Alternatives to accepting a promotion

Career navigation has always been challenging, whether it’s searching for a new job, finding the right mentor, or battling for a promotion. It doesn’t take long for you to find there’s no single path that’s right for everyone. Decisions about your career are personal, often include family, and are based on different criteria and priorities as you grow. Like many professionals, I’ve learned to navigate my own career through trial and error. I’ve also learned that, sometimes, the right opportunities come when and where you least expect them.

Earlier in my career, I was offered an international assignment in China. While the opportunity was great, the timing was not. I had been married just over a year, was raising a brand-new baby, and my husband had just started a new job himself. We didn’t even have passports, let alone any aspirations to move halfway across the world. Taking this job was a huge, scary risk, both personally and professionally.

But after discussing the opportunity, my husband and I decided it was the right risk, based on my priorities at the time, which were to grow my skills and experience. With that, we packed up and moved to China. The decision to take an international assignment ended up being a defining moment in my career. I experienced new cultures, gained an outside-in perspective on our business versus being based in headquarters, and learned to put a greater emphasis on listening and empathy.

Once the yearlong assignment ended, I was asked to extend my stay in Asia in a new job. This role would have been a promotion and another step-up in my career. But my decision again came down to prioritized risk. Ultimately, I knew this position wasn’t the right fit for my family. My husband and I were ready to have another child, and the role itself was not something I was interested in from a skills perspective. I politely declined the offer and returned to the U.S., this time taking a lateral position in a new area.

I’ve always considered myself a high achiever with a career-focused mindset. In passing on that promotion, I worried I might not be considered ambitious enough or fully dedicated to my career. But when I really thought about what I wanted, for my family and my career, I realized passing up a promotion was actually the best option for me.   

You might be finding yourself in a similar situation. The pandemic forced many of us to reevaluate our priorities, how we want to spend our days, and question what we want to do with that time. Many employees see resigning as the only option, versus accepting an unwanted role or opportunity with their current employer. But before you adopt the mindset that it’s best to move on, consider that change can happen where you are if you are willing to have the right conversations with your manager. Here are a few tips from my own experience:

Know and be clear about what you want. Whether it’s more money, flexibility, status, a better job title, autonomy, or some combination of these –make no apologies. Often this starts with being honest with yourself. 

Come to your career conversation prepared. These conversations might seem scary, but if you take the time to think through your goals and are specific about what you need to achieve them, then you have a much better chance of success. If the conversation begins to veer, redirect to your priorities. Honesty can steer the dialogue in a way that ends up not only satisfying for you but helps inform and build a more stable and positive relationship with your manager.

Consider the importance of building your skills, versus chasing the next promotion. When I returned to the United States for that lateral role, it ended up being in an area of HR I had never worked in before. I gained new expertise and skills– and I had the opportunity to really go deep in a specific area. Over the next fifteen years, those skills opened up new job opportunities, projects, and promotions, and they have continued to serve me today. So don’t underestimate the power of building new skills. They are your greatest resource and can often lead to a bigger and better opportunity down the road.

The pandemic has fundamentally transformed the workplace and forced all of us to consider what really matters to us, personally and professionally. For some, it’s absolutely the right decision to move on, but in many cases, you can still find satisfaction and success by staying put, if you’re willing to take informed and prioritized risks and have transparent conversations. In my career, this mindset has made all the difference.

Nickle LaMoreaux is the chief human resources officer at IBM.