Ask Annie

What if your next career move isn't a promotion?

January 3, 2014: 5:00 AM ET

As companies become flatter, moving up the organization chart keeps getting harder. Here are some thoughts on what to do now.

Man exulting in office

FORTUNE -- Dear Annie: I hope you can give me some ideas, because I think I'm probably just one of many -- which, in a way, is the whole problem. My only resolution for 2014 is to finally get promoted, but it's looking unlikely. I work for a really good company, so I don't want to leave, but so many layers of management were done away with during the recession that there are now very few senior jobs likely to be available anytime soon, and lots of internal (not to mention external) qualified people in line.

So I guess my question is, what can I do now? I'm already doing the obvious things, like producing great results in my current position, but so is everybody else. Can you suggest anything that might help me hang on here? -- Rooted but Restless

Dear R.R.: You're right to surmise that you have plenty of company -- and, if it's any consolation, people upstairs may be thinking pretty hard right now about how to hold on to you. "This is a real problem that's very much on the minds of senior management," notes Laura Poisson, a vice president at Boston-based career development firm ClearRock.

"Valuable players who helped companies meet their goals during the downturn are ready to move up," she says. "The question is, how can they, when organizations are determined to stay lean?"

It's a conundrum that's been building for some time now, with lots of frustrated people stuck in middle management, partly because legions of boomers in corner offices, spooked by the recession (and the real estate crash), aren't retiring on schedule.

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Another reason promotions are scarce these days is that, as you've seen, there are simply fewer management jobs. At the same time, the number of tech jobs is exploding. Job site TheLadders, for instance, studied about 60,000 employers in November and found that the growth rate of job titles with the word "manager" in them is about 25% lower than the average growth rate, and titles containing the word "director" are growing 50% more slowly than average. Of the top 10 fastest-growing job titles, seven were in tech or were tech-related. Only three -- staff accountant, paralegal, and administrative assistant -- pertained to jobs that required no STEM expertise.

Many people in your position have adjusted their expectations accordingly. Consider: When consultants BlessingWhite surveyed full-time employees across the U.S. in December about their next career moves in 2014, they found that over half (58%) of upwardly mobile types expect to start on a new project, either where they work now or at some other company. Only 13% think they'll get promoted.

Against that backdrop, Poisson has four tips for you on moving up -- or moving on:

1. Follow the money. How close are you right now to your company's strategic center? "The promotions now are happening at or near companies' most important strategic areas, and that's also where the money is," notes Poisson. "You can be a highly accomplished subject-matter expert, but if you're not contributing directly to the company's biggest strategic goals, it won't help."

If you're not at the center of your company's strategic aims, Poisson recommends asking for either a lateral move closer, or else an assignment to a cross-functional team project that will get you there. "You have to be close to where the money is made, and either make money or save money for the business," Poisson says, adding that many people anxious to move up "lose sight of that."

2. Make a specific career plan. This should be something you discuss in detail with your immediate boss -- including who's going to replace you if you move up or out. "You need to discuss your goals with your boss, and see if you can train or mentor the person who would replace you," Poisson says. "A lot more of these conversations are happening these days, because they need to."

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At several of her client companies, she adds, people "shadow" someone for a couple of days or a week to see what their next move is all about. "See if you can shadow someone to find out more details about the job you think you want," Poisson suggests. "The day-to-day may not be what you think it is" -- which gives you a chance to adjust your plan accordingly.

3. Decide what else, aside from a promotion, you really want. If a move up the ladder isn't possible right now, Poisson recommends giving some thought to what else would keep you around until it is. She notes that many outfits "really value treating everybody the same, so everyone at a given level gets the same amount of vacation and so on" -- but that number is, by necessity, shrinking. "Find out where the flexibility is," she says.

Then make a wish list. No two are the same, but Poisson says that flexible schedules, more travel to important industry conferences, and more training -- "especially training somewhat outside your current area, like big data training for non-data-analysts, for instance" -- are popular choices, and usually get the green light from higher-ups eager to keep key people from quitting.

4. Think hard about why you're staying. You mention that your current employer is a good place to work, but "there are good companies everywhere," Poisson observes. "You might find you'd get a better deal somewhere else." Human nature is such that "a lack of progress for a long time really erodes people's confidence," she adds. "Making a change before you get to that point can give you a big burst of energy."

If interviewing elsewhere turns up some appealing opportunities out there, then great -- "or you may find some real advantages to staying where you are," she says. "Either way, you'll be making a reasoned decision." Good luck.

Talkback: Is it harder to get promoted, where you work, than it used to be? Have you found ways around that? Leave a comment below.

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About This Author
Anne Fisher
Anne Fisher
Contributor, Fortune

Anne Fisher has been writing "Ask Annie," a column on careers, for Fortune since 1996, helping readers navigate booms, recessions, changing industries, and changing ideas about what's appropriate in the workplace (and beyond). Anne is the author of two books, Wall Street Women (Knopf, 1990) and If My Career's on the Fast Track, Where Do I Get a Road Map? (William Morrow, 2001).

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