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The corporate ladder: It's not an escalator

Don't be passive with your career -- it takes work to climb to the top (or even the middle)

Rex Huppke

October 1, 2012

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While watching television, the remote control occasionally gets knocked off the couch, presenting an epic quandary.

Do I get up and retrieve the remote, disrupting my carefully crafted "comfort zone?" Or do I wait for a family member — or a particularly nimble house pet — to come by and hand it to me?

This dire dilemma mirrors the choices many of us face with our careers. Do we take action? Or do we wait for someone to come and give us what we want?

Unfortunately, too many people choose the passive route.

"People act as if their career is just happening to them," said Kathy Caprino, a career coach and founder of a program called "The Amazing Career Project." "It doesn't just happen to you, you manage it. But most people don't think about that."

The corporate ladder is not an escalator — it requires effort to climb. Yet many people get into a job and assume that advancement comes automatically.

If that was ever true, it's certainly not the case now. Workers who don't take control of their careers risk waking up one day realizing they're not as far along as they'd like to be regardless of how much they bust their butts.

"What I see most of the time is the fact that people are scared," said Roshni Kumar, an international career coach and founder of the India-based company Career Lighthouse. "They're afraid to be introspective, because that's a path that can be overwhelming."

As my great-uncle Millard (who I just made up) once said, "Tough nerts!" Fear of evaluating your career is not an option.

So Caprino gave me some tips on how to sort out where you stand and where you should be going.

Know yourself: You need to step back and reflect — honestly — on what it is you want out of your work life. What values are important to you? What do you think are your best skills? What kind of legacy do you want to leave?

Study: Whether you're happy or unhappy, keep studying the field you're in so you know what opportunities exist and can develop a sense of your worth. It's good to interact with different people in the industry, whether it's online or in person. That keeps you looped in with what's happening outside your company and gives you contacts if you decide — or are forced — to switch jobs.

Get feedback: Figure out how your colleagues think you're doing. It doesn't hurt to ask for some honest feedback from the people who manage you or those you manage.

The bored test: Take a good, hard look at your emotions. Do you get to Sunday night and dread going to work the next day? Are you disengaged? Those are solid signs you need to figure out how to transition into something that fits you better. It ain't gonna happen on its own.

These are not easy things to do. We, like when I'm on the couch and the remote is on the floor, don't like exiting a comfort zone.

Kumar suggested — and I found this to be a delightful idea — that people first do something simple they know will inspire them. For some it might be reading a book, for others listening to music. Even taking a short trip can get your mind moving in new directions.

Her point was that we sometimes need to prime the pump before our brains are ready to tackle deep issues.

"Each person is built differently," she said. "The first step is to start the introspection, and if it gets a little too confusing or overwhelming, then talk to somebody who you trust. Start with someone in your inner circle and see if that works for you. If it doesn't, then move to someone externally."

However you do it, just start: Look at your career and make some decisions about where you want to see it going.

Caprino advises that every six months you ask: "Is this where I want to be? If not, what can I do about it?"

I know many are reading this and thinking: "Yeah, easy to say, but my boss won't listen if I want to do something different"; or, "I can't shake the boat at work right now, 'cause there's no way I'd find another job."

Let me return to the parable of the dropped television remote.

If I get up to get that remote, bad things could happen: I could fall off the couch. I could burn calories. The dog could try to steal my seat.

But if I just wait around for one of my kids to come along, imagine how much great television I might be missing.

The point is, I always want to be in control of the TV. And you should always want to be in control of your career.

Because even if you're not ready to change the channel just yet, it's good to know you've got the remote firmly in your hand.

TALK TO REX: Ask workplace questions — anonymously or by name — and share stories with Rex Huppke at ijustworkhere@tribune.com, like Rex on Facebook at facebook.com/rexworkshere, and find more at chicagotribune.com/ijustworkhere.