7 Secret Opportunities You’re Missing at Work

Career clues worth noticing
Opportunities to advance your career don’t always come hand-delivered and wrapped in a bow. Sometimes, discreet comments or special assignments from your boss contain powerful messages – ones you should learn to interpret.

Hidden opportunities can be easy to miss, says Lisa Lewis, a career-transition coach: “If you’re feeling underwater at work, they may not be things you’re necessarily paying attention to.”

That’s especially true because they often take the form of extra work, leading some employees to mistake them for burdens or forms of punishment.

Overlooking too many clues from your supervisor can take a toll on your prospects for climbing the ranks, because some managers use hints and special assignments to say “‘these are the types of things I’m evaluating in terms of who I promote, who gets this next great project and who makes the cut when layoffs come,” says Karen Chopra, a career counselor in Washington, D.C. “The employee who never responds to mentoring, guidance or suggestions” makes the boss think, “‘They aren’t responding to my management.’”

Learn to recognize the following situations as secret opportunities for success.

Your boss comes to talk to you in person.

With so many ways to communicate in the modern office, you should pay extra attention if your boss stops by your desk to talk in person.

“Get your face out of your computer, turn around and look at them and listen to what they’re saying. They sought you out for a reason,” Chopra says.

Your boss assigns you work that stretches your abilities.

When a big project lands on your desk, resist the tempting urge to conclude that you’re being punished.

“It’s really important to remember and assume that your boss wants you to succeed. When you look good, you make your boss look good,” Lewis says.

In fact, you’re probably being rewarded.

“If the project feels scary or overwhelming, if it feels it is way bigger than what you feel you can bite off, that’s a hint your boss sees something in you,” Lewis says.

That’s especially true if the project comes with a risk of failure, because those kinds of assignments show that the company has confidence in your abilities, says Kim Ruyle, president of Inventive Talent Consulting.

“The most developmental job you’ll ever have is one like you’ve never had before, don’t want to do and you’ll be in big trouble if you screw up,” he says. “They often are not particularly attractive assignments.”

You get harder assignments than your colleagues.

Company leaders believe that some employees have more potential than others. Accordingly, “they don’t spread development across their workforce like peanut butter across bread,” Ruyle says. Rather, they invest more heavily and provide better chances to certain workers they think will succeed.

“When you’re getting assignments that are challenging that other people aren’t getting, that’s an indication” you’ve been marked as having high potential for growth, Ruyle says.

Your boss uses a ‘signal’ phrase.

In workplace jargon, some words mean little while others are loaded with significance. “Opportunity” is an example of the latter.

“Typically, the word ‘opportunity’ is a boss’s reframe of something” important, Lewis says. “Otherwise, they’ll just call it a ‘task’ or an ‘assignment.’”

Similarly, be on the lookout for the word “stretch,” which indicates a situation that will test your abilities and give you the chance to prove them. And if someone gives you a “stretch opportunity,” it’s definitely worth paying attention.

The word “should” is a clear indicator that your boss has a message for you, even if used in a context that sounds like a mere suggestion, like “You should get out of the office more to meet clients.”

“Any time a boss says ‘should,’ your ears should perk up and you should say, ‘Tell me more,’” Chopra says. “You really need to hear that and stop and ask, why is your boss saying that?”

You’re asked to collaborate with or present to colleagues you don’t know.

To advance your career, “the ideal thing is to develop relationships with people that matter,” Ruyle says. “Your influence extends to the degree that the people you influence are influential.”

In that effort, “your boss should be your biggest promoter,” Ruyle says. That means your supervisor may assign you to work with colleagues on different teams or make a presentation to other managers in your company.

If you get a meeting invitation “with a bunch of people whose names you don’t recognize, or they are two or three title levels above you,” you’re probably being given an opportunity to network and you should prepare adequately, Lewis says.

You’re sent to a training session or conference.

Company leaders often reserve professional development opportunities like skills trainings or industry conferences for employees they believe warrant that kind of investment.

“If you’re getting those invitations without soliciting them yourself, it’s likely that your boss thinks you’re a top performer with potential to grow,” Lewis says.

Leaders may also use those opportunities to appease employees who have shouldered heavy workloads or who may be considering finding a new job elsewhere.

“Getting invited to trainings can also be a way of trying to mitigate ‘flight risk,’” Lewis says. “Keep a close watch on how being asked to go to a conference feels: If your gut says it’s an awesome opportunity or an appeasement strategy, you’re probably right.”

Your boss asks you to do, well, anything at all.

“The key to career success is to do what the boss wants you to do, unless it’s illegal, immoral or unethical,” Chopra says.

That may seem obvious in the abstract. But workers often get so caught up in trying to fulfill their many daily responsibilities that they neglect to change course when the boss issues a new request.

“Don’t do your to-do list, do what your boss wants you to do,” Chopra says. “You need to focus on what your boss’s priority is and your boss’s boss’s priority is.”

Employees who keep this in mind, Chopra says, are the ones “who seem to fly up the ranks.”

By Rebecca Koenig| USNEWS