“So, when you teach management and leadership development, what do you teach?” the neighbor of a friend, Dan, asks me over beers in the backyard.

This fellow was in software development at a big company, and has mentioned that he has been passed over for a promotion a few times.

The first thing that comes to my mind (and out of my mouth) is seeing events from a strategic perspective. I explain over the conversational din: any given issue can be looked at from multiple perspectives and multiple levels — from highly tactical to highly strategic.

If you are dealing with a programmer who hasn’t met deadlines, you could see it is a performance issue with that programmer. And maybe it is. But you could also see it from the perspective of the issues that relate to the whole project.

  • What systems are missing that gave rise to this issue, or allowed it to go on for so long?
  • Is our tracking system or meeting structure lacking?
  • Is there a missing component to our onboarding, or expectation setting?

A leader who is thinking strategically asks not only how can we solve this problem, but is also looking at how this issue impacts the larger organization, and how the larger organization impacts the problem.

Being aware of multiple levels, and knowing what it’s time to address now, is one of the fundamental areas of leadership and management that I teach. And these skills are pivotal to making the most of learning from whatever comes your way in your current position.

Satisfied I was worth talking to further, Dan asked about his boss, who he didn’t like working for. He shared that this boss had been promoted to the level of his incompetence.

Being Promoted is a Stretch Assignment

My response was that we are all promoted to our level of incompetence, if we are promoted at all, but if we’re smart, we grow.

Promotions are a “stretch assignment,” that require us to expand our views, and grow our capacity to deliver what is needed, right where we are. This is exactly why we grow in place.

We use the challenges that need to be addressed to build our awareness of where we need to grow, we prioritize based on what we are willing to learn, and we start practicing to build new skills so we can handle the challenges with more confidence and grace. Deliberately developmental individuals do this throughout their careers. (See The Conscious Professional: Transform Your Life at Work, page 4.)

Being a conscious professional means choosing to get better at what we do, deliberately.

When you need to stretch into a new role, that’s the perfect time to get out onto the developmental edge and expand your playing field by growing new skill sets and mindsets. Pretending that you ”already know” prevents this growth from occurring. Some people have a hard time admitting they have areas to grow in, which is funny, because it’s not like it’s a secret! Whatever shortcomings are there, certainly the rest of your co-workers are most distinctly aware of it.

Growing in place is how we develop ourselves to be able to succeed in our current and future roles, as well as build the skill sets and mindsets to impact the causes we care about. By growing in place, we build transferable skills that we can use to be more capable than ever before when tackling our next project, assignment, or organization.

So while Dan’s boss may be awful, it doesn’t mean he couldn’t get better, as long he’s willing to grow, and starts to work on at his developmental edges. One of the best ways I’ve seen to create a culture and experience of development is to start growing yourself.

Managing Up

So how do you “manage up” when your boss doesn’t know how to do all the aspects of their role?

  • See and use your own strengths. If you are noticing that your boss isn’t competent in a certain area, it may be that you have gifts or experience in that area that you could further customize to this situation. Grow yourself first, and then you can support your department by working alongside your boss. As an added bonus, you have a chance to both advance your skills and show it.
  • Grow what is needed. Maybe no one around you knows how to do what is needed. That happens a lot in fast-changing environments and innovative spaces. Why not identify the skills that are needed, and begin learning what is needed for yourself? Share what you find with your boss.
  • Upgrade as a group. How about a team approach to growing in place? Is there a book on leadership, project management, communication, or whatever topic is at issue that you could read and discus together as a team? That would help everyone grow in place together.

Just because a boss has shown more interest in managing their image rather than managing their growth, doesn’t mean you should do the same. (Remember that we can have Reverse Mentors who show us how not to act.) Time is ticking. You might as well be learning along the way. The detrimental effects of incompetence can be mitigated by growing in place.

With compassion, we can see that we all have uneven developmental edges – some areas we know exactly what to do, some areas we don’t. Skills that once worked may no longer suffice.

Maybe you are great at the technology, but not so good on the communication side. Or maybe your vision and strategy are brilliant, but next some focus on systems development would really help you succeed.

However good you are today at your role, there is always room to grow and improve.

Growing in place is how we design our future.

For more advice on growing in place, check out all the articles on The Conscious Professional Blog.

Jessica Hartung

Jessica Hartung is a partner, coach, and guide for those leveling-up their personal professional leadership, their teams, and their communities to a better future.

Jessica has a passion for inspiring and preparing people to grow from their work to improve their lives. In 1998, she founded Integrated Work, a consulting firm that brings top-notch professional development to mission-driven leaders, while being a learning laboratory for innovative work practices.

Jessica provides self-directed professional development tools to leaders at all levels striving to create positive impact.