Typecasting is a word that one normally hears within the acting profession.
An actor or actress becomes so identified with a specific kind of role or performance that audiences (as well as film-makers) find it difficult to imagine them in anything other.
Most actors and actresses work very hard to expand their range and avoid this trap. Those who are successful show a history of pursuing varied roles in different mediums, always flexing their acting muscles and working their craft.
A similar phenomenon happens in the corporate world.
You do so well in a particular job or role—let’s say user support—that no one wants to give you new responsibilities. No one wants to lose your expertise in this space where you’re functioning so well.
In other words, you get pigeonholed.
Before long, the opportunities to expand your skill-set dry up. Although you enjoy a good reputation in your field, you feel stuck in the user support landscape.
Beware of getting pigeonholed at work.
The first thing to do is to understand where things stand and assess your current situation. Have you already been pigeonholed? If not, what are the chances—based on the nature of your role—that you may get pigeonholed in the future? That is, unless you actively take preventative steps.
It’s short-sighted to assume that this problem only exists for lower-level roles. This is simply not true. You can get stuck at any position, even at higher levels in an organization. The central question you want to ask yourself is whether you are continuing to grow in the areas and the direction where you want to grow.
That last section in the previous statement is important—in the areas and direction where you want to grow. Because sometimes, you may be pushed to go one way when it’s not in your best interest. More on this a bit later.
Okay. Here are six things you can do to avoid—or fix—being pigeonholed.
Get clear about your Big Picture.
It’s easier to get trapped when you don’t know where you want to head towards. In what direction do you want to take your career? Where would you like to see yourself 5 years from now?
Know the skills you want to learn and hone.
Just because you do something very well doesn’t mean you’d want to continue doing it forever! After you draw up your Big Picture, identify relevant new skills you’d want to learn or existing skills that you would like to turn into areas of expertise.
Remember that these skills may not be directly linked to your current job or scope of responsibilities, so you have to be deliberate and diligent in looking for opportunities to practice these skills.
Make sure your boss is aware of your career goals. You may feel skeptical about any good this will do. However, being quiet about it doesn’t help your case at all.
The answer will always be “No” if you don’t ask. As a manager and team leader, I always appreciated when my team members had a clear sense of their career direction. It worked to both our advantage when they came to the table with their asks.
Raise your hand.
Remember those skills that you wanted to hone? Always be on the lookout for opportunities to learn or practice them. Depending on your role, these kinds of opportunities may not naturally fall on your lap but it’s a great way for your bosses or peers to see you in a new light. Show interest and volunteer for short projects or assignments that increase your experiences and exposure in areas beyond your role.
Get ready to say “no.”
Perhaps the most challenging aspect of working on your strengths is the willingness and confidence to say “no” to certain projects or opportunities. Having worked in the corporate world for a long time, I understand that it may be challenging to be selective about your assignments. And of course, you’ll have to honor your job responsibilities. I’m not advocating that you forsake all that and purely work on your own interests, all the time.
But if you’re constantly being pulled to work on assignments that only keep you stuck and do little-to-none to move you closer to your long-term goals, it’s best to have a conversation with your boss or team leader. Explain where you wanted to grow and what you’re working to achieve. Make sure you can tie your aspirations to the company’s (or your boss’) objectives. With a well-reasoned positioning, you just might get what you want and more!
And then, there are times when the only way to get out of being pigeonholed is to pivot. I define a career pivot as any action that you intentionally take to change the trajectory of your career. It can be a minor shift in a related direction, a career change, or anywhere in between.
When you have exhausted the possibilities for growth in your current company or career path, your best option is to pivot. Initiating a career pivot keeps you in control of your career direction, instead of merely reacting to what the company (or your boss) is offering you. There’s no sense being stuck where you’re not growing the way you want to grow.
Your career growth goals may not always be in line with your boss’ interests, and vice versa. Remember that their objective is to get the mission done. When you’re the best person in the team to make that happen, it’s natural that the boss will always look to you to perform the tasks. Sometimes, this leads to getting stuck in a role far longer than you would like to be.
It’s on you to keep your career goals in mind and to make sure that you are steadily moving toward your vision and long-term goals. If you’re generally happy with the company, communicate your objectives to your boss and work towards a natural path progression. If that’s not possible, consider that making a career pivot may be your best option.