4 Alternative Ways I Grow My Career Without Climbing the ‘Ladder’

Being successful isn’t just about promotions & bigger paychecks.

Elaine M.
Elaine M.
Sep 1, 2020 · 5 min read

Throughout my twenties, I wholeheartedly leaned into the notions that to be successful, I had to be ever reaching for and attaining, higher salaries, accolades and job titles.

I’ve previously held senior roles in my profession, managing small teams, and while I can’t say I didn’t enjoy it, after a while, I came to realise those positions didn’t offer me the value I’ve since learned I’m looking for through my work. I’ve spent a lot of time investing into my exploration of how I want my career and work-life to look like and add value for me, as well as how I can give value to my community.

And yet, now and then, despite knowing I don’t want to enter the realm of managerial titles again (at least not yet), I still feel like a failure for not doing so.

It’s hard to find ways to forge ahead and feel successful when the majority of the world advocate for a very linear path to ‘prove’ success, especially at work. There isn’t a great deal of advice out there around what else this could look like if management isn’t for you. Any advice I’ve found, all seems to be stepping stones to encourage us to seek promotions, pay raises, and awards/recognition.

Knowing what else makes you feel successful as an individual is crucial for overcoming feelings of stagnation or comparison-deficit. You don’t always have to move upwards to move onwards. Here are four alternative ways I’ve managed to maintain a sense of ‘success’ in my career, that doesn’t rely simply on job titles and income.

1. Look for In-Role Opportunities

Not all growth involves taking a step up. Instead of taking on managerial responsibilities, it’s possible to build more commitment into your current role or to diversify your current role deliverables.

That might be through new projects or a greater variety of projects, implementing new ideas or taking the lead on a change/development within your office.

After I’d been in one of my roles for almost three years, I was ready to shake up my day but not keen to take on a promotion. Instead, I knew some of our training and workshop materials were outdated and a tad boring. For my workshops, I’d already transitioned from plain old Powerpoint to a more interactive platform, so I pitched to my boss about doing an evaluation and update project of the materials.

She loved the idea. I spent six months working on the project and got great feedback from team members. It helped me feel like I was making all of our workdays better and adding a positive contribution.

When hunting for your next non-managerial job opportunity, consider what growth looks like within the role rather than what’s beyond it.

2. Move Sideways to a More Prestigious Company

Instead of becoming a bigger fish in the same pond, look for a bigger pond.

The benefit of bigger ponds is that there are often opportunities to move around the business, in sideways of diagonal ways. You can transfer between departments or interstate offices, as well as pretty much doing the work you love in a new environment.

After working for three years with a lesser-known company in the employment and training space, I moved to one with a large international presence, working in one of their training departments. I enjoyed the newfound sense of success that came from working for a more prestigious company, will still feeling comfortable doing the work I love.

Not all industries offer a concrete ranking system by which to measure your growth, but other indicators to consider include company size, client-base, influence and general reputation(national and international).

3. Share Your Skills Through Freelancing

Once you feel confident and competent in your industry as a professional, you can deploy your skills and experience in new ways — no ‘manager’ job title required. Freelancing, consulting, running workshops, a newsletter: whatever you’ve discovered as your passion or niche, expand your skillset outside of the office.

After working in my industry for a few years, I was invited to write for a big careers guidance website. I loved it.

So I kept doing it. Writing all kinds of content, picking up editing work, and generally building a platform that I get to invest in outside of work has helped me to feel successful in new and nuanced ways. When you go it alone, you can chart your career growth with the metrics you decide. A bonus is that over time, I’ve also been able to maintain a steady income stream from this work.

4. Deepen or Broaden Your Skill Set

If you’re not devoting time and energy to cultivating managerial skills, you can focus on honing other skills.

This doesn’t have to be directly related to your current role. And life is better when the things we invest our time and energy in are a greater reflection of all the different facets we find interesting.

For me, that has predominantly involved expanding my writing and editing skillsets. While I started off writing around topics related to my industry, I’ve also been able to cultivate my interest in writing fiction and children’s books. It’s been a fun mixture of online and in-class workshops, writing groups, and developing a social media’ brand’ (something I am still learning!).

It’s helped me to diversify my skillset in ways that benefit me personally and professionally, and help me feel content (successful!) in my life in personalised ways.

I guess I should add in here, that if management, promotions and salary increases are what drive you and help you feel content/successful in your professional life — that’s great! There’s nothing wrong with pursuing that pathway if it’s right for you.

But if it’s not, there are so many other ways to help us feel positive and create a pathway to success that’s meaningful for how we want to exist in the world.

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Elaine M.

Written by

Elaine M.

Writer etc | Psychologist-in-Training | Careers Coach Veteran | Covering: Careers with Purpose, Positive Psychology + Creative Living without the BS

Curated Careers

What does fulfilling work really mean? How do you really ‘find your passion’? Curated Careers aims to answer some of the big questions around how to create and curate a career you love.

Elaine M.

Written by

Elaine M.

Writer etc | Psychologist-in-Training | Careers Coach Veteran | Covering: Careers with Purpose, Positive Psychology + Creative Living without the BS

Curated Careers

What does fulfilling work really mean? How do you really ‘find your passion’? Curated Careers aims to answer some of the big questions around how to create and curate a career you love.

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