be Emperor of the Earth.  I mean geez, that’s all I needed was a plan?  I’d be all over that plan in a second if there was any validity to that thinking.  Second; whatever I might put in such a plan is subject to the random and sometimes schizophrenic intervention by other leaders that it is a pointless gesture to document it.  Example:  I need to have experience X to move to my next job.  Next year, I want that experience.  “Oh, sorry buddy, but I gave Judy that project.”   BUT I HAD A PLAN!    Third; chances are your manager doesn’t have any more control over their career than you do. “Hey, your plan looks good.  Mind if I copy it?”

There’s also the obvious conflict in play with owning your own career.  Let’s say your next logical career step is to assume your manager’s job.  Let’s face it, you probably do it better than him/her anyway, but I digress.  So you put that in your plan.  Now how do you think your manager is going to react to that?  What if they don’t want to change roles?  Suddenly you’re competing with them and they know it.  What if they can’t get their next promotion or job change?  What if they have already decided that one of your co-workers (usually the moron – you know who I’m talking about) will succeed them.  Hmm, talk about an awkward conversation.  Also, as I stated before, they may be mired down career-wise just like you.  So owning your own career and having a freaking plan is, well, a waste of time and effort.

Here’s your dose of reality:  In many cases owning your own career, in reality, means knowing when you’re fed up enough to quit and go and get another job.

As a sidebar; the only career I do own is that of my career as an author.  Even there, I am challenged with things I cannot control, like internet trolls, faceless critics and self-proclaimed experts, and people who took English 101 in college some 22 years ago and believe they are editors to the world.  The feeling of more control is that I don’t have to answer to anyone other than myself.  I pick the projects I choose to work on, I put the words down (sometimes in the right order), I am accountable for my own marketing.  It is the only job that I have where I feel even partially in control of what is going to happen next, and that’s because I am not accountable to anyone else.  There is no boss – just me.  In this career, which I’m doing fine in, I only have myself to blame or acknowledge when it comes to my career successes.

Note:  Readers of my book, Business Rules, know that I really don’t subscribe to the concept of a “career” anyway.  It’s a concept you use to rationalize the jobs you have.  Ultimately what you have are jobs.  Some jobs pay more than others, some have actual power attached to them.


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