Consider three of my clients: Nathan is the community manager for an up-and-coming brand’s online presence, Emily develops apps for a popular mobile platform, and Megan works for a large regional manufacturer that’s been run by the same family for generations.

And they all have the same problem. Nathan, Emily, and Megan are all great at what they do, but don’t have a clear path for getting promoted to bigger and better things.

Many positions in the tech, startup, social media, and small business ecosystems defy the traditional rules of moving up the ladder. Just think: What’s the next step after developing those apps or managing those online communities? How do you move up in a family-owned business? In many cases, there simply isn’t a defined logical next step.

It’s a challenge many employees face today. Research shows that less than 50% of employees see viable advancement opportunities with their current employers.

On top of that, only about a third of managers effectively discuss career development during the performance management process.

The bottom line? If you want a viable future at your company, you’d better get ready to take the situation into your own hands. That means sitting down with your manager to have the big “where is this relationship going?” conversation. And when you do, here are a few tips to keep in mind.

Take Ownership

It’s your career. There’s no one more invested in your future than you. Waiting for your manager to enlighten you with his or her version of your ideal next step is not a strategy.

Instead, own up to the fact that neither your organization nor your manager is in charge of your next step. You are.

Prepare

Think about where you perform well and how that can position yourself to be successful in your next role. Document your key accomplishments and reflect on the specific results you’ve achieved for the organization.

Once you’ve collected your supporting materials, ask for a meeting with your manager to discuss your future. Treat it like a strategic business meeting—because it is!

Connect With Your Manager

Begin the meeting by looking at the situation through the lens of your manager. Get a sense for how invested he or she is in helping you.

Start with your purpose: “Jocelyn, I’d like to talk about what the next step in my career looks like. I’d really like it to be with this organization, but the next steps here aren’t completely clear to me.”

Review your accomplishments and reiterate your enthusiasm about working there: “I’ve been here two years and I’ve proven my ability to grow community traffic. It’s been a tremendous growth experience for me—and for the company. I’ve increased engagement by 65% and drove 20% more unique visitors to our website. I’ve met or exceeded my key performance indicators in each of these areas while developing strong relationships with our internal and external stakeholders.”

What happens next will give you an idea of how aligned your boss is with your performance. Listen for her feedback; if she’s supportive, it’s likely she’ll advocate for you.

Describe Your Personal Vision

Share with your manager where you see yourself in one, three, or five years. Even without specifics like job titles, have a general sense for where you’re headed. Do you want to manage people? Work with higher-profile clients?

Consider what skills you’d like to develop, what experiences you’d like to have, and what knowledge you’d like to acquire. Share how these things can help the organization solve its business problems.

Ask for What You Want

Your boss may know you do a great job, but her plate is probably completely full with her own obligations. If you’re interested in a promotion or new assignment, ask!

You could, for example, say, “Jocelyn, based on the information we’ve discussed, what ideas do you have about what my next step here could be?”

This lets her know you want to move—preferably within the organization—but intimates that it may have to be elsewhere if necessary.

If she’s all over it, spilling with creative ideas to circumvent a “ladder-less” system, great!

If she’s at a complete loss for what to tell you or how to direct you, you’ve got your work cut out for you.

Develop Your Own Strategy

If you want to stay with the company, but your boss is rudderless in the idea pond, try researching other departments that could use your skill set and experience.

Check in with contacts you have elsewhere in the organization, dig into pain points you hear them mention, and connect to people who need your help. Look at what’s changing in the business and see how you can fit in.

For example, is there a merger or divestiture on the horizon? Perhaps you can develop an app to usher new employees through the merger process, to help them adapt to new processes and procedures. Or, you might propose a community platform solely for employees—or customers—from the newly acquired organization.

Get Your Manager’s Sponsorship and Support

Even if your boss doesn’t open every door, you can reasonably expect that (assuming you’re a good performer) she will sponsor your move within the organization. After all, having your shining talent on her team is a gold star for her. Promoting you strengthens her reputation as a perceptive talent manager.

Show her what you’ve uncovered in your research. Identify three to five good “next step” possibilities and mutually agree on the best path. Then, ask that she commit to making the necessary introductions and recommendations.

Reiterate that you want to stay with the organization—that’s your first choice. If, however, you can’t figure out how to make that happen or if she’s unwilling to help open the doors to make that happen, let her know you’ll be open to looking at opportunities outside the company.

Once you’ve delivered the performance, presented your case, and made your ask, it’s up to your manager to decide if and how she will help your career movement. And if she isn’t willing to sponsor or advocate for you, your move up will most definitely mean a move out.

Whether you move into the next big thing where you are or head out to a new organizational frontier, you’ll be better having gone through this process. Asking for what you deserve is a career skill you need—and one that will continue to benefit you well into the future.

Photo of ring courtesy of Shutterstock.