Sure You Want to Move Up the Ladder?

Contrary to popular wisdom, not every employee wants to move up the ladder. This applies not only to those entering management for the first time but also to such professionals with strong technical skills as designers, engineers, and scientists. And yes, it's also true of very senior executives—including those being considered as the next CEO.

Whether you are offered the opportunity to move up or are considering your next career move, it's useful to think about what you really want to achieve in your career. As an executive coach, my job is to help men and women fulfill their leadership potential. Sometimes the best way to do that is to stay put. It is a tough decision to make. It will have momentous consequences. For a manager, deciding that you don't want to be promoted may mean that you stay where you are in that company. You may be excluded from consideration for promotion for the immediate future.

On the other hand, the best thing could be to remain where you feel you are doing your best work. It is for this reason that those with technical competencies frequently opt out of management; they love practicing their skills without administrative responsibilities.

Let's say you have been given an offer you're unsure about. One way to deal with it is to play the end-state game; pretend that you have accepted the job and are now the head of marketing, purchasing, or even that you are running the whole show as CEO.

What if you take promotion?

Imagine what your life is like now that you are a more senior leader. Consider what is different as well as what is not. More important, you need to delve into yourself to see if this new position fits you. Here are some questions you can use to decide if you want to make the change.

What has changed? You will have a new title, new office, and maybe a new administrative assistant. You will be the one in charge now, the top dog. Sounds good. You may be treated with greater deference. President Dwight D. Eisenhower once commented that upon leaving office, he discovered that his golf game suffered; more people beat him. As a leader people do treat you differently. How will that make you feel? How will you ensure that you always get the straight story from people? Change is inevitable and it must factor into your decision.

What do you do differently? Consider what you will do in your new role. Being offered the opportunity to assume greater levels of responsibility is an affirmation that you have done well.

But moving up raises other questions about your leadership self. You need to consider how you manage your new job. How will you lead others? What will you bring to the job that others may not have? Also, how will you compensate for skills you may not have? What kind of people will you surround yourself with? Understand that you are ultimately responsible for everything. The buck does stop with you.

What have you sacrificed? Moving up is often a matter of giving up. Taking a senior position means giving up family time, certainly. It may mean moving to another location; relocation is hard. It could entail giving up your other life—that is, your life outside of work. Senior leadership positions are too often 24/7. (Yes, you can impose lifestyle conditions on a promotion, but how valid will they be, particularly when the company encounters a crisis?)

What's left if you decline?

These questions are easy to generate. Anyone considering such a position is encouraged to generate their own. The hard part may not be coming up with answers but rather acting on what you learn from those answers. You may have to ask yourself the toughest question of all: "Can I live with the consequences?" If you turn down the promotion, will you be happy remaining where you are, doing what you are doing? You need to recognize that passing up a promotion will not only affect your career but also your ability to influence the action.

Leaders want to make a positive difference, and passing up a promotion may well inhibit your ability to do so in an organization.

For some this column may read as something as a downer. That is not my intention. But all of us, in any position, must realize that sometimes the view from the very top may not be worth it. That is why it's worth taking time to reflect on the consequences. Using questions such as these may help you shape your next steps, as well as give you a greater understanding of yourself. Only you can decide.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.