How to gain the right experiences for career progression
Updated: Feb 13
What will it take to secure that next promotion? Another year of putting your head down and getting exceptional results? More qualifications or training? Have you ever stopped to analyse and pinpoint the gaps you’ll need to address to be considered for the next step?
As regular readers know, I’m passionate about helping women achieve their best. For over 20 years, I’ve helped individuals fulfil their potential and organisations maximise their talent, in leadership roles focused on recruiting, developing and promoting great talent. I’ve been able to observe the differences in those who have succeeded, and those who have not.
So I can confidently say that, as an ambitious woman, you need to be proactive in identifying and gaining critical professional experiences for advancement. Do not wait for your employer to do this for you! It is up to you – not your employer – to manage your career.
How careers develop
There’s no doubt women’s representation in senior roles is better than it once was, but we still lag behind men. Disproportionately, we find ourselves in staff roles, which are less likely to lead to general management positions. Our male counterparts, meanwhile, are more likely to hold strategic, commercial or operational roles, the stepping stones to becoming CEO.
The numbers speak for themselves. Although women represent over half the UK workforce, we hold only around 29% of senior management positions. At the top, women hold a mere 5% of CEO roles in the biggest public companies in the UK (it’s 6% in Australia and 7% in the US). In fact, in the UK there are more male CEOs called David or Stephen in the FTSE100 than there are female CEOs.
So how does one get to the top? In How To Grow Top Managers, my friends Rupert Angel and Will Jodrell of The Greenhouse Project suggest that talented people essentially become senior business leaders in a three-stage process. The first ten years are spent building expertise and trust, perhaps working up to a ‘Head Of’ position. It is common for rising stars to experience rapid career progression in this phase. The next ten years are about slower progression, building depth of leadership skills in larger roles and in different contexts. For the small percentage who make it beyond this, the next stage is spent applying what you have learned to running an entire organisation.
Mainiero and Sullivan’s Kaleidoscope Careers Model shows this might complicate career progression for women. They found men and women's priorities differ at different times of life. Men tend to seek a balance between work and home life, and particularly family life, in the later stage of their careers, whereas women, especially mothers, often need to find balance in the middle of our careers . In doing so, we risk missing out on the critical learning experiences of the middle stage and can therefore fail to gain the same competencies that men achieve after the first stage.
That's why it's even more critical for women to think strategically about their career. While not everyone aspires to a general management career, even those of us who opt to pursue a more specialised route benefit from strategic career planning. You may not be able to control the opportunities that come your way, but you can absolutely influence your readiness to step up when the right opportunity comes along.
Why experiences matter more than skills
Knowledge is what you know, whereas experiences are the demonstrated outcomes of your knowledge and skills.
Job descriptions are often a list of required skills, knowledge and competencies. Equally as often, they are poorly written, out of date, or fail to communicate the essence of what’s required for success in the role.
I’ve run workshops on career planning and development for hundreds of people over the years. I often ask leaders to describe the most impactful professional development moments that really accelerated their learning. Almost always, the answer is about experiences gained on the job: turning around a dysfunctional team, for example, or learning to manage teams outside their functional area of expertise. Or the first time they take the lead and the accountability for an important client project.
Experience is what gives you credibility when opportunities open up. It’s experience, not competencies, that will accelerate your career, and as such, they’re a much more powerful development area to focus on.
It’s easy to over rely on job descriptions. But instead of focussing on a list of skills and competencies, we should be looking for the experiences that will build these capabilities and frame our approach accordingly.
Leaving the comfort zone
The most powerful learning enablers are experiences that stretch us and take us outside our comfort zone without breaking us. According to John Maxwell’s Law of the Rubber Band: “Growth stops when you lose the tension between where you are and where you could be”.
A rubber band has little function unless it’s under some tension. A healthy amount of ‘stretch’ is necessary for all development, so long as you aren’t completely out of your depth!
