by Gloria Feldt
Maybe you didn’t successfully negotiate that promotion (or maybe you didn’t even try). But while it’s true that how far your career advances—and how quickly—is largely up to your boss, you might have more power than you think. And particularly if you’re a woman, you may need to use it if you’ve got your eye on a leadership role down the line.
(In a 2013 issue of Harvard Business Review, researchers Herminia Ibarra, Robin J. Ely, and Deborah M. Kolb referred to a “second-generation gender bias” that’s often harder to diagnose than overt workplace sexism. They find that women get caught in a loop that puts them into the same kinds of jobs they’ve already shown proficiency in—often roles that veer away from the operational track, like human resources or investor relations.)
One possible solution for breaking this cycle, however, is what Catalyst researchers term “role negotiation;” by negotiating for more high-level job duties, they find, people can find opportunities for advancement that more formal changes—like changes in job title—would otherwise lead to.
In my personal experience as a CEO, employees who see the organizational big picture and think accordingly about their own roles are the ones who catch my eye and get tapped for stretch opportunities that build their resumes.
Here’s how to make use of the untapped potential in shaping your own role, project by project, regardless of the job title that’s printed on your business card.
Why You’re Overlooking Role Negotiation
A role change may not sound as impressive as a title change, but that’s no reason to pass it up. In fact, renegotiating your day-to-day job can prove decisive in whether or not you ultimately land the position you’re gunning for later on. A true role change can give you the chance to learn new skills, get acquainted with other departments, and raise your visibility in your organization. More than that, it can give you the room to actually innovate in a role whose original job description doesn’t.
Taking matters into your own hands isn’t about a power grab; the first misconception you need to shake is that you might be overstepping your bounds. Every company’s top performers look for “stretch” projects that might take them outside their formal roles—and companies value that. Another thing to disabuse yourself of is that role negotiation requires sitting down with your boss to request more opportunities. It doesn’t.
Think of “negotiation” in a loose sense—less sitting across the table making a deal, and more in terms of navigating new terrain (the way you might say a rock climber “negotiates” her next foothold on a cliff face). So, for example, if your end-game is to become CEO of a global company, look for international opportunities (and yes, you can do this in your twenties), exposure to operational issues, P&L experience, and special projects with high visibility.
None of these pursuits might be a part of your present job path, but don’t let that faze you; the most effective leaders rarely land those roles from traditional corporate ladder climbing anymore. At any rate, failing to proactively seek out these kinds of opportunities stalls far too many people on the leadership track—don’t let that be you.
These are a few ways to propel yourself forward by making some strategic role changes:
1. Don’t Wait for Assignments to Come to You
Keep a lookout, and speak up as soon as you spot a project you want a hand in. We already know that women ask for raises with the same frequency as men but are simply granted them at lower rates—an outcome of workplace gender bias that’s only compounded when you hesitate to advocate for yourself.
Claim what you want, and walk with intention toward your boldest goals.
2. Talk to People Who Are Doing What You Want to Do
Do your homework. Catalyst’s Director of Research, Anna Beninger, says there’s an untapped potential in simple curiosity.
Be curious—and conspicuously so—by asking questions of the colleagues who are working on projects that bring real value to your organization. It doesn’t matter if they’re senior to you or work on other teams. Think of it as in-house networking. Take the time to investigate, and you’ll be better positioned to make the best case for your inclusion in an ongoing project or one you propose.
When in doubt, never underestimate the power of, “Let’s get a coffee.”
3. Inventory Your Skills
Figure out what you need to learn in order to get to your goal—don’t let others decide the route for you.
Sometimes, the best way to gain skills is to volunteer to help out. (In fact, companies themselves are already wise to this: In a recent Deloitte survey, hiring managers and recruiters say volunteer work is one of the most underrated job skills out there.)
You don’t need to find a charity to spend your Saturdays with, though. Just ask, “How can I help?” more often than you’re used to. It’s helpful to start taking on parts of a job before going for a whole new role. This lets you try a new job function on for size and build your skill set gradually before drawing up a plan and going full in. As Beninger and her colleagues have found, the paths to some of the most high-impact leadership roles often run through everyday tasks and goals—and they often occupy unstaked, even disruptive, territory.
4. Develop a Vision, Then Share It
Another obstacle to professional women’s advancement that Ibarra has identified, along with her colleague Otilia Obodaru, is “the vision thing.” They’ve found that one critical difference between men and women at the top is how effectively they convey their own visions for the future to their team.
Be the one who sees the big picture and inspires others. (And, by the way, you don’t need to be a futurist to do this well—a huge piece of the whole “vision thing” is all about communication.)
Another piece of it is how you envision yourself. Regardless of your job title, you need to see yourself as a leader. Don’t settle for being the one who keeps the trains running on time. Maybe you’re genuinely uncomfortable with power? You’re not alone, but try seeing power as the tool it can be; rather than having power over others, you’ll be using power to create, innovate, and lead.
5. Pay it Forward
Keep at it, and be patient. The path to the leadership role you’ve got your eye on might not come through a steady march up your company’s org chart. But, once you’re finally there, pay it forward.
Sure, you had to do some of this role negotiation all on your own, but now you can be the mentor or sponsor you didn’t have for the next talented person coming up. After all, you’ll need their brilliant ideas and passion on your team when you’re running the show.