Treat Your Career Advancement Like a Three-Legged Stool

Find balance between compensation, skills, and responsibilities

Photo: Rumman Amin/Unsplash

It’s been twelve years since I graduated from college. In that time, I have held nine different IT-related roles, worked at six different organizations, and have lived in four different states. On average, that means that I’ve:

  1. Moved to a new state every three years
  2. Changed organizations every two years
  3. Switched jobs every sixteen months

There are definitely people who have experienced more career-related change than I have and in less time. But considering that the median workplace tenure for people in my age bracket is 3.2 years, it’s fair to say that I’ve moved around a bit more than many of my peers.

One of the inevitable side effects of moving around so much is the feeling of being “stuck” after sitting in a job for too long. And although I’ve never had to deal with interview questions about job-hopping, I still want to be able to balance my frequent desire for something new against making good career decisions.

To that end, I’ve developed a metaphor that I lean on to help me identify where I’m at in my role and career, and to help me decide whether or not it’s time to move on:

The three-legged stool

Each leg of my career advancement stool represents one of the facets in my current role:

Compensation: Salary, vacation, benefits, 401k, stock options, etc.

Knowledge and skills: Things I’m still learning in the current role — ranging from software frameworks to project management to business skills.

Responsibilities: Processes, projects, and people that I’m responsible for. The meaningful things the organization relies on me for — i.e. stuff only I can do — as opposed to the menial things — i.e. the stuff that anyone can do.

On paper, these items should be easy to identify — however, it’s sometimes taken me up until my first full year to really get a “feel” for these legs and where they’re at.

Once I get this feel, I start “wiggling” back and forth to see how equal they are in relation to each other. I ask myself questions like:

Am I being fairly compensated for my responsibilities?

Are my responsibilities allowing me to build new knowledge and skills?

Am I going to be able to leverage my knowledge, skills, and responsibilities in this role into the next one — and a better compensation package?

By the time a year and a half rolls around, I’ve usually noticed that one of the legs is a little bit short compared to the others. Once I get to this point — and sometimes it happens sooner — I find a way to mention it to management.

Sometimes, they’ve been able to help out right away with an extension to that leg.

Sometimes, however, I’ve been asked to wait it out until the next quarter or the next review cycle.

As long as I’ve felt like I can trust my workplace, and as long as I’ve been relatively new to the position and organization, I’ve felt okay about wobbling a bit on one uneven leg. But the more time that passes without fixing that short leg, the shorter it gets — and it’ll only be a matter of time before I notice that one of the other legs isn’t as long as it should be either.

It’s annoying to sit on a stool where one leg is shorter than the others. It’s downright dangerous to sit on a stool where two legs are shorter than the third. If it doesn’t immediately make me eat office carpet, it at the very least makes me resentful of my misshapen perch — and I find myself spending more time thinking about how unbalanced I am rather than producing good work.

When I’m at the point where I can no longer find balance, I put two important conversations on my calendar.

The first is with myself. I take time to really look at my situation, confirm that my assessment of the legs and their lengths is correct, and then ask myself what it would really take for me to stay in the current role and organization. Is it just more money? A promotion? Something with a different department? What do I need to stay?

The second conversation is with management. I explain the situation to them — what I’m looking for, and what I need in order to find balance again. I’ve been lucky in that I’ve always been able to trust my managers — and by extension, the greater organization — in asking for more compensation and responsibilities, while also expressing that I may need to go elsewhere to find them.

I’ve never had to worry about the possibility of professional retaliation when asking for more — although if I did, then the stool metaphor would be moot as it would be time for me to move on — immediately.

The three-legged stool metaphor has helped me immensely in figuring out my career progression so far — and I expect it to continue to help me in the future. And I suspect that it can help you too.

It can be difficult, especially early on in your career, to figure out where your balance is in relation to compensation, knowledge acquisition, and responsibility. It can likewise be difficult to explain to management that they need to help you remain balanced. Fortunately, the more time you spend in your industry, and the more knowledge and responsibilities you take on, the easier it is to see where you’re truly at and what you are truly worth. Similarly, as you gain both role-related and general-professional experience, you’ll gain the confidence to advocate for yourself in the workplace — as well as the courage to move on to the next opportunity if the current one can’t be balanced in your favor.

In short, check your legs, check your wobble, and sit high — your career progression will thank you for it.

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