If you want to advance but your boss isn’t invested in your professional development, it can be demoralizing and frustrating. I know because I’ve been there. In the early stages of my career, there was a phase where I felt invisible and like there were no opportunities to reach for. One summer, there was an extended period where my annual performance review was repeatedly cancelled on short notice. This happened multiple times, and it eventually got to the point where I silently conceded defeat and stopped reminding my manager to reschedule it.
No one noticed that my performance review for that year hadn’t taken place. At the time I thought, “If no one else is bothered, why should I keep pushing for the meeting?” So that year I let it slide, but I quickly realized that was a mistake. By allowing my appraisal to be passed over, I was putting a ceiling on my growth and earning potential. I learned from it, and I never made that mistake again.
If you’re feeling underutilized and underestimated, remember this: Your career is yours — and yours alone — to define and navigate. It’s essential that you know your worth, even when it’s not being reflected back to you.
Through my work as a career coach, I’ve learned that while our managers should be advocates for our advancement, that’s not always the case. Here are four approaches from my book Prep, Push, Pivot to move forward without your manager’s support.
Focus on What You Can Control
Your mindset and actions are your keys to success. It’s not your boss’s actions (or inactions) that are pivotal to your advancement. How you decide to respond to a situation — and what you do next — is what truly matters.
When you have a boss who isn’t invested in you, there are two options: You can shrink and pull back, like I initially did when I allowed my annual performance review to lapse. Or you can continue to push forward and find ways to be visible.
Option two accounts for the fact that bosses come and go, but your career is yours forever. Don’t allow someone else’s behavior to derail your goals, and don’t allow your feelings about work to be decided by someone else.
Embrace a positive mindset — that’s a proactive choice you can make no matter the circumstances. Continue to do your best work for your boss, endeavor to exceed expectations, keep lines of communication open, and be a positive, engaged team member. At the same time, remain laser focused on your career objectives and next steps.
Make Your Own Career Commitments
Creating a personal set of commitments enables you to be intentional and impactful when setting your goals and planning the next steps for your career.
To do this, reflect on the next 12 months that lie ahead of you. Ask yourself:
- What do I want to do more of?
- What do I want to be known for?
- What skills do I want to acquire?
- What do I want to start doing that I haven’t tried before?
- Where do I need to be visible?
Next, look at your responses and assign one immediate action item to each one. Then, decide what you’ll work on first. Use your responses to create a career roadmap that aligns with your goals and puts you in the driver’s seat.
Broaden Your View
Having a boss who is fully engaged and committed to supporting your career goals is an incredible experience. When this happens, savor the moment, and make a personal pledge to pay it forward in the future by being an advocate to someone else.
Even if you’re in the fortunate position of having a supportive boss, due to the volatile nature of the business environment, there are often too many variables to rely on their unwavering professional development support. If you’re feeling adrift, it’s helpful to broaden your view.
There are so many stakeholders who impact how you work. Make a list of people who matter to your career, in addition to your boss. This list may include your peers, direct reports if you have them, and senior leaders. Explore how you can continue to cultivate relationships with them.
Creating this list and taking positive actions based on it will remind you that your career doesn’t start and end with one relationship dynamic. Actions you could take include asking someone how they learned a skill you want to acquire or seeking opportunities to volunteer for initiatives that will broaden your knowledge. Remember, even if your direct manager is not investing in your professional growth, there will be other people who can impact your growth. Keep setting your intentions and exploring options, ideas, opportunities, conversations, and connections that can help lay the foundation for what you want to do next.
Forge Professional Relationships to Help You Grow
After you’ve made your “people who matter” list, think about any gaps in your network. The most important roles to consider are mentors and sponsors.
Do you currently have a mentor? If you don’t, commit to identifying more than one. Is there a person at your company who could be a sponsor? If your boss cannot fulfill that role, consider who could become an advocate for you.
Assess your list of people who matter to your career and circle the names of senior leaders. Where possible, find opportunities to connect and have career-focused conversations. Be clear about your goals and ask for their feedback. If you’re concerned that your interactions might be perceived as circumventing your manager, start with positivity. In preparation, think about a significant result your manager has achieved. When you reach out to other senior leaders, reference your manager’s accomplishment and explain how excited you are to grow your career. In addition, you can also let your manager know that you’re proactively seeking a mentor and ask if they would like to be updated on how that progresses.
When considering potential mentors, don’t forget former bosses and coworkers: If there’s someone you worked with in the past who was invested in you, stay connected. You can also leverage opportunities from professional associations to learn from and meet senior leaders in your industry.
. . .
If you and your boss aren’t synched, it’s not a great feeling, but it’s not the end of your story. Your career is the most valuable — and the most personal — investment you’ll ever make. It’s essential that you reinvest in your potential during tough times by being proactive.
Embrace a positive mindset and keep reviewing your career commitments every quarter to track your goals, accomplishments, and insights. Continue to network and broaden your view. Be intentional about engaging with others and kickstarting career-focused conversations. If you can become your own best advocate, soon you’ll look back on this moment and realize it was a catalyst that helped propel you forward.
Don’t let an indifferent manager derail your ambition, career values, or goals. Align your actions with your ambition. If you know you can do better, commit to keep aiming higher. No one else will be truly invested in your career from start to finish, which is why you must continually invest in yours.