Advancing your career despite an unsupportive boss

Advancing your career can almost be impossible if your boss isn't on-board to help you. Here are three steps that can keep your career progressing despite a boss who doesn't want to support your efforts.

It's normal for ambitious employees to periodically feel stifled in their careers, and it's easy to blame the boss, saying that the boss doesn’t listen, doesn’t want you to succeed, thinks only of his or her needs, and doesn’t recognize your contributions or your potential.

While you must take responsibility for your own career goals, sometimes the boss does get in the way for various reasons, such as a competitive personality, fear of talented subordinates, political bias, poor management and listening skills, flawed chemistry between a manager and a subordinate, and a risk-adverse corporate culture—to name a few.

But you can overcome those obstacles and move your career ahead in spite of the boss. In order for this process work, you can’t start badmouthing your boss to co-workers. It’s imperative that you stay professional. Here are three specific steps for advancing without any help or assistance from the boss.

Step 1. Hold your tongue and take the high road
When executive recruiter Kathryn Ullrich served as director of product marketing at a small enterprise software company in the San Francisco Bay Area, she learned that a new VP two levels up was bad-mouthing her, attempting to demote her role in the organization. To this day, she isn't certain why, but she suspects the VP was threatened by her knowledge and was trying to maintain his position in the company, which was in the process of being acquired by a large software company in the area.

Ullrich recalled that her efforts to help the exec get up to speed seemed to backfire, but doesn't regret trying to be supportive when he came on board. "I felt good about it because I took the high road," she said.

During this time, Ullrich was working closely with a senior VP at the acquiring company. This manager soon heard about the situation and that Ullrich's boss was causing other problems as well. The key was that this senior VP didn't learn any of it from Ullrich because she never complained about the problematic VP and his mean-spirited tactics.

The senior VP "and I never talked about what was in between the lines," she said, and her not "tattling" kept her in good standing with the senior VP even after she had left the company for another job. When she returned to the Bay Area from a hiatus in Nepal, she met the senior VP at a health club and he asked her if she wanted to come back. While flattered, she declined but realized that her handling of the former boss issue had clearly made an impact on the senior VP. The career lesson, she explained, taught her the value of not getting mad or acting out in frustration, but instead to keep doing the job as best you can.

Step 2. Analyze the situation and strive for the power center
It's critical that IT managers do everything they can to work with their immediate supervisors, whether that person is at the CIO or VP level, if their goal is to advance in the company.

"You'll get more support going elsewhere in the company if the manager is behind you," Ullrich said.

If you still haven’t advanced, it's time to do a self-analysis; after all, it might not be the boss' fault that you haven't advanced. Ask yourself the following questions and be honest about the answers:
  • Are you sure you're ready (skills-wise) for a promotion?
  • Have you really achieved all of the goals of your current role?
  • Do your work achievements reflect well on your boss and team?

Once you've honestly evaluated these questions, it's a good idea to enlist trusted colleagues for feedback on these points, Ullrich said.

Then it's time to draw up a career agenda and set up a meeting with the boss. One approach is to review your performance with the boss, discuss your goals, and agree on action steps to reaching those goals. It sounds simple, but often managers and their employees never probe these issues.

"Sometimes people perceive that the boss is standing in the way of their career, but maybe they haven't even discussed it with him or her," said Katherine Spencer Lee, executive director of Robert Half Technology, the IT recruiting arm of Robert Half International. "People in IT are often uncomfortable sharing goals and aspirations with others," she added.

Another common mistake is denial—an employee may desperately want to move up in the organization, but not be willing to do the work involved in acquiring new skills or changing problem behavior areas, Lee said.

Of course, despite all the right approaches to moving ahead, a career can get stalled because of the boss and there's little you can do about it.

"Sally," a software manager at a biotech software company in the Bay Area who requested anonymity, recalled how she was slated for a promotion in the fall of 2002 to a director-level position. Yet, after receiving positive feedback from her boss, a VP, the promotion never happened. At one point, the VP told Sally she needed the approval of her peers before he could promote her, and when one employee—who had her own ambitions for the job—balked, the promotion was put on hold again. Sally befriended other executives, including the CTO, for advice, but has largely given up on the coveted director role, and is looking for another job.

Step 3. Find a mentor to support career aspirations
If career advancement efforts with the boss fall on deaf ears, don't despair. A trusted mentor, inside or outside of the company, can also help you navigate the political maze thwarting your progress.

Approach the mentor in a similar fashion as you did your boss—set up regular meetings, and come to those meetings prepared with two or three agenda items. "Having a mentor is really important," Sally said. "Even if the mentor doesn’t have a lot of concrete suggestions, it helps to talk to someone and validate your feelings," she said.

In choosing a mentor, first interview the individual and make sure that he or she is a good personality fit, said Lee. Then set up parameters for your relationship and develop a plan for working together. For more information on how mentoring can help advance an IT career, check out TechRepublic's mentoring PowerPoint download resource. This download can help IT managers evaluate and launch a formal mentoring program within their own organizations.

Future job tip
When it comes to career advancement, clearly the boss can play a significant role, and IT pros often don't take that into consideration when taking a job. It can be a tough lesson to learn, especially when you land a job you love, but work for a boss who doesn’t understand how your career advancement can clearly improve his or her own career status.

So, when interviewing for a future position, make sure you talk with current employees to get insight on how, or if, the department manager helps them advance. Try to talk with other executives to learn how your potential new manager is regarded and whether he or she is respected in the organization.

The goal, according to Ullrich, is to get hired by an "enlightened manager"—someone who hires A-level people and is committed to recognizing talent on the team and rewarding superstars. It will make your own career advancement road much smoother.