Death by Swiss Army Knife: How You’re Sabotaging Your Career Progression

By | 2018-10-30T23:33:11+00:00 October 6th, 2018|Blog|

By Jennifer Carter, President of EWF International

I recently met a talented, accomplished young woman for coffee. She was thinking of leaving her current company and wanted my thoughts on her resume, career progression, and elevator pitch. I liked her, and was impressed by her credentials and accomplishments. Then she passed me her resume.

And I sighed.

Wall-to-wall text. Lists and lists of accomplishments, tasks, and buzzwords. It was dizzying – and it reflected nothing meaningful about the impressive woman sitting across from me.

“What are you trying to communicate with this?” I asked her. She replied, “That I’m flexible. I have lots of talents. I can do many things. They just need to give me a chance.”

I hear this a lot – women flaunting flexibility and diversity of talents, hoping that they’ll be discovered by a particularly insightful hiring manager. Or that their talents and efforts will finally be recognized by leadership and they’ll get promoted. That if they look like a Swiss Army Knife, then someone will find a way to put them to good use.

Here’s the problem: you only use a Swiss Army Knife when the tool you really need isn’t available. Swiss Army Knives are a stop-gap measure. When you don’t have anything else, they’re magical. But if you have what you really need, they’re unwieldy and hard to use.  Swiss Army Knife employees aren’t typically promoted into leadership. We promote particularly effective, focused, impactful tools.

A 2015 study by LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Co. found that women are 15% less likely than men to get promoted, despite the fact that men and women say they want to be promoted in about equal numbers (75% and 78% respectively). Against this landscape, it’s understandable why women seem so tempted to self-identify as Swiss Army Knives. But it often has unintended consequences.

Let me be clear:  this is not about having a flexible, diverse skillset. That is crucial to advancement and career progression. The same 2015 LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Co. study found that by the VP level, men are more likely to have held a variety of line roles (focused on core functions and/or positions with profit-and-loss responsibilities), whereas women tend to transition into staff or support roles (like HR or Legal). This means that men are more likely to be consulted on critical business decisions all along their path, whereas women are relegated to supporting roles. Overall, this is thought to hinder advancement because it positions women as less strategic leaders with less profit impact – even though study after study shows that companies with more equitable representation among men and women in their C-Suite soundly outperform their competition.

Bottom line: the real issues are perception and positioning.

Women who identify as Swiss Army Knives position themselves as problem-solvers, as team-players who will pitch in to get things done in a pinch. They’re doers. They’re gap-fillers. These are good qualities. The problem is, those are rarely qualities associated with senior leadership, who must be focused, targeted and strategic in their thinking to be effective. These qualities are positioned for support roles, not for leadership. Swiss Army Knives are unwittingly positioning themselves as in-a-pinch resources – not strategic, proactive ones.

Do people think of you as a Swiss Army Knife? Has that helped or hurt your career progression? Engage with us on LinkedIn or Facebook, and stay tuned for next month’s newsletter, where we’ll share ways to hone your personal brand, overcome “Swiss Army Knife Syndrome”, and more strategically manage your career.