So You Don’t Want to Be in the C-Suite? Here’s How to Grow Your Career Anyway

Mid-career professionals may not want a spot on the leadership team even if they like their job—and if they advocate for themselves, they can still find happiness at work with a more specialized role. The approach can have benefits for associations as well.

Maybe this sounds familiar: You read articles issuing career advice and inevitably, the discussion turns to how professionals can make their way to the proverbial corner office.

For people who desire to be an executive director someday, that’s helpful. But what if the top position isn’t your career goal? What if your goal is to stay behind the scenes or work in a more narrowly defined career path, such as IT or advocacy?

That creates a bit of a conundrum for mid-career professionals, who want to grow in their careers but find themselves having to forge their own trail. On the other hand, the timing might be right, according to Jaya Koilpillai Bohlmann, a communication expert and career coach with the firm Designing Communication. Bohlmann said that, with the growth in remote work and the Great Resignation, there has been a shift in the way we think about work that makes us happy.

“Often these days, you know, the answer isn’t necessarily the corner office,” she said. “I think it’s really good, because then we are rethinking our values in a way we haven’t before.”

That reconsideration might stem from external factors—for example, you might have an outside interest that drives your decision-making, or you might have family commitments—but it could also simply be related to having a more specialized passion.

With that in mind, read on for some considerations about what that career path might look like.

Speak Up for Yourself

A key element of professional growth is making clear—both to yourself and the organization in which you work—what you want out of your career.

“Employees should be very clear about their goals,” Bohlmann said. “That takes time to process and understand because there is that traditional view that you do become the CMO if you’re a marketing person, if you’re an ambitious person, or you become the CFO, if you go in as an accountant.”

One thing that employees can do to ensure that they’re given the space to evolve within a specific role is to show that they’re passionate about the work, even if they may not be passionate about moving into another role.

“Definitely always show interest and commitment to the overall organization,” Bohlmann said. “Even if we’re in specialized roles, we want to show and be clear that we are contributing to the overall strategies.”

Understand Your Role Internally

A good way to ensure people take your position seriously, Bohlmann noted, is to be active and well-read on what’s happening within the organization so that you have a full understanding of how your role affects that.

Bohlmann pointed to the example of a former coworker who had been at an organization for more than a decade. She actively emphasized that despite her deep understanding of how the organization ran, she preferred working in a lower-stakes editorial role. When asked about it, the employee noted that she enjoyed knowing how her work impacted the organization, and that she didn’t want the stress of a more centralized position.

“And it was lovely, because she was so at peace and so sure about that,” Bohlmann said. “And it was really inspirational to the rest of us who were always scrambling around trying to get places.”

For associations, Bohlmann said that even employees who aren’t necessarily looking for a leadership role often carry significant value in the form of institutional knowledge. On top of that, when leaders let employees drive the workplace, rather than pushing them down a specific leadership path, the odds are that workers’ job satisfaction will grow.

“Let them own their life,” she said. “Let them own their career, and you will have a happy, devoted person.”

Continue to Evolve

Even if your goal is to stay in the same role or the same line of work, it remains important to grow within those parameters. Fields evolve, even if job titles don’t, Bohlmann noted.

For employees, this requires a constant effort to show interest in changes within the field. For example, if you work as a social media manager, you might choose to read up on trends within that sector, or maybe you want to become more active with another association that focuses on issues related to social media. (Associations, after all, are well-suited to support the career evolution of their members.)

One way that associations can encourage employees to do this internally is by building recognition programs and showing a willingness to invest in such training.

“We want longevity. We want satisfied, fulfilled employees,” Bohlmann said. “We want them to stay with us. We invest a lot in them, you know? And if they can grow with us, that’s what we want.”

(andresr/E+/Getty Images Plus)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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