Earlier this year, I facilitated a series of live mentoring panels where other experts and I fielded over 30 questions on career challenges from our audience.

One career challenge that was particularly interesting was from a woman who liked the company she was working for but wondered, “how do I position myself for a higher-level role when there’s no room for advancement?”

No one’s career goes up in a straight line and at some point, any of us could face this issue.

If you’re seeing no room for advancement in your company, here are three steps you can take:

  1. Check your assumptions
  2. Define advancement in a way you can control
  3. Create your own opportunity

Let’s start with the first step.

Check your assumptions before you act on them

It’s easy to look at the situation above you and conclude that there’s “no room at the inn” for a new leadership role to emerge.

Maybe your boss and your boss’s boss have been there for years with no visible signs of wanting to move on. Or perhaps a new manager has just taken on the most likely “next step” that you had your eye on for your own career advancement.

In my case, I had been passed over for the role I wanted and found myself reporting to a former peer. Feeling demoted and demoralized, I was on the point of despair. With talented peers in every seat of our group, I resigned myself to a long wait for my next opportunity.

But nine months later, the unimaginable happened. I was tapped to lead a product team in a different area. It turned out that the existing product head was being promoted to a bigger role to backfill for someone else who was being transferred to Asia. So would I please take on this leadership role?

There was no way I could have predicted this series of moves, and things had looked dire for my advancement just a few weeks before. So you never know what might be going on behind the scenes. The key is to make sure you’re ready for whatever happens.

Which brings us to the second step.

Define advancement in a way you can control

While opportunities might fall in place for you as they did in my example, this won’t always be the case. So you can’t count on it.

If you define “advancement” purely as promotion, then you’re pinning your hopes on something outside of your control. And at the senior-most levels, it starts to feel like a zero-sum game – kind of like the children’s game “musical chairs” where there’s one fewer seat than there are kids who want to sit down when the music stops.

And when things are beyond your control, it can feel demoralizing.

Instead, it’s far more energizing if you can find ways to define advancement that are in your control. For example, advancement could look like getting staffed on a new or more complex project that stretches you and helps you learn and grow. Or it could be getting additional resources to free you up to work on the more strategic parts of your job.

And if there aren’t options within the organization, there could be external opportunities to develop your strengths and experience base like leading a charitable cause or getting a credential to boost your skillset.

Just as seeds buried in the soil will push in the direction that gets them closer to sunlight, the way you define advancement can help you continue to grow even if it’s around the equivalent of roots, rocks and other obstacles to finally reach your version of sunlight.

And this brings us to the third way.

Create your own role based on the challenges your company is facing

If advancement opportunities aren’t obvious in your organization, it pays to come up with ideas and be willing to explore them.

A great place to start is with the challenges or pain points your company is facing. Then focus on the places where you have the interest, strengths and skills to help.

These could be areas that are growing so fast that the company can’t handle all the urgent and important aspects at current staffing levels. Or it could be an area that’s facing big changes in the environment and in need of different talent – the kind you have – to be successful going forward.

For example, maybe your company is rolling out a new program but struggling to get people in your division to adopt it, and your strength is in communicating new ideas in a way that gets buy-in. There could be a win-win opportunity where you could add value by taking on the “evangelist” role in the rollout of the new program.

And once you’ve identified an area that’s a challenge for the company and where you have ideas for how someone with your skillset can help, it’s time to approach the relevant people to see if they’d be open to having a conversation.

But what if there really isn’t any opportunity for advancement?

Despite the best of intentions, sometimes there just isn’t a near-term or even medium-term fit between your aspirations and what your group or organization has to offer. That’s when you owe it to yourself to do some market research and personal reflection.

The stronger your network of relationships, the easier it will be to put out feelers and start to explore what else is out there.

But leaving a job you have isn’t something to do lightly, so don’t make any sudden moves. Take your time to explore what else is out there and think about what you really want. Whether it leads to your next amazing opportunity or simply makes you feel better about the job you have, you’ll learn something useful. And that makes it worthwhile to explore.

Just don’t make the mistake of doing nothing

When you don’t see advancement opportunities, it’s easy to get demoralized and just keep trudging along, going through the motions.

But that “do nothing strategy” is the beginning of the slippery slope toward losing your motivation, underperforming, and truly getting stuck in your career.

Instead, it’s the time to take action and take ownership of your own development.

So when want to position yourself for higher level roles but don’t see room for advancement where you are, take some time to:

  • Check your assumptions – explore whether it’s really true and be prepared in case things do open up
  • Define advancement in a way you can control – be open to finding different ways to stretch and develop yourself in the meantime
  • Create your own opportunity – look for the alignment between your organization’s challenges and your skills, strengths and interests

Which of these steps would most help you position yourself for bigger and better opportunities?

Leave a comment and let me know.

This was just one of the 30+ career challenges our experts answered in the live mentoring panels. If you found this useful, you can find more actionable advice on a range of topics in the All Access Pass for the Career Mastery Kickstart Summit 2021.