Don’t wait for a promotion. Promote yourself.

Startups suck at “Professional Development,” but can be great places to develop professionally.

Startups need to focus on two things: Making something, and selling it. They tend to be light on the systems and processes to do even that, let alone all the other things scaled businesses have the resources to tackle.

Something that usually gets left behind is formalized professional development. It actually takes a boatload of system and process infrastructure to enable a comprehensive professional development program:

  • Clear and consistent definition of roles and responsibilities, across the organization
  • Objective standards and formalized compensation bands for levels within each role, from entry level to Vice President
  • Disciplined Performance Management, grounded in clear goal-setting at the company, department, team, and individual level, and connected to a meaningful program of variable compensation
  • Good internal communication about new opportunities and job openings, with policies of preferential access to current staff
  • Training to promote best practices in providing regular performance feedback and coaching, supported by a culture of open and regular communication between managers and staff.

At successful big companies these systems are the norm, though the quality of execution varies a lot. Among earlier stage companies — both startup and scale-up — they rarely exist in recognizable form. That’s certainly true of Actifio, which (remarkably) has yet to hire an exec-level HR professional.

So do we suck at professional development? Hardly. We’ve actually been recognized as one of the best places to start a career. Companies like ours are great places for young professionals to develop… all it takes is a change in mind set, and a little initiative on the part of the person trying to develop.

All it takes an understanding of how to promote yourself.

Doing so starts with appreciating the difference between authority and power.

Authority flows down, from the top. It’s the byproduct of organization structure, allocated by the organization to those who demonstrate the potential to manage effectively and help the business win.

Power can be developed anywhere, top to bottom. It’s created and owned by individuals within the organization, and can serve both the interests of those individuals, and those of the business itself.

Power gets a bad rap. But it’s what makes the world go ‘round.

Power — and those who pursue it — sometimes get a bad rap. But it’s what makes things happen in any company, large or small. And just as power can by applied for selfish or selfless reasons, it can be accumulated through manipulative or benevolent means.

As I said a while back (How To Be An Executive):

If you ever catch yourself saying you can’t do X because your company won’t give you Y… grab a 2x4, and hit yourself in the forehead with it. Seriously. Quit whining, and go make it happen. Or shut up. Not sure how to accumulate power? Watch the Godfather parts I and II, and pay close attention to how Vito goes from being a sickly kid on Ellis Island, to being Robert DeNiro, to being the most powerful man in New York. Hint: He does it by helping others, not by killing them.

The best way to accumulate power is to help people. Period. Helping people makes you powerful, because the person you help almost invariably feels some sense or obligation to reciprocate. Helping people creates goodwill in the universe, goodwill to be leveraged down the road in the support of whatever ends the wielder of power chooses.

This process unfolds over time, of course, but there are ways to shortcut it. One of the best is to identify outcomes that serve both your interests and others’ in the organization, and to enlist their support in achieving them.

Which brings me to the point: If you’re in an entrepreneurial environment, and want to move from where you are today to someplace else, focus on earning the power to get there yourself, not on waiting for someone else to offer you the authority.

How do you do that in a responsible and productive way?

  1. Decide where you want to go in your career. This can be hard, but if you think someone else is going to figure it out for you, you’re on the fast track to middle management.
  2. Determine the skills you need to do that job. What skills do you have today? What’s the delta to get you from here to there? You shouldn’t do this in a vacuum of feedback from others, of course, but nor should you wait for the company do it for you.
  3. Look for a problem in the business that’s not being adequately addressed, specifically a problem that provides an opportunity for you to develop the skills necessary to advance toward the career goal you decided on in step 1.
  4. Volunteer to tackle that problem — in addition to whatever you’re doing today. Advancing takes some hard work. Start by building support for this new role you’ve envisioned, among the various internal constituencies with a stake in the problem.
  5. Solve the problem. Again, work. Don’t just do the job… drive the result the business needs by working hard, making mistakes, learning, iterating, and getting better.

It’s about the journey, folks. The key is to find a problem at the intersection of what you want to do eventually and what the company needs done right now. Think of that problem as a disguise, being worn by your opportunity to take a step from career point A to career point B.

A favorite cultural touchstone at Facebook. They’re scaling ok

Examples abound at our company of people who’ve identified “white space” in our execution — problems to which insufficient focus was being applied — and offered to fill them in return for the experience of doing so. I’d argue this is the hallmark of good startup culture; people smart and aggressive enough to rush in and make what needs to happen, happen.

Our first receptionist decided she wanted to be in HR. After talking with her manager, she started pitching in on the admin side of the function, then earned a certificate in the discipline, and stepped into a full-time HR role when our first one became available.

One of our inside sales folks decided field sales wasn’t for her. What she most enjoyed was the time she spent cultivating partner relationships, and after a few months getting results driving leads from partner target lists, was offered a full-time partner management gig on the West coast.

One of my own people was doing a great job running events for us, and expressed interest in the digital side of marketing. She made a real contribution there when we needed the help, starting with grunt work and working her way up. Now we’re defining a company-wide Demand Gen role for her that will have her coordinating the activities of multiple departments in the delivery of live, digital, and partner marketing programs in the field, worldwide.

None of these folks had access to the kind of formalized professional development people sometimes feels is absent in young companies. But each of them — with the help and active support of managers looking out for their interests — was able to figure out what they wanted, spot an opportunity to move toward it, learn the ropes, and step into an opportunity that moved them forward while creating value for the company.

So what are you waiting for?

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