How You Can Keep Growing — Even When You Don’t Know the Next Step

Michael Butler

When people talk about career growth, they often use the phrase “climb the ladder.” But how can you stay focused on personal growth when the next rung isn’t clear?

Beginning in childhood, we often seek external validation as a way to measure our self-worth. Coaches, teachers, and other authority figures grade our performance, compare us to our peers, and — if we’ve performed well enough — allow us to “advance” to the next level.

When we use this validation to guide our life’s trajectory (or even our short-term goals), we can lose sight of how we’re truly feeling about ourselves as individuals. As our ability to self-reflect diminishes and we neglect our wants and needs, we become unhappy. In the worst cases, we could end up in crisis mode.

By the time we hit the workforce, most of us have only ever relied on outside validation for personal development. It’s only natural, then, that we seek external validation in our professional lives and find it in promotions, an increased workload, or greater responsibility — all forms of external validation that suggest we’re good, talented, and capable.

But it’s still someone else defining what success and growth mean.

So does this make the “ladder” metaphor a toxic concept in and of itself? Can we ever overcome our need for external validation? If we can rewire our growth pursuits and work toward a healthier development plan — even before we can map out our eventual goals — could we reap longer-lasting rewards?

Progress Pitfalls

Hopefully, you’re doing exceptionally well in your current role. You’ve hit target after target, have scaled the workplace ladder at an impressive speed, and you’re taking on new responsibilities. The boxes have been checked, the promotions earned. But once that clearly defined career path disappears, it can be more difficult to feel successful and keep that sense of progress and achievement.

And the numbers prove this. Research from CustomInsight suggests that a lack of external validation from a manager is a leading cause of employee disengagement. In this case, employees have the creeping feeling that they’ve plateaued professionally — that they can’t advance without a higher-up’s input.

Nobody deserves to feel this way.

Forging a New Path

Companies can (and do) provide great things for their employees, including professional development opportunities and clear career paths.

But even when these perks exist, professionals shouldn’t rely exclusively on their employers to define what purpose and growth mean for them. Although when it comes time to help people grow and cultivate skills that allow them to take the reins, leaders can certainly do more.

You can start by helping yourself understand the kind of professional you want to be. Try this exercise as a first step toward visualizing your growth path:

Take a moment and close your eyes. Consider the people that you admire or have made an impact in your life. What skill, attitude, or characteristic of theirs would help you become a better version of yourself?

When you’ve identified what that is, free yourself for a moment to think about the future. Acknowledge that the trait you’re seeking isn’t something you have right this moment but that you can work toward achieving it — or at least becoming better at it. Examine yourself and ask what you could do to get a little closer to your goal today. 

Leading by Example

Growth isn’t a fixed state. Growth is an act — a journey that we can go on for as long as we like. Taking this journey requires us to accept both the freedom and the uncertainty of making growth-oriented decisions ourselves.

Employers and leaders can encourage a growth mindset in others by modeling positive behavior. According to The Predictive Index, the most effective leaders are those who lead by example. These leaders actively exhibit the traits they want to see in their employees.

When sitting down with employees to talk about goals, make time to talk about what matters to them. Encourage them to think beyond the corporate ladder to the kind of professionals and individuals they aspire to be, and show them that working toward these goals is honorable.

Finally, respect the implied promise you’ve made in those conversations. Help employees create space to pursue the goals that come out of their self-exploration.

We’re all used to being graded and told what to do. But investing in the better versions of ourselves — and enabling those who follow us to do the same — will help all of us become more effective. When we set that tone and cultivate a growth-friendly environment, the potential for success is limitless.

Michael Butler

About the Author

Michael brings over 15 years of experience in technology consulting services with a passion for coaching and mentoring. As a technology advisor, Michael helps clients design and execute technology transformations, enabling his clients to approach change with confidence and adapt implementation tactics to achieve intended results. Michael is a driven people developer who builds high-performing, cross-functional teams that consistently operate at the highest levels of delivery excellence.

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