The Midults: My team outperforms others, so why can’t I get promoted?

How can I persuade the senior leadership team that I belong there, or is this a sign that I should move on?
How can I persuade the senior leadership team that I belong there, or is this a sign that I should move on? - R.Fresson/A Human Agency

Dear A&E,

I have been passed over for promotion twice and the feedback I have received is that it is because I don’t appear confident enough, despite the fact that the team I lead frequently outperforms others in the business. How can I persuade the senior leadership team that I belong there, or is this a sign that I should move on?

– Love, Unseen

Dear Unseen,

It feels painful trying to take root in soil that is not letting you flourish, be it at work or, indeed, in a relationship, doesn’t it? In fact, dear Unseen, you might feel as if you are in a toxic relationship with your workplace, one of those tortured twenty-something romances, desperately looking for The One, wondering why he hasn’t called you back, chosen you. For a lot of women (and men) we know, the career ladder has been a little like this at times: loitering on the lower rungs, doing good work, waiting to be selected for the sunlit-lands of the C-suite, alarmed at the brazen colleagues leapfrogging over them. You are stuck in a cycle: feeling unseen and overlooked contributes to a loss of self-confidence, which in turn contributes to the way you present yourself. It stands to reason that the more you are passed over for promotion, the less confident you are going to feel.

Perhaps, even, there might be patterns in current workplace culture that are also contributing to your perceived lack of confidence. There are many sobering statistics about the shape of women’s careers in Sophie Williams’ brilliant book The Glass Cliff. Williams is exploring the phenomenon whereby “women are often being hired in leadership roles only when a business is already underperforming, meaning their chances of success are limited before they even start the position.” But her book is also a treatise on how structural inequality from the bottom up means that women and people of diverse ethnicities are often disadvantaged at the get-go. Take, for example, eye-watering statistics from the Lean In Foundation that, “white women represent 29 per cent of the entry level cohort, shrinking to 21 per cent by C-suite level. White men begin at 33 per cent representation in early entry-level roles, a number that balloons to 61 per cent by the time we look at the C-suite.” Williams posits the theory of “the broken rung” referring to the challenges that female employees “face in getting their first management opportunity and taking the initial step on the ladder towards leadership”.

Given a little of this context, perhaps there are unseen forces at play and it’s not just you. However, you should make sure that it’s not just them either. Many women reading this will know that they have had to wobble on a tightrope of behaviour over the years: not be too assertive for fear of being labelled pushy, not being too demanding for fear of being seen as a problem. As a result, you may find that you have unwittingly contributed to this view of yourself as someone lacking in confidence by your unwillingness to push yourself forward. It might also be worth taking a look at your daily running of the department and being honest about the role you play in it: are you taking on all the small, near-invisible tasks that are required, leaving you tied up for what Williams calls the “glamour work”? Do you keep the meeting notes? Sort out the birthday cards and flowers? Have you created lots of quiet, thoughtful, indispensable roles for yourself that mean that you are not viewed for your thrusting promotion potential but rather a dependability that people might be reluctant to move?

We spoke to a recruitment titan, who wishes to remain nameless, about ways you can signal to your bosses that you are ready to be C-seen. She suggests trying to set some really clear goals with your boss and anyone else who is a decision maker. As the weeks roll by, don’t get distracted and lose sight of these goals, instead, stay on track and, awkward and unnatural as it might feel, talk about them and your achievements constantly every 1:1. It might be worth consciously investing more time in building a few new internal champions. This will probably require having to break into personal time, but hey, go to the events, stay late at the dinners, do the trips. She also suggests identifying someone you know who is successful at this internally, and that you admire, and manifest them whenever you need to represent yourself better. You can wait forever in the wings, hoping that your good work and diligence will earn you the role, or you can direct the spotlight in your direction.

If there is still no promotion in the pipeline, then perhaps it might be time to move on, and that is also fine. It happens to everyone, dear Unseen. Dame Helena Morrissey once told us that she too came to a realisation that she was never going to be appreciated at one of the businesses she worked for, so she left. DAME HELENA MORRISSEY! We see you, Unseen. Show them what you got – and if they still can’t see it, move on.

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