Achieving career growth: opportunities, skills & sponsors

Career ladders are not a prerequisite 

Photo by yang miao on Unsplash

For many of us, the opportunity to continue to grow our skills and impact is a significant decision-making factor in choosing career opportunities. Considering this through the lens of Self-Determination Theory, for example, makes it abundantly clear why: building our skills both improves our competence, and in an organizational setting, helps us build the credibility that enables us to operate more autonomously.

Career ladders are a common organizational construct that, among other important uses, can act as a useful roadmap for driving our growth, by outlining what the next level of performance looks like in the areas of competence that the organization deemed to be particularly important. 

However, career ladders highlight the destination (next level of competence) but not the path for getting there. And in some organizations, career ladders don’t exist or are not heavily utilized. Which begs the question: is growth still possible in situations? 

The answer is a resounding “yes”. 

Damian Schenkelman did a phenomenal job describing a system for growth that can be utilized without a dependency on ladders. 

He starts off by defining some key terms: 

  • Skills: what you can do, including knowledge required to do it.
  • Opportunity: a possibility for improving and/or displaying your skills. They might be accompanied by financial rewards, recognition, etc.
  • Growth: access to more challenging and/or new opportunities. Growth is multidimensional.
  • Sponsors: People that are aware of available opportunities and can grant them to you.

And putting them together in a system diagram: 


Your skills improve depending on how fast you learn from your opportunities and the rate by which opportunities are granted to you. That rate depends on your sponsors who are, in turn, impacted by the rate by which you display your skills. 

Skill alone doesn’t matter. If no one but yourself knows about your skills, you won’t get any opportunities.

That insight leads to a two-pronged growth strategy: maximizing available opportunities, and maximizing sponsors.

Maximizing available opportunities

Opportunities can be on-the-job/unstructured (working on a new problem set, leading a new initiative), semi-structured (being mentored by an expert craftsman, speaking at a conference), or structured (attending a workshop). 

Tactics to maximize available opportunities: 

  • Picking opportunities based on your growth goals 
  • Favoring opportunities that require less investment to get them — a conference that requires 2 hrs of prep vs. 14 hrs of prep, an organic opportunity within your existing team vs. one with a different team/org. 
  • Proactively create your own opportunities by proposing them to sponsors. 

Maximizing sponsors

Tactics to maximizing sponsors: 

  • Finding the right sponsors by understanding the informal organization and how it relates to the opportunities you are interested in. 
  • Making your skills visible to them through 1:1s, content generation, and sharing your accomplishments. 
  • Fine-tuning your self-awareness of your skills so you can focus your energy and attention on opportunities that are attainable. 

Lastly, Demian reminds us that we can always “sponsor ourselves” — decide to invest our time (and sometimes our $$$s) in building a skill even when either a sponsor or an opportunity is available. 

If you’re dissatisfied with your current growth rate, or just think that you’re not growing as quickly as you could — Damian’s post is a must-read. 

Achieving career growth: opportunities, skills & sponsors

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