To the onlooker, John's life was idyllic. He was a vice president at a large financial services company. He earned great money and appeared to have a successful life. At the age of 43, his mortgage was paid off and his kids' college educations were funded. His wife did volunteer work as a member of two non-profit Boards of Directors after spending her first ten years after college working for a large consulting firm.

John had been a vice president for seven years and was, by all accounts, a productive, enthusiastic team player. Those who reported to him enjoyed working with him. His peers had great things to say about him, and his boss of five years considered him to be a "steady hand at the wheel." John received solid annual reviews, raises and bonuses. The stock options he exercised during the last several years made him a millionaire.

Despite all that, John was unsatisfied, perplexed and frustrated. His name had been brought up for promotion several times, and yet he could never clear the hurdle. I found out that in the company's semi-annual "promotion board" meetings, a senior leader consistently expressed doubts about John ascending to a loftier role. His own boss never aggressively or enthusiastically allayed those concerns or risked his own political capital to support John's ascendance.

When John asked his boss, or his boss's boss, for the reasons he couldn't get over the finish line, they provided answers like these:

• "There are only a few promotions available. You just missed this time. We'll put your name up next time; we're pretty sure you'll make it then."

• "There was a concern that the CEO had about your focus on producing planned results. If you make your sales plan again this year, we're sure you'll get promoted next year."

Every year the reasons changed. Every year John worked hard on the competencies and/or results cited as shortcomings. Every year he was disappointed when nothing happened.

As John's executive coach, I talked to his boss to attempt to get a better handle on what was going on. Trying to pin him down was like trying to nail jello to a wall.

Here's what was really going on: At some point, John's reputation in the company had become that of a solid, steady performer, but that's it. Senior leaders did not see him as dynamic or as a risk-taker. They didn't view him as a guy who would (or could) stimulate the aggressive, energetic contribution of others, and they didn't envision him as a guy who could become that person. They were totally happy with John's performance, but they didn't envision him as having upward potential. They wouldn't actually tell him that because they didn't want him to leave, but they weren't about to risk promoting him into a position that they were convinced was out of his band-width. I'm not even sure that they knew that they viewed him that way.

John was stuck. He was convinced that he'd eventually get promoted, but it simply wasn't going to happen. I shared my perspective with him. He eventually resigned and re-invented himself elsewhere.

Two versions of every person exist within an organization. The first, that I call the " personnel file story," is the official version. The personnel file documents a person's performance and history. Her performance appraisals, contained therein, document the reasons for her compensation increases and sometimes provide formal documentation of her future prospects.

The second version is what I call an individual's "water cooler story." It's even more important to one's future. This version refers to the way people talk about a person when he's not around. It often forms the basis of one's professional reputation, and it can either make or kill a career. Here's the problem:

The only way that a person can get a true and complete picture of his own water-cooler story is by objectively assessing other people's actions regarding his career, not merely their words. In John's case, the annual tap-dance discussion of his prospects didn't paint a clear picture. John believed what he WANTED to believe rather than the truth. Formal feedback that he had gotten in the past glossed over issues or made them appear almost irrelevant.

John's example provides two admonitions for you:

• Manage your own career. Other people play a role, but ultimately you own it.

• Too often, comfort seeking trumps truth seeking. To be successful, you have to be a dedicated truth seeker.

• You need to create a mechanism to provide yourself with regular, relevant, relentlessly honest feedback. Many companies have formal feedback processes. Most of those are perfunctory or diversionary.

Copyright 2014 Rand Golletz. All rights reserved.

Author's Bio: 

Rand Golletz is the managing partner of Rand Golletz Performance Systems, a leadership development, executive coaching and consulting firm that works with senior corporate leaders and business owners on a wide range of issues, including interpersonal effectiveness, brand-building, sales management, strategy creation and implementation. For more information and to sign up for Rand's free newsletter, The Real Deal, visit