The 5 Patterns of Extraordinary Careers

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Pattern 3:  Overcome the Permission Paradox

“Ability is of little account without opportunity.”
-- Napoleon Bonaparte

“Big jobs usually go to the men who prove their ability to outgrow small ones.”
-- Ralph Waldo Emerson


The Permission Paradox is one of the great Catch-22s in business.“You can’t get the job without experience, and you can’t get the experience without the job.” Many people are confident in their abilities if given the chance to perform. But the hard part is getting permission to demonstrate these skills and to gain new experiences. This is the Permission Paradox.

You may want to become a CEO, move into a general management role, or make a bigger impact within your company, but unless you have permission to take on a broader role, you won’t reach your goals. How do you go about getting permission to make the big impact?

The Permission Paradox can be a paralyzing obstacle to overcome, and is often a self-fulfilling prophecy. Successful executives, unlike a large number of their peers, rarely have trouble gaining access to the most critical opportunities in their careers. They know that the secret is finding some way to get the experiences they need to get ahead.

Sometimes these are the once-in-a-decade, career-defining experiences, but other times they are the incremental but concrete incidents that move your career to the next level. All the same, extraordinary careers are set apart from mediocre ones by the ability to gain access to critical experiences.


Part of solving the permission paradox involves identifying valuable opportunities that others may not see.It is natural and comfortable to be drawn toward the places in an organization that are successful and running smoothly. But this may not be the best strategy for success in the workplace.

The most significant opportunities may be found in the most distressed parts of an organization. Often the best you can do in an already successful situation is to maintain the status quo. In a distressed or untested unit or company, however, the expectations can be much lower but the potential to generate a positive impact can be much greater. The parts of the organization that cause the most pain are also often the most highly visible. Fix them, and management will stand up and take notice.


Before formulating your strategy to get the permission you need to advance your career, you first need to understand the two primary forms of permission: Direct and Implied.

Direct Permission says, “You can do it because somebody says you can.”

Implied Permission states “You can do it because no one said you can’t.”


Successful executives gain permission and take charge of their experiences - and therefore their careers - in several effective ways. There are eight different strategies for gaining permission – see the eight sentences below.

Each strategy has unique characteristics and outcomes, and situations when they are most appropriate. Some permission strategies are more effective for gaining Direct Permission, and others better for Implied Permission. Some can be used for both, and one more commonly used strategy, playing politics, is usually not effective for either. But understanding all of these strategies can open your eyes to the many creative ways to gain access to the most desired opportunities.

The Direct Approach: If you want something, you can always ask.

Demonstrate Competencein areas that form the building blocks for new roles.

Clean the Slate: When you join a new division or company, you have a relatively clean slate on which to earn your permissions.

Get Credentials: One of the most logical ways to gain associative or expert permission is to get relevant credentials.

Barter: You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.

Masquerade as the Leader: Another strategy, albeit one with significant risks, can be referred to as the “stealth land-grab.”

Two-way Mentoring: The key is for both parties to get something out of the relationship.

Playing Politics:Certainly not a success pattern followed by extraordinary executives

By understanding and implementing the strategies for resolving the permission paradox, you should be able to get the permissions you seek. But by doing so, you’ve only won half the battle toward achieving extraordinary success. Permission puts you in the best position to perform.

Read onto Pattern 4!

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This extract is taken from
The 5 Patterns of Extraordinary Careers by James M. Citrin and Richard A. Smith, published by Random House. Order your copy now!

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