I have been known and praised as a person who progress at my own pace at the firm and for shaping my own journey – be it my specialization, my time-off for personal passion, etc. To most people, I appear to be quite careless about my own professional progression – even to myself at times. However, the journey to my eventual designation (the firm’s jargon for promotion) to a team leader has proven otherwise. I care about my own progression to the point of paranoia.
This is so ironic, right?
Upon reflection, there is more behind my worry about career progression. There are words, rumors, and may be my own self-confidence that were at plays. However, those are things of the past. What’s importance is how honest I am today about my own reflection and what I’m going to do with this knowledge for the rest of my journey. This is the purpose of my writing today.
The origin: slow progression
“Ancient” is how I would describe myself when I introduce myself to new joiners. Being with the firm for 7-8 years may not seem that long for a lot of corporate careers, but in a professional service setting, this can be enough to get people from the post-MBA entry level to a Partner position. Plus, the average retention, as publicly known, is only around 2.5 years in consulting industry. I’m nearly 3x the average! More importantly, I only progressed from post-bachelor degree entry level to post-MBA title.
To overachievers, this is probably a signal of slow progression and underperformance. To a lot of people who are veteran at these types of companies, I am celebrated for taking things at my pace, especially when my Instagram stories are filled with videos of my yoga practices, trips, and life beyond works.
What’s the truth behind all of these?
For sure, underperformance is not typically tolerated in consulting firms, though not as simple as “up or out”. Therefore, I would not have survived this long if I consistently underperform. “Coasting” is also not very appreciated either, and I would have been told or warned. In fact, my evaluations over the past years have been either average or above average. Therefore, I’m definitely not underperforming by any standard.
The slow progression is by choice, or at least I believe so. In the firm, you have to demonstrate the ability to perform the role before you are promoted. Hence, being offered to play the team leader role is a sign that you are one foot in the door for the promotion. I was given opportunities to play a team leader role quite a few times before this year, but I declined the opportunity saying either “I’m not ready” or “I want to take it slow”. It was well received, of course, because I’m not technically hitting the tail-end of my tenure at my current role yet.
The important question is why did I decline the opportunities? Part of me would say that I want to enjoy the current position, where I’m quite comfortable, for a longer period of time. Plus, performing the team leader role early does not mean that you will get promoted early anyway. However, a part of me also knows that the bigger reasons are fear and distrust – fear that I will not get enough support to get the promotion and distrust in the system that once hurt me.
Let me explain the latter (because the former is a classic case of insecurity). In my first year, I was verbally told by my manager that I was doing well and that they would like to extend me on the project. However, because I was not very happy with the project, I voiced that I did not really want to continue. I was then given a bad written review which almost costed my job. Even though I did not get booted, my probation was extended for another half a year because of that review even though my following end-of-project reviews were stellar. From then on, I have never been able to fully trust the evaluation process, though I also know that there are always ways to “game the system”.
Because of the insecurity and the distrust, the seemingly simple journey become quite an emotional roller coaster.
The big shift – from individual contributor to a team leader
For me, despite the initial drama in my first year, my journey from a junior to a fully standalone individual contributor was quite smooth. There is always a comfort in knowing that when I don’t know anything, I will always have a team leader to help providing me coverage when shit hit the fan. Plus, although I may need to be mindful of scope of my workstream as a standalone consultant, I would only have to worry about the scope for a single person – me.
The shift to a team leader is drastic. Even though I had an experience managing a team of me and another consultant, but it was under another senior manager. This time, there was not manager above me – just me and the team. Above me directly was the main Partners of the project. These are also the people who have the loudest say on my promotion. The situation would also make me less comfortable to raise issues or questions. Fortunately, the whole project is straight-forward enough for me to sail through quite easily.
The biggest struggle I had was in my second project, where I worked on an entirely new industry, with new client, and with new group of Partners. As expected, the main struggle I had with this was initial scoping and workstream planning for the team given how unfamiliar I was with the content and lack of full clarity of the issues. However, after the first hump and month, the situation was smoothed out and the project ended very well.
Another big challenge about the shift was around my lifestyle. While I can see why being a manager is a bit easier to manage life than being an individual contributor, the opposite can be true if you are very efficient as a team member. The latter was my case. I was quite used to finishing early and managing my own free time and deliverables. However, as a manager, I have to be available for my team and read through all the documents and all. Hence, I had less time for my yoga practices and other stuff. I hope I can find that sweet spot soon though...
“You are performing as a manager, and you are going to make it” said the lead Partner of the project.
“I’m fully supportive” said another Partner that I worked with on another initiative.
“Why are you worrying? The best outcome is you get designated, which is likely. The worst thing is you don’t. They will not do anything to you anyway” said my mentor, who is a bit agnostic about career progression.
Despite all the reassurance from many people, I was never sure of my promotion. This eventually led to the next event…
The D-Day panic
I became more and more restless closer to the semi-annual review day, which is the day that I would know about my promotion. This time, it landed on Friday, which is the typically the day people will be working in the office. However, fearing that people would ask about “the decision” and, more importantly, losing face in case of “the nay”, I decided not to go to the office.
In the morning check-in with my team, one of my team members even tried to check the timing of the committee meeting and guestimate the timing of the meeting. The guestimate landed at around noon or early afternoon. However, there was no phone call even at 4 PM. I decided to practice yoga to kill time and calm my nerve, but it was to no avail. I was still very nervous.
As a side note, then, I fully understood why my one of my teammates was nervous about the result on his D-day, even though, to me, his case was super obvious and clear. I used to make fun about how jumpy he was, and then I learned that karma is a bitch!
Anyway, at 6 PM, I felt like I needed to do something. I reached out to my staffer, who would sit in the committee room to check how the meeting was. I found out it has not ended yet. This was a relief to know why I had yet received a phone call. However, it was also a bit uncomfortable to have to wait for a bit longer.
At 6.30 PM, the meeting was concluded, and I got a note that my evaluator would call. However, I had not received a phone call until 7 PM. I decided to drop a note to my evaluator saying that my staffer said that he was trying to reach me.
“Congratulations on making a manager role. The discussion was very positive,” said my evaluator calmly with no excitement.
That was a relief.
“If I had a piece of advice, it would be for you to calm down about your professional progression at the firm” added my evaluator after a brief chat. This is true… but I would not be that nervous if there was no rumor that I would be considered “late” if I don’t make it this evaluation cycle.
Anyhow, it’s official! I made it! I told a few people who asked me, but I didn’t go out for celebration or anything.
That’s the end of my journey. It was not very smooth, but I felt quite a lot of supports from many people around me (thank you!). One question still remains: What did I learn from this?
1. Be a bit more at ease with what I cannot control: When I consulted my mentor about my worries about the promotion, he suggested that I should be mindful about what is in my control vs not. Worrying about things beyond my control would not change anything anyway. Plus, I cannot really do anything to improve the situation also. It’s easier said than done though. I guess this also would apply to the fact that I cannot control people not to
work too hard in my team also.
2. Be grateful for supports I receive from people: I have received quite a lot of support from people around me throughout the journey. Looking back, I’m now forever grateful for outright support. Even though it didn’t completely stop me from being worried and nervous, but if I didn’t hear the verbal support, I would have been even more restless.