HBR: Taking Longer to Reach the Top Has Its Benefits
Most career advice today encourages us to move forward passionately, intentionally, boldly — and above all, quickly. Career coaches don’t make a lot of money from encouraging people to “get ahead slowly.” However, in terms of fulfilling our long-term goals for career success, patience can be an asset.
That’s not to say waiting is easy. It can be frustrating and anxiety-producing. Young people are often described as especially impatient to get ahead, and I have witnessed this firsthand at our company, where some of our youngest employees have been the most restless and the most intent on climbing quickly. It can be tough to convince them that progress takes time — and that taking time isn’t a bad thing.
I wanted to get a sense of how common it was for senior executives to experience a career delay. Is it something everyone experiences at some point? And how does it affect ambitious people’s career trajectories in the long term? I surveyed a group of 45 male and female executives. The group was divided almost equally between women and men, and most were CEOs or managing directors of their organizations. The women’s average age was 50; for men, the average age was 42.
Virtually all of the women said they had experienced a period of time when their career slowed down, shifted direction, or got put on hold, with the average duration being four years. They overwhelmingly mentioned family responsibilities as the cause of the slowdown, and several said they slowed down intentionally. But despite the slowdown, almost all of these women attained a high-level job in their enterprise between their mid-40s and early 50s.
In contrast, fewer than half of the men (43%) said their careers had ever shifted direction, slowed down, or got put on hold, and only one man mentioned family as the reason for a slowdown. Most of the men attributed their career delay to changing sectors (in pursuit of higher pay or better opportunities) or experiencing a period of unemployment.
While my survey was not scientific, there is other research confirming that women have more cause than men to practice patience. Looking at the 24 female CEOs among the Fortune 500, for instance, their average age when promoted to CEO was nearly 53, almost three years older than the average age for the male CEOs, and a McKinsey survey found that women tend to be promoted based on the results they achieve, while men are more likely to be promoted based on perceived potential.
While this disparity is a problem, rather than focusing on the “parenting penalty” or the difference between men and women, I would prefer to highlight how patience is ultimately rewarded. For example, a longitudinal study of mothers in the workforce has found that although women with children advance more slowly than women without children, the gap declines over time for those women who remain in the workforce, disappearing by age 50. This accords with what I found: While it took the parents longer to get to where they wanted to be, they did get there eventually.
And in fact, many people in my informal survey said that they liked having a flatter career trajectory and that they learned important lessons from it. Specifically, 90% of the women said their restraint or patience benefited their careers. The numbers were similar for the (smaller) group of men who reported a career slowdown.
One major reason: burnout prevention. This was certainly my own experience — in my 30s, I had four young children and worked full-time in an office. At least a decade passed before my professional life resumed the steady advance that I observed among most of my male colleagues and female peers who had no children. Today, as the CEO of a successful investment management firm, I believe my willingness to enjoy my family and my professional life concurrently was instrumental in my long-term success. It’s possible that I would have burned out if I had worked any more intensely than I did. I also believe that people are more effective thinkers and collaborators when we live balanced, healthy lives.
Others in the survey portrayed their career trajectory as simply more deliberate and considered. They used words like “resilience,” “perseverance,” “determination,” and “dedication” to describe their professional commitment. For example, Professor Robin Ely of Harvard Business School has described her career arc as a “deliberate progression.” While her husband’s high-level public service work took their family to New York, she managed her own academic path carefully, ultimately reaching tenure at HBS. Following a “deliberate” path may prevent the problem experienced by any number of hard-charging executives: getting to the top of the career ladder only to realize it’s leaning against the wrong wall.
Finally, still others reported that taking their time allowed them to develop the skills they needed to be more effective leaders in the long run. For example, Deana, an attorney on the partnership track at a New York law firm, made a strategic decision to take a position as executive director of a local nonprofit when her children were very young. After gaining top management experience in that lower-pressure environment, she moved back to a law firm, where she was soon promoted to partner and ultimately joined the top management team. She believes that her stint at the nonprofit was highly valuable to her career. When she reentered the corporate legal world, she had evolved into a polished and confident leader with executive experience.
Whether they’re intentional or not, career slowdowns can have benefits.
As young women and men today struggle with their choices during their 20s and 30s, they should remember that careers are, as one survey responder emphasized, a marathon and not a sprint.