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Career progression and careerism

I think I am not too much of a careerist. I enjoy having a lot of pans in the fire; I did better in my liberal arts degree when I had more courses, rather than fewer; I have a history of studying on the side of whatever I am doing ‘full time’ (work or, indeed, other studies). I have a certain admiration for those at work who are blatant careerists, successfully manoeuvring themselves into various prestigious posts, sometimes at quite a lick, because I find it impossible to make the prestige of the job itself my sole focus. Nevertheless, I wonder whether this might harm my career.

I’ve spent the last few weeks applying for promotion and preparing for an interview to that effect (hence the silence here), and I want to reflect on some of the questions and insecurities that chasing career highs can throw up in some sectors. This post was prompted in part by Presmued Incompetent (well worth reading), and in part by a junior colleague asking one simple question about the promotion process: ‘Do you think it really all comes down to whether they like you?’

I don’t work in higher ed (the focus of Presumed Incompetent) at the moment, but my public-sector employer is similar to a HE institution in some respects: a relatively small organisation staffed by a small corps of ‘lifers’ and others who float in and out, giving rise to a constant undercurrent of ‘churn’ (and of being overstretched); ostensibly professionalised and yet not quite there; and vaguely militaristic in its culture of duty and service. And because it is small and relies so heavily on a culture of behaviour to which everyone is expected to conform, ‘whether they like you’ lurks beneath the surface of career progression ostensibly based on ‘competences’ and ‘people strategies’.

As a person who can be task-focused, my immediate (slightly paranoid) reaction to the question of whether it’s all about likeability is, ‘I hope not!’. I spend less time sizing up my senior colleagues to identify which of them might be ‘useful’ than some of my peers. Liking someone and judging whether they meet the required competences are, however, so often intertwined, that the question needs exploring.

I have some faith in the objectivity of our HR function. If one were failing badly with respect of a competence, one would know about it sharpish, and any interviewing panel would not be swayed by personal preferences. But what about if one is failing/passing arguably? This makes me uncomfortable. I am happy to argue for myself, but if, in the closed room, senior colleagues are arguing for or against me, then does it all really come down to whether they like me and my attitude to the job? And is that why, instinctively, knowing that I am not really ‘clubbable’ (I can sometimes be mouthy about my feminism and atheism, and terse when over-worked, and erratically dressed…) I come to rely on my willingness to work hard, taking on the things that need doing but are lacking in prestige, hoping that this will be a saving grace in terms of ‘like’.

This approach has its Type-A resonances. It still has the sense of careerism about it, with decisions about resources being made on the basis of hoping to progress, but it is the (discredited) flip-side of careerism that many women find themselves trapped by, when in a number of workplaces saying ‘no’ to certain tasks (and pursuing certain others) is really valued, rather than contributing heavily across the board.

I am suspicious that, even when trying to play my career the way that my most careerist male colleagues do, I can still fall into the trap of letting myself be sucked into ‘service’. When I do think that I am acting in a careerist fashion – such as applying for, and taking, a role that involved temporary promotion – later experience leads me to wonder whether I have shot myself in the foot. Far from being a wonderful stepping stone, taking that role benefited the manager who advised me to apply (no one else applied!) and prevented me from taking part in a number of development and learning opportunities that might (I’ll have to wait and see) have helped me achieve a permanent promotion more easily. Perhaps I lack the discernment necessary to be a successful careerist. But what if that is (secretly) one of the competences for promotion?

Whatever happens, this promotion round might be revealing in terms of how careerist I need to be in order to progress in the organisation. I’ll need to take stock of how (typically) careerist I want to/can be, how ruthless in accepting or refusing tasks based on their clear connection to a further promotion rather than how much I personally enjoy and value the tasks (e.g. induction training for new colleagues). Whether I succeed or not, this is a litmus test for whether my values match up with my organisation’s, at least at the upper levels.

At the lower levels, I sort of already know the answer. Because what gets to me is a sense of paranoia, thinking that my careerist peers will be shaking their heads at my foolishness and chuckling because it helps them. If I were to stop approaching my job on the basis of my own values, passion and enthusiasm, it would be not because I want to beat everyone, but because I fear being (and appearing to be) beaten, particularly as a woman, knowing that female careers are often stalled by a willingness to take on too much, spreading ourselves too thinly.

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