Have you ever wondered why you didn’t get the call or the job or the promotion?

And when you’ve succeeded, do you know what happened to get you to that particular opportunity?

More than likely it’s because you either missed or passed through a series of what I call “Career Gates”.

What Are “Career Gates” and Why Do They Matter?

Career Gates are those points in your career where you have to demonstrate you’ve got what it takes to advance – that “right mix” of competencies and attributes crucial to winning the support of key people in your career.

These key rites of passage will look different at different points all along your career S-Curve and they determine whether you move forward, get stuck, or even derail.

Ideally, you sail through the Gates by demonstrating you’ve got what it takes when it matters. That’s when your career can zoom ahead.

However, it’s all too easy to miss Career Gates, in which case your career progress can slow or even plateau without your realizing it. Even when you’re eminently qualified and work harder than everyone else.

Career Gates

The dotted lines represent plateauing / slower progression

As an aside, it’s fine to plateau in your career if you do so intentionally, whether to take time out for family, personal or other priorities. But it’s really a shame to see achievers plateau when they don’t intend to.

That’s where the S-Curve framework and Career Gates can be helpful in navigating your career.

Recognize and Take Advantage Of Those Opportunities

Some Career Gates are clearly signposted while others are subtle and easy to miss. They can occur at a point in time, like a test you need to pass, or over a longer period on an ongoing basis. Either way, they exist all along our career S-Curves.

This means each of us has multiple opportunities to demonstrate that we’re ready to take on more – or not. That’s why it pays to be conscious of the every day opportunities and use them to your advantage.

For example, I dreaded our daily morning meetings and hardly said a word, while my colleague Harry understood that these were his moments to demonstrate that he could be articulate in a meeting and act like a leader. He turned these and other situations into opportunities to show he was promotion ready. I, on the other hand, missed the point entirely. And yes, Harry got promoted ahead of me.

Then there are the big opportunities that are flagged for you so you can’t miss them. For example, the big board meeting presentation or the speech at the client event. The good thing about these is that you know you’re “on stage” and can get prepared. And when you’re conscious of being in a “big moment”, you’re more likely to be able to rise to the occasion.

Career Gates are in the Eye of the Beholder

That is, you’ve got to demonstrate to other key people that you’ve got what it takes – and no, your mother doesn't count (unless she runs the family business you want to lead one day!).

Sometimes, the other person isn’t even conscious that they’re evaluating you in that way. Often, they’re forming impressions of you in the normal course, and then when it’s time to “vote”, they find they have an opinion. In essence, we’re auditioning for our part every day without realizing it.

How To Prepare For Your Career Gates

To navigate your career successfully, it’s important to start recognizing when you’re facing those Career Gates – those times when you need to demonstrate your capabilities to the audience that matters for your advancement.

Once you recognize them, you can start turning Career Gates into opportunities rather than obstacles. Otherwise, you’re leaving things to chance – and as they say, “hope is not a strategy”.

Here are four steps for turning your Career Gates into opportunities:

1. Who’s My “Audience”?

Identify the people who have a say – whether directly or indirectly – in your career advancement. Write their names down in two columns: (1) people who have direct control over your advancement, and (2) people who influence those on list 1.

For most of us, the first list is your reporting line, and the second list will include colleagues, senior people in other departments or groups, and the people who work for you (never underestimate the internal grape vine!).

2. What Are They Looking For?

For the people on the first list, write down what they care about and the specific abilities they need to see in you in order for them to believe you are worthy of support and, ideally, ready for advancement. What is that “right mix” of competencies and attributes you need to demonstrate at this juncture?

If you’re not sure what should be on the list, you can observe and ask others who have succeeded before you, or even have the discussion with your boss. Your HR department will likely have a competency grid that provides this information as well.

3. When Do I Have A Natural Audience With My “Audience”?

Identify the times when you are naturally with key people on your audience list. These can be masquerading as boring team meetings and monthly budget reviews. They can also be those times you happen to meet senior people in the hallway or in the cab on the way back from a client meeting.

And if you don’t have any of these, perhaps you can create some of your own. For example, ask your boss if you can have a weekly 15-minute catch up so you can brief her on what’s going on and also learn what’s strategic for the group so you can contribute in a better way.

4. What Are My Next “Big Moments”?

List out the next 2-3 big presentations or meetings where some of the people from your “Audience” list will be present. Then plan out how you want to make best use of that opportunity to “nail” your part and show you’ve got what it takes.

When you begin to recognize and even anticipate Career Gates, you can put yourself in a strong position to turn them into golden opportunities to help you advance.

So, what are your next opportunities to show that you’ve “got what it takes” to people who are key to your career advancement?

Next week, we’ll talk about how you capitalize on these opportunities.