Updated: May 19
Looking for rapid professional advancement? Don't put all your eggs in the "promote from within" basket.
In the military, promotions are somewhat reliable. There is a formula for monetary advancements based on grade and time of service. You and all of your colleagues’ pay is determined from a table, which applies universally across all branches of the armed forces. You know that you'll probably get a tiny raise every year to compensate for inflation, and every two years or so, you'll get a decent bump up as well. If you are good at your job, study for your promotion tests, do a passable job at your professional military education opportunities, and make a decent impression at your board reviews (where applicable), you should promote on schedule. Most everyone who stays out of trouble and avoids serious injury can advance to a place where they can collect military retirement at the end of 20 (or more) years of service.
It is only natural for a veteran to expect the civilian world to operate in a similar fashion. Well, sorry, but it doesn't. Loyalty to an employer may be in your veteran DNA, but that dedication is not always reciprocated.
Employment is more fluid in the civilian world.
There are no 4-year enlistment contracts. Your leadership can fire you for no reason whatsoever (unless you have a union gig), entirely change the nature of your position, break promises for advancement, pile additional work on you without additional compensation or authority, or hire someone above you in a position you were hoping to occupy. Most of the above would require a veritable mountain of paperwork and months of bureaucratic red tape if executed in a military setting. The civilian workplace, however, can do all of the above with immediacy. Understandably, this reality makes many vets uncomfortable. The silver lining? You have flexibility on your end, too.
I was once hired into a lower-executive-level civilian position with the promise of rapid advancement. It appeared to be the ultimate set-up: my direct supervisor (a director-level position) was planning on staying for just one more year. During that time, he would get me up to speed and his position would be “mine to lose” upon his departure. Shortly after I signed the employment offer, I was told that my would-be direct supervisor had been offered an incredible opportunity and would be transitioning earlier than expected. I wasn't going to have one year of overlap with the guy; I was going to have one week.
I had to learn quickly. I worked my tail off and performed at a high level, especially considering I had assumed his responsibilities in addition to the duties I was hired to accomplish. After about three months I respectfully asked my leadership what the plan was for my professional development. I was told to "keep up the great work, and you're going to be really happy really quickly. Just hang in there." I was doing director-level work without the authority of the title or compensation to match. The responsibilities continued to pile on and I met every challenge, hoping that my leadership would follow through with the rapid advancement they promised me. Heck, I thought, it should happen earlier than they had initially promised, right? After all, I had shouldered all that responsibility way sooner than the one-year mark!
Your civilian bosses don’t always have a ton of incentive to help you climb to the top.
Six months into the position I began to get frustrated with the lack of communication. It seemed like nobody wanted to talk about my professional development within the organization. I decided to have a more candid conversation with my supervisor, who "didn't remember promising me anything." I went straight to the boss. He said, "Sorry if we dangled a carrot in front of you. It shouldn't have been like that. If you keep up the good work, we can chat about bumping you to director in 2 or 3 years." I was in shock. I left for another opportunity shortly thereafter.
Your civilian bosses don’t always have a ton of incentive to help you climb to the top. If you're absolutely killing it, and they don't have to pay you very much to get epic levels of production from you, why would they pay you more if they can get away with short-changing you? Why would they promote you to level 2 when you're indispensable at level 1? They get more bang for their buck keeping you where you are. Don't get me wrong, there are employers out there that take a "draft-and-develop" mentality as it pertains to their employees' development, but you can’t assume yours is one of them until you have seen proof of that in action. Your employer owes you nothing, and at the end of the day, it's business.
So, as stated earlier, don't put all of your eggs in the "promote-from-within" basket. Here are three ways you can avoid getting stuck:
Meet with your boss
Have a candid, respectful conversation with your leadership about your professional development, but remember to apply a healthy dose of skepticism to everything they say. I'm not saying every civilian leader is a liar! In their defense, things change all the time in business, and I do not believe that most civilian leaders intentionally mislead or take advantage of their workers. Perhaps your boss doesn't even know you have ambitions to become a manager, director, or C-suite executive. For this reason, it is important to humbly express your aspirations to your supervisor. If he or she is a good leader, he or she will let you know what you need to accomplish to achieve your goals and will help lay out a plan of action. Then both of you will follow through. If not, you may need a new supervisor or a new job altogether.
Network, network, network
Every single day you should be working to expand your network with relevant connections. Developing meaningful relationships in your local area and industry may very well be the most important key to your professional advancement. I know a well-connected professional that lost his job rather abruptly (yes, it happens in the civilian world, even to good employees). He had multiple job offers within 24 hours due entirely to his well-developed network.
Always be applying
Unless you are still becoming acclimated to a new position (in the first year or so), your radar should be up. Ensure that you peruse job boards on LinkedIn or Indeed from time to time. Keep an eye out for opportunities, and apply for them if they sound like a good fit. It is acceptable to go for pie-in-the-sky gigs here. If you can land that 6-figure job as an imported beer taste-tester, for example, then it would definitely be worth the transition. An immensely beneficial part of this process is the constant upgrading and updating of your resume. Additionally, every interview you participate in is a valuable learning experience.
All of this is not to say that you should bail entirely on opportunities within your organization. There are many employers that will give you opportunities for upward mobility. Distribute your eggs wisely, with most of them in your current job’s basket. For your own protection, lest that basket drop or get upended, you also want to make sure to have a few eggs in your other employment baskets.
Above all, ensure that the constant in all of this is your high performance. Execute at a high level, strive to get better every day, be open to feedback, and be a good coworker. That way you will have a string of successes and glowing recommendations to garner you that sought-after promotion within your organization or make you more marketable to other prospective employers if the need or desire arises.
Professionals, have you had any similar experiences? Been promised advancement only to have the rug pulled from underneath you? Have you been fired and left without viable options? Or is your view of the civilian workplace entirely different from what I described above?