As professionals, we pride ourselves on developing expertise and becoming invaluable members of our organizations. But what happens when we become too valuable - when our well-developed and widely admired expertise becomes the very thing that keeps us pigeonholed?
I've encountered this phenomenon during my 20 years of executive coaching and facilitation work with organizations around the world, and I recently began working with a leader in such a situation. Early in my conversations with Anne, I recognized her desire to escape her professional pigeonhole, and I heard her express many of the frustrations and anxieties I've heard from other clients.
Anne has climbed steadily within her organization, gaining credibility, professional regard, and trust along the way. Through no deliberate intent on her part, she's become known for her technical expertise and now sits at a high level within the company as an "individual contributor." She became the "go to" person for completing projects with exquisite accuracy and timing, and she's helped her bosses look good along the way.
Unfortunately, Anne's responsibilities limit her opportunities to demonstrate competence in areas she finds more compelling. She arrived at her current status by happenstance, not choice: One assignment with great results led to subsequent, similar assignments, and the exceptional results on those assignments fueled this cycle. She's now looking for a way to branch out and expand her options within her organization, but making this leap won't happen on its own; it will require conscious focus and intent on her part.
Fleeing the pigeonhole
I've encouraged Anne to consider several specific strategies for achieving her goal. If you or someone you're developing is facing a similar situation, here are some pointers that may help.
Identify areas of interest. Clarifying and narrowing your focus will help you engage in the process with high intent and focus. It also will help you verbally articulate what you're seeking; along the way, you'll need support, influence, and ideas from those around you.
Begin by reflecting on your professional and personal journey. What experiences speak to you most strongly? Which opportunities spark a curiosity or revive a dormant passion? These often represent the strongest realms to begin exploring new fields, ideas, and paths.
Anne feels increasingly drawn to influencing and shaping technical strategy. Her years of technical expertise have provided a powerful perspective on the company's bigger technical picture. She knows that her background could inform and benefit the way employees understand and respond to technology, and how technology can augment the rhythm of daily, weekly, and monthly business practices.
Look for fit. Anne certainly has the technical side down. However, she still must explore whether a move toward strategy is a good fit for her. When looking for the right fit, key questions include: What appeals to you as you think about working in this way? How comfortable are you with the notion of engaging with senior managers as peers? What skills must you develop to make this transition? What do you most want to have happen by expanding into this area of expertise? What would you find satisfying and fulfilling?
Observe differently. Identify people in roles similar to what you would like to do, and pay attention to what the work looks like. Give yourself a reality check of what would actually be involved. Observe closely who is involved, what these players currently do, where they do it, and what skills are essential to be effective.
Some skills add to your base of content knowledge and expertise and are focused primarily on the "doing" of tasks; other skills focus on your interactions and ability to influence and communicate effectively - building and sustaining workable relationships. If you lack certain skills, develop a plan to gain what's needed. On the task side, this can include informal observation, on-the-job mentoring, and formalized learning initiatives and content training.
Shift from tasks to relationships. If you're like Anne, you're pigeonholed because you consistently deliver results. Most of your conversations are probably brief, to the point, and focused on project tasks. Anne and I spend time expanding her communication repertoire by rehearsing conversations that will take place soon or that will strategically aid her. This helps her to leverage existing relationships that can inform her choices and open new doors. And she needs to establish new relationships that will enlarge her perspectives and expand the pool of people who can help influence her movement.
Expanding communication skills is a critical aspect of escaping the organizational pigeonhole. Inviting the assistance and support of a coach can help you think through and engage in skillful conversations that will enhance your opportunities for expanded development.
Communicate your interest. Because Anne is so good at what she does - and because she doesn't complain or slip into victim mode - people assume she is happy and content. We concentrate on finding ways she can let others know that she is open to new opportunities and new challenges. We discuss how she can use any interaction with decision makers, peers, and managers to start sending messages that she's interested and capable.
We also talk about how to engage and enlist the support of her immediate boss, colleagues, and managers who are influential in the arena she's eyeing. And we work on building her ability to communicate her desires and needs skillfully and with high impact: how to leverage her current influence and credibility into the springboard to the next assignment or position.
But this can only happen because she's identified areas where she'd like to grow and has begun shifting from tasks to relationships. You won't communicate your interest effectively if you haven't walked through those steps first.
Get feedback. Throughout this entire process, invite and get ongoing feedback. You will need an accurate gauge of the work and your capacity to engage with it. We all have blind spots - places where our view of ourselves is not aligned with other people's experience of us. Be sure to hear the caveats and reality checks; the learning curve for a new role tends to be far steeper and longer than you anticipate. Listen carefully to the signals other people are sending. It doesn't mean you take every verbal comment on board; however, you'll want to discern and consider the points that you know ring most true.
Making a soft landing
Expanding your options can be an invigorating, energizing experience. Honor the nudge that is speaking to you. Do your homework and due diligence along the way. Then remember that whatever plan you put into place, what actually emerges will be a variation on what you thought it would be. The important thing is to engage your mind and heart, enter the flow of your own journey, and enjoy the ride.