Life & Work Skills

Overcoming Pigeonholing in Your Career


Navigating the dynamics of a career can be tricky enough when you’re passionate about the work. But for those that find themselves following a career path that doesn’t align with their interests, making the jump to a different role or even a new industry can seem nearly impossible. Factor in a lack of applicable experience or industry knowledge and the chances to be considered for a transition can be a lengthy process that causes people to burn out and settle into a position that they’re not right for.

What’s more, this social tendency exists outside of the corporate world and almost goes against human nature. It’s the phenomenon that makes athletes below a certain height virtually invisible to a talent scout and ignores our capacity to root for the underdog. It’s the phenomenon that makes it hard for certain actors to separate themselves from their breakout roles, but makes them even more revered when they successfully demonstrate their versatility. So why pigeonhole in the first place if our brains are capable of seeing an untraditional idea through to the end–even go so far as to cheer for it along the way?

In the context of the corporate world, the tendency to hold an individual to their professional lane can be the result of many factors ranging from internal politics to individual effort. Sometimes, it might not be any more complicated than a shortage of internal resources: If the right people simply don’t have time to mentor, the effort it would take to get an inexperienced employee trained would not be a good use of the company’s time. If this is the case, it might take diligent work on the part of the employee that wants to make a career jump, to work with the right people and transition gradually to an entry-level position.

Professional pigeonholing can also be the result of corporate culture. Harvard Business Review recently conducted a study about ambition drop off in young woman mid-way through their careers, finding that many organizations have hesitation when it comes to mentoring entry-level female employees. In which case, it might be a good idea to look for opportunities outside of your current company and begin networking with those people.

Or sometimes pigeonholing is the result of an employee’s success and the value they provide in their current role, which can make it difficult to move someone to a position where they may have more interest but a lack of experience and industry knowledge. Whatever the reason may be, it can be extremely frustrating to feel satisfied at work while also trying to navigate a situation in which your interests and skills are not getting factored in to your professional growth.

If throwing your name in the proverbial hat doesn’t seem to be working and your efforts to express interest in other roles are going unheard, it might be time for a different approach to overcome pigeonholing.


Be Transparent

Sometimes the hardest thing to do in a given situation is also the most necessary. Being transparent with your manager about your career aspirations will only set you up to successfully make a transition when the time is right. If your relationship with your manager is such that you feel comfortable approaching the topic in a one on one conversation, that kind of openness will not only allow you to be clear about your goals it will also give your manager a chance help you work toward that goal. At the end of the day, companies would much rather hire internally than spend time on boarding someone without an understanding of company culture and processes and if you demonstrate that you’re trustworthy, you’ll shoot right to the top of everyone’s list.


Set up an informational interview

There’s nothing more powerful than building a rapport with people you admire. If you find yourself interested in a different role that would require you to take on different responsibilities and utilize a different set of skills than those you use in your current role, getting the perspective of a person in that field–or better yet–someone in a lead role in that field, will help give you a better sense of the kinds of steps you need to take to be considered when something opens up. Setting up an informational interview or an informal conversation over coffee or lunch is a great way to get to know members of a different team while also getting a sense of what working with them day to day would look like.


Do your research

If after the first meetings with your manager and members of the prospective team make you realize that you are lacking skills that are necessary to know upon hire, make it your official part-time job to learn those skills or that program that the team uses everyday. There are many online resources like Skillshare or even publications like The Everygirl that offer courses for programs like Photoshop, Adobe, CSS and Javascript to help you build a formidable resume. What’s more, highlighting your self-starter mentality will ensure employers that not only are you dedicated to your personal growth, you’re also a fast learner. Once you accrue enough knowledge of the skills required to fulfill basic responsibilities within the new role, there may become an opportunity to be a backup resource or take on entry-level work–and maybe even eventually, an entry-level position.


Don’t neglect your responsibilities

Once you begin exploring the skills and knowledge necessary for transitioning, it is doubly important not to drop any of the responsibilities you currently have. It can be tricky–honestly, exhausting to juggle this many balls at once. But if this new, prospective role truly interests you, you will find time to pursue it and still be of value to your company as you continue working in your current role, for the time being. Continuing to be a reliable and valuable employee, even if the work doesn’t completely inspire you, will pay off substantially in the end when you’re ready to make a jump to the next thing.


Ask for an assignment

When you feel comfortable enough after conducting research, reaching out to team members and speaking with your manager, you might approach a leader in the field and request an assignment from them. If they agree, it is imperative that you dive into the assignment, follow your gut and don’t hesitate to ask for feedback. Then, when you’ve created a prototype, portfolio or sample you’re proud of, present it to someone with the power to bring new team members onto their team.


Follow Up

After you’ve given your presentation, established relationships with the right people and have maintained an open dialogue with your manager throughout the process, you will probably need to follow up with leadership of the team you’re trying to join. Sometimes, following up will simply uncover the fact that the team just isn’t looking for anyone at the moment, and that’s ok! In the meantime, follow up on your own growth; examine where you may still need to improve and develop those skills further and don’t lose focus on your goal if at first you don’t hear anything. It can be difficult to feel like a burden but, the honest truth is, busy people are busy and it’s important to follow up and continually put yourself in front of the right people. That way, when an opportunity does come along, your name won’t just come up in passing, you’ll be the first choice.


What are some of the biggest obstacles you’ve overcome in your own career and how did you manage them?