How to Lean “In-Between” and Keep Your Career Moving

Get to the top! Lean in! Break the glass ceiling!

These clarion calls from the power sisterhood sound exhausting, unrealistic—even undesirable—to women in the everyday sisterhood feeling pressured to turbo-charge their careers alongside caregiving for children, aging parents and the monumental effort to make it home in time for family dinner.

What if you’re a talented, ambitious woman who actually prefers to, or needs to, lean “in between”?

Today ambitious women are not only found in the corner office or charging the corporate ladder in leaps and bounds. Ambition has a new face at a time when women have respectable professional options beyond the tied-to-your-desk, 60+-hour-a-week corporate job.

If your goal is to pursue work with substance in a reasonable work structure, you have three ways to be on an employer’s payroll—without sacrificing professional stature:

1. Make peace with a current full-time job that has reasonable demands, don’t worry about advancing to levels that could swallow your personal life and find ways to “grow in place”.
2. Turn your current full-time+ job and long commute into a more flexible situation—reducing hours and/or working at least partially at home.
3. Find an enlightened employer who offers a more flexible culture and healthy paths to professional growth.

Keep Growing Without the Big Promotion

If a big promotion is in the offing and you’d rather pull the covers over your head than pop champagne, it’s OK to decline or postpone. It’s not the end of your career if you take a slower route to the next level or never make that jump at all. Evidence this is true is found in some of the most unlikely places.

Working Mother magazine publishes an annual list of the “50 Best Law Firms for Women,” including big, top-ranked firms women chose to exit in decades past. Now these firms tout reduced hours and remote work. Most ensure that lawyers who take advantage of family-friendly programs are not cut off from partnership or leadership positions. I’ve seen this sea change firsthand: an attorney I know works remotely in Vermont, travels to her New York office occasionally, and snagged the partner title at a prestigious firm on her own time.

When you don’t have the family bandwidth for a big promotion, these eight strategies can help you “grow in place”:

1. Define leadership beyond big titles. Recognize that leaders at any level head project teams and set work quality standards.
2. Broaden confining job descriptions. Suggest to your manager expertise you’re interested in attaining and particular projects that could expand your role.
3. Streamline current responsibilities. Make room for more skill development—zero in on better processes, ways to delegate, etc.
4. Collaborate more with team members and departments. Explore job shares—or multi-disciplinary project shares that could cultivate new skills.
5. Take the lead on training and mentoring. Help younger colleagues navigate work and life issues so that women, especially, take fewer career breaks.
6. Get greater industry exposure. Participate in industry associations, speak at conferences, write articles and more.
7. Sign on for legacy projects. Don’t get lost in routine tasks—raise your hand for initiatives that could go down in company history.
8. Help your company be a good global or community citizen. Research organizations that align with your company’s mission and be a volunteer or spokesperson.

To grow in place focus on breadth of responsibility and visibility so managers can evaluate you in broader leadership terms and acknowledge your own brand of ambition and success.

Kathryn Sollmann is a flexwork expert, speaker and career coach—and the author of Ambition Redefined: Why the Corner Office Doesn’t Work for Every Woman & What to Do Instead.