The boss you have early in a career can determine your path of success. Apart from any other factor--including your own skills and ability--whether a boss truly supports you will dictate your entire career, and sets you on a course for what you can achieve.

I know this because I've had two outstanding bosses, and each one helped me advance quickly in my career, often assigning me roles that were far beyond my abilities or experience.

When I first worked at a startup in the 90s, my boss was constantly giving me more to do. He hired me to do page layout work, but I ended up supervising a small marketing team. I started out leading two or three graphics designers, and expanded to around six. Then we started doing product design and quality assurance for a new sign-making system.

It was during this time when I developed a lifelong interest in technology. I remember pouring over specs for every new Mac we purchased. I read Adobe product manuals from cover to cover. At one meeting, my boss told me: "You know more about technology than anyone I know." It was an over-statement, most likely. I still believed him.

By the time I started a new role at a consumer electronics company around 1995, I had already helped design a new product, led a team of designers, and written an entire product manual at that first company out of college. The boss at my first real job set me on a path of leadership, and it carried over to the next job. Hired as a technical writer originally, my boss at the new company also recognized my leadership skills and promoted me to a team lead role within a few months, then as a project manager. Eventually, that team grew from only three writers to a few dozen designers, writers, and software testers.

You can see how a theme developed in my career. Each new boss gave me a chance to lead something new, and I responded right away--I accepted the challenge. When I look back, I realize the trajectory could have been far different. One or both of those bosses could have kept me pigeon-holed, ignoring my leadership bent. They could have assigned someone more experienced to those roles. Even though the second job ended in failure (mostly due to an economic downturn after 9/11), it was still a wild ride. And, it led to a long writing career.

Great leaders know how to recognize talent in others. That are masters at placing people into the role they were always meant to have, at finding the best people for the most ideal tasks. They are not afraid to give you more responsibility and assign work that is perhaps more than you can handle, but gives you the opportunity to excel.

A terrible boss doesn't know how to do this. If you are ever stuck in a dead-end job, wondering why you seem so unhappy and don't feel challenged, the first place to look is one level up. Your boss might be holding you back because he or she doesn't want anyone else getting the credit. Or maybe you have a boss who picks favorites or tends to control everything on a team and doesn't want anyone else having any say in how things are done.

A bad boss holds you back in your current job, but more importantly, he or she holds you back in your career. You can't move beyond your current tasks and workload, and it might take years or even decades to figure out where you really belong. That's the truly sad part about a boss that doesn't recognize talent, promote others, or find the best people for a given job. It's a much bigger problem than just getting stuck in one job.

If you're frustrated by a boss that isn't helping you move forward in your career, it might be time to take a risk. Start by having an open conversation with your boss about this or even with the upper management of your company. (Only do this if you are willing to risk losing the job entirely, by the way.) Ask about any additional opportunities. If your boss won't budge, look for a new job where you can thrive under a boss who does set your direction for a career and does have your best interests in mind.

Someday, you will look back and realize it was all for the best.

If you need advice about your career trajectory, I'd love to help out. Drop me a line and explain why you have not quite found your niche and feel stuck.

Published on: Nov 24, 2018
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.