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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

Nowhere To Go: Advancing Your Career at a Small Company

When you took a job at a small company, you saw an opportunity to gain resume-enriching experience. As a member of an all-hands-on deck team, there seemed to be no limit to the projects you could take on. After all, a growing company is full of opportunity—right?


But the thing about small companies is that they’re, well—small. So when you’re ready to move up, there’s not always a place to go. You’ve had many opportunities to spread your wings, yet after a while you may find you’ve flown smack into the middle of the sliding glass door.

So now what?

At this point, you have two options: Stay where you are and make a path of your own, or find a position outside of the company that is more in line with your goals.

There are a lot of reasons you might want to stay put—maybe you believe strongly in the company’s mission or you like the culture. Perhaps you see an opportunity to step into a leadership role as the company grows.

But whatever the reason, once you decide to stay, prepare to blaze your own trail. Here are some things I had to learn the hard way about forging your own career path.

Don’t Just Show Initiative, Take It  

Smaller organizations don’t always have structured career paths for their employees, so it’s likely you’ll be responsible for not only meeting your performance goals, but for helping your supervisor to define them, as well.

Take advantage of this and be proactive about your role. Don’t wait for management to assign you additional responsibilities. Instead, look around for areas in the organization that need improvement and create solutions. This process will identify areas of opportunity that are beyond your current functional area (some of which may be perfectly suited to your skill set!).

An example: Six years ago, I was hired by my current employer to manage administrative operations. After a few weeks in that role, I noticed that one senior executive was handling all of the human resources issues, in addition to his primary job functions. I approached him about the possibility of taking on some of his responsibilities. That conversation resulted in the creation what is now my primary role—directing the company’s HR programs and activities under fairly limited supervision.

Make it Easy for Them to See What You’re Doing

Once you’ve identified potential areas for growth or projects you can take on, create a career plan with a measurable set of objectives to discuss with your supervisor on a regular basis (and make revisions as your role develops). When you’re forging into new territory, documenting the metrics by which your success will be measured is a favor to both yourself and your boss.

But accomplishing your goals is only half of the battle. Remember, The Powers That Be (TPTB) at your company cannot reward what they cannot see, and from my experience, they sometimes need visual aids. If you want your growth to stay on the agenda, you’ll need to reinforce your efforts by giving them the right information at the right time.

A few years ago, I started a journal to keep track of new processes I’d created and any resulting financial impact they had on the company (remember, management always has an eye on the bottom line, and achievements with no correlation to revenue or savings are unlikely to get much attention). I then shared this with my boss in our monthly status meetings, so that he always had the information he needed to discuss my performance and growth opportunities with the rest of the management team. This additional effort at communication has significantly increased my compensation and my level of influence in a relatively short period of time.

The lesson here is this: Set goals, communicate your achievements, and demonstrate how they translate into dollars. Executives understand this language.

Find a Mentor

There is no better guide to a destination than one who’s already traveled the road. If your company has a formal mentoring program, get involved. If it doesn’t, look around for someone who’s been there for awhile, and who has accomplished the type of growth you’re looking for. A mentor can see what you can’t—whether it’s an opportunity for improvement, an obstacle within the organization, or the often unspoken expectations of management.

My mentor is one of two partners original to our organization. When I first asked him when I’d be eligible for promotion into a director role, he replied, “If you want to be promoted to director, you’ve got to do the job of a director.” In other words, TPTB at my organization expect that you’ll demonstrate the knowledge, skill, ability, and willingness to do the job before they’ll give it to you. That’s valuable information to have.

Be Realistic

It’s easy get frustrated when your career doesn’t develop as quickly as you’d hoped. The truth is, no matter how hard you work, or how much you bring to the table, your organization might not be big or profitable enough to justify a promotion.

If this is the case for you, try not to focus too much on the official promotion. There is more to career development than a change in title and a bigger office. Growth can also be tracked with changes in your pay, responsibilities, and influence. For instance, you may become eligible for an annual bonus, or your salary increases may be more substantial. Or, you may find that you’re included in discussions regarding strategy and process more so than before. At a small company, having greater influence over its product or services can be more meaningful for your career long-term than a change to the title on your business card.

If All Else Fails

Ultimately, you may find that your personal goals and the company’s available opportunities just don’t align. If this is the case, it may be time to consider moving on. But whether you decide to stay in your current role or seek out another, there is no downside to making the effort to become a more valuable, effective team member.

My advice to you? Blaze that trail. It may not get you to where you expected, but it will get you somewhere better.

Photo of woman thinking courtesy of Shutterstock.