When promotion isn’t automatic, you need to take a proactive approach to your career

Many people find that their current role becomes stale after a while and start to seek new challenges. Others assume that career progression will happen if they just stay in the role or with the same organisation for long enough.

As organisations have developed flatter structures the opportunities for career progression in a particular organisation may have been reduced. Many people no longer get promotion at regular intervals, managed by their employer. This can be a particular problem in small to medium enterprises (SMEs) with few employees. The opportunities for career progression are still there – but the onus is now on you to seek them out, and make them happen.

Moving organisation can be one route to achieving career progression, but this may not be possible for a whole range of reasons, such as your location and the local labour market, or because of family or other responsibilities, or perhaps you just really value your employer. In this situation you need to develop in your current role.

How you want your role to develop will depend on what you want from it, or how you measure career progression. For some, it could mean a higher salary, or more autonomy with less direct supervision. For others, it might mean taking on line management responsibility or making a more strategic contribution to organisational development. Whatever it means to you, how should you approach the situation?

Be proactive

Don’t wait to be asked to do things or be assigned extra responsibilities; that may never happen. If your employer is happy with the role you are doing they may not automatically ask you to take on new projects and responsibilities. Instead, actively seek out new activities. You have to ask for them and demonstrate that you can take them on and make a success of them. Volunteer for new projects and make them a success. Some say never volunteer for anything, but in a flat structure with limited opportunities for progression this is how you get noticed for the opportunitie that do become available. Just doing your job well may not be enough to get the career progression you want.

Help your manager

Your line manager is probably stressed. Middle managers get caught between the needs of their direct reports and the more senior leadership. Chances are there are things you can do that will ease their burden, put you in a better light, and which also allow you to show your initiative and learn new skills that you haven’t developed in your day-to-day job activities. Even if this doesn’t immediately lead to career progression in your current role it provides extra evidence of your skills when you do seek a new role. In an academic environment you could do things like helping with grant proposals or volunteering to help with department admin.

Become an expert

Identify ways that you can add value to your organisation. Can you identify new income opportunities from your existing skills or develop a new capability that can increase income? Consider becoming the organisation’s expert in that area and then lead the project to deliver it. These options will raise your profile internally, and also allow you to demonstrate a wider range of skills than you currently possess. Developing an entrepreneurial approach to your work is key to making a success of this. To do it well you need to have a clear vision of where your organisation sits in its current market and where other opportunities may lie. Industry-specific events offer excellent opportunities to research these opportunities. You could also speak to customers and partners about their needs and then try to produce solutions to their issues. This approach can be particularly important in a smaller company where you can stand out as an expert and significantly increase revenue.

What else can you do?

Have a plan and think strategically. Where do you want to be? How will you get there? Make sure you record what you do and the skills you develop. This will be useful for future CVs and can boost your confidence as you review your progress.

Like so much else in managing your career, developing in your current role depends on you taking responsibility for your own professional development. Go for it!


RSC Pathfinder is an online platform that RSC members can use to plan their professional development. You can discover new personal development goals and activities we recommend or plan your own. You can keep detailed accounts of your training to use as proof of development for discussions with line managers and when you apply for future jobs.

When creating the platform it became clear just how many opportunities RSC members have to undergo professional development. The system reflects the wide range of activities that members take part in for professional development. These could range from student members revising and reviewing learning during their studies – right through to professional members applying for Chartered Chemist status.