Don’t let HR determine your career ambition

Breaking free of your company’s incentive system

“I’m done with it. Done with the office politics. Done staying up past midnight responding to Slack. This wasn’t what I envisioned for my career.”

Alice (not her real name) had reached out to get career advice. Over Zoom, she shared that after five years in product management at various big tech companies. she was ready to make a change. Alice was ready to leave product management behind to become a writer.

“That’s great,” I said. “How soon do you want to transition?”

“Well,” she answered, “I’m up for a promotion to L3 (level 3) in a few months, so I want to wait for that.”

When I asked why she cared about getting the promotion, she told me that her company had originally mis-leveled her. She’d seen peers with less experience join as L3s and didn’t think it was fair. After making a case to HR for the past six months, she finally had the chance to move up.

“You do realize that your future readers won’t care whether you’re an L2 or L3?” While she admitted I was right, she was resolved to land the promotion.

Perhaps this desire will only cost Alice a few months of independence. Maybe once she gets the promotion she’ll give her two weeks notice. But something tells me that’s not how it will play out.

Once Alice achieves the new level she’ll feel obligated to stay for a few months as a show of good faith to her manager. By then, it would be silly not to hold out a bit longer to get her mid-year bonus. She could leave then, but she’d miss out on another leveling opportunity. Meanwhile, months tick by as her book remains unwritten.

It’s easy for any of us to succumb to these incentives because they were designed to override our career ambitions. Once a company hits a certain number of employees, turnover becomes expensive. Even losing a single employee can cost a company 1.5-2X annual salary.

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