Career Crossroads: Was the MBA in His Way?

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Career CrossroadsMultipleSigns.17120439_stdEver wondered why you weren't getting ahead in your career, when you thought you were doing everything right? Ever faced a racial, age, gender, socio-economic or cultural bias that you just couldn't prove by any real evidence? Ever kept trying to get just that One More Achievement that would push you through the glass ceiling or over the turning point so you'd finally be seen as having executive potential?

Tony did. If you've ever found yourself in Tony's position, read on...

If at First You Don't Succeed

Tony had big dreams. Ambitious and a little avaricious, his family of color wasn't "society." His parents got GEDs obtained when Tony was 12 and worked for middle class families. They never married. Tony grew up watching his parents take orders from others who weren't always appreciative. Quite simply, he wanted to be the boss.

A good student, he got a job at 16 and worked nights after school in the stockroom at a local grocer's. His teachers and supervisors encouraged him to work hard and he would advance. Bonuses and grocery discounts helped his family. Tony applied himself to his studies and worked hard 5 nights a week - but he never got out of the stockroom.

After high school graduation, he worked as a janitor at a small telecom company and applied for every promotion posted on the break room bulletin board. He never got an interview. A co-worker got promoted after she obtained her associates degree. Accordingly, Tony got a scholarship as a minority student at the community college. With his AA in Business, he still didn't get interviews for better jobs in his company. So he did what many fellows of his age were doing: he enlisted in the Army.

MBA in My Way

Tony loved having a system to advance his military career and he applied it. He was rewarded with rank and pay increases - until he discovered that an enlisted man without a four-year degree wasn't likely to become an officer. It would take much longer than two years to turn his associate's degree into a bachelor's, but he enrolled and completed his BS in Business Administration. In a few years he'd earned the rank of Captain. Sure he had proven himself and had education and experience for a better chance in the corporate world, so he left the military.

Since the economy was slow, Tony took a supervisor position at the Help Desk of a large telecommunications company. He worked hard, applying for promotions. He got more responsibility, but remained a supervisor. Other, lighter-skinned people earned promotions without Tony's qualifications. A for-profit university representative convinced him that getting his MBA would overcome his competition in the job market. With military financial aid, he completed his MBA while continuing to work.

Tony updated his resume, and all his personnel records. He worked harder, took on more responsibilities and hours, and led his team to honors, all the while continuing to apply for promotions. Still, two years after completing the MBA, he was not promoted.

He talked to supervisors and human resources staff, but nothing changed. Colleagues suggested he had probably over-educated himself for the hierarchy in that company. Frustrated, Tony began to apply for positions with other companies. After a year of no response, he thought he might go for his doctorate. Maybe that would be enough. He struggled with what doctorate to pursue. He became more frustrated with those who received promotions and raises they hadn't earned. He was angry when he discovered himself almost giving in to the idea that he wasn't promoted because of his race.

Try, Try Again

A friend recommended a career advisor who'd helped when he'd had career issues, so Tony investigated. He asked the advisor how to get the same promotions that others of different race got with less education, less experience, fewer achievements, and no military service. The advisor gave several tests and assignments. Discussing the results, the advisor asked if Tony wanted to hear the blunt truth. Tony said yes, and steeled himself. The advisor said:

"Sadly, people will hold prejudices against you in this world. Some will be biased against things you cannot change, such as your skin color. Some things you can change. If you are willing, you can do three things to improve your chances of being promoted. 1) Change the way you communicate at work, 2) Focus, and 3) Use the education you pursued to make a business plan for your own advancement."

Tony questioned and resisted at first. He wanted the world to work the way it should: Work hard - Get rewarded. But his advisor kept saying: "Should doesn't count, Tony – only is counts." So they made these changes:

1) They improved his speaking and writing, making sure that it was memorable for its content rather than its colloquialisms and ethnic turns of phrase. Tony says, "The lesson is that on your way up, you don't want to be remembered as a character or a caricature. Let your language, like your appearance, be a non-issue."

2) They focused his direction. Rather than just going for any next level degree in order to earn raises or promotions, Tony got specific. Before, he'd only known he wanted to be the boss – but boss of what? He'd been thinking of degrees as generic steps on a ladder instead of means to sharpen his expertise and usefulness. He was earning degrees in business, but working in the technical side of a technology industry. Tony says, "I saw that my education wasn't making sense to my bosses. Instead of a doctorate, I chose specialized graduate courses in VoIP and enterprise system management to focus my otherwise generic MBA."

3) They applied the learning from his MBA. Tony researched the company as a market for himself as a product. He wrote and presented a real world business plan that convinced his managers that he could handle the economics, teams, and relationships of large-scale customer applications for his company. In less than a year, Tony earned a spot as his company's first-ever Director of Programs for voice-data enterprise systems. He says, "When I showed that I could use my education and specifically, what I could do so the company would make money, they created a position for me to do it. Now, a senior executive for innovations is mentoring me for advancement!"

Never Quit - Change

Don't let your race, social status, education or lack of credentials stand in your way at work. If you aren't getting the advancement opportunities you think you deserve, there are reasons. It's rarely your degree. Some reasons will seem rational and some won't make sense to you at all. Perhaps it's your perspective – which you can change. Perhaps it's your employer's perspective – which you may not be able to change. Perhaps it's simply that you are unfocused, expecting your boss to determine what to do with you, rather than saying: "This is what I can do for you!"

Your degree is not a guarantee. If you can't see what's in your way and are taking actions that aren't correcting the situation – ask help from a friend, a mentor or a professional. Remember, the "definition of insanity" is doing the same thing over and over, but expecting a different result. As Tony says, "No degree will get you to your goal. Only you can do that. Never give up. Do use your education in creative ways. Don't look for blame – look for what you can control and change that!"

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