This comparison also puts experience at the centre of development, emphasising it over the abstract notion of skills. There’s a huge difference between leading a large complex project and having project management certification, for example. The execution of the project is a far more important predictor of your future success.
Experiences that matter
Below are some examples of experiences that can stretch an employee out of their comfort zone.
Functional – this is about excellence in your functional domain and will vary according to your profession. HR professionals might design and lead a company restructure or culture change programme. Marketing professionals might successfully bring a new innovation to market or turn around a declining brand. Sales professionals might open up new revenue channels or tap into new markets. Some more generic experiences might include executing a functional strategy, managing budgets and forecasting processes, and presenting to high-stakes audiences.
Leadership – this is about gaining leadership experience in different contexts. Examples might be: leading a committee or governing body; managing an underperformer up or out; influencing senior stakeholders outside your chain of command; or, leading a change programme where you have influence but not authority.
Breadth of contexts – this is about operating successfully in different contexts, to prove that you’re adaptable. It includes exposure to different stages of a business’ lifecycle, such as a start-up or fast-growth phase, a business turnaround or a mature or saturated market. It can include working in different industries, different companies and different geographies. For those aspiring to a general management route it can also include exposure to different functions.
These experiences are far from exhaustive and will not all be relevant to every career but might spark some ideas as you map out the critical experiences you need.
How to take the next step
To take this forward you need to actively map out a plan for gaining the experiences that will be most critical to your next career step.
1. Start with your end goal in mind
Think about where you’d like your career to go. You may have a specific role in mind or might have a broader notion of the types of roles that appeal. Few careers these days progress in a linear fashion – most of us have zig-zag career journeys which might involve a combination of upwards and lateral moves which can't always be planned step-by-step. That's OK. The goal here is to think about your broad destination rather than planning the steps you might take to get there. My blog on developing a career vision statement could be a good place to start if you’re stuck.
2. Research what it takes to be successful in those roles
When looking at job descriptions, beware their limitations. Ideally, talk to leaders in those positions, and talk to your someone in your HR department for their insights into what makes incumbents successful. Try to tease out the experiences that matter most. A good question might be: “If you were to recommend the two or three most critical experiences you think would help someone excel in this role, what would they be?”. Or, if you’re interviewing someone who has done that role before, ask: “What have been your most powerful development experiences?”.
3. Prioritise the gaps
Identify what experiences you have already and the ones you still need. Use the information you’ve collected from the above step to prioritise the experiences you don’t already have. Think about what is realistic and manageable in your current circumstances. I find it helpful to look at this over a 2 - 5 year time horizon. You don’t need to do everything at once, but plan for how you might gain the right experiences over time. Be focused. We all have busy day jobs, so start by identifying no more than two or three areas that you are most likely to be able to achieve in the coming year.
4. Develop a plan to address them
If, like most large organisations, your company has an annual development planning process, be sure to agree with your line manager on the priority experiences and build them into your plan. If you aren’t able to do this, come up with your own plan and do what you can to get your line manager and HR team onboard to support you. The most valuable experiences often need to be gained in the workplace and can’t be easily achieved outside of work, so getting your line leader's buy-in is often crucial.
5. Review progress regularly
Schedule time to check in on your progress at least each quarter and review your priorities when and if circumstances change. Also be sure to reflect on your progress and celebrate successes, which we can sometimes overlook in the hectic pace of our lives. Making time periodically to reflect on where we are against our goals keeps us focused and can also serve to remind us of how far we have come.
Sharon Peake is the founder and MD of Shape Talent Ltd, a gender equality coaching and consulting business established with the sole purpose of getting more women into senior leadership roles in business. We work with organisations to remove the barriers to women’s progression and we work with individual women, helping them to achieve their career potential.
Click here to learn more about what we do and join our mailing list to be the first to receive our tools, research and updates.
And be sure to follow us on social media:
 The Green House Project (2017). How to Grow Top Managers.
 Lisa A. Mainiero and Sherry E. Sullivan (2005). Kaleidoscope careers: An