Career Development: Some Unconventional Advice

Career development advice abounds, so much so that there is actually too much of it.  Readers are often left with the impression that their careers should be in perpetual motion and advancement.  If not, they must be doing something wrong or have somehow missed critical opportunities.  However, to guide a career to its fullest over time, one must recognize and accept certain realities: 

Your Interests and Company Interests Must Overlap

The idea that a persons career should develop simply because he wants it to is not reasonable.  That we have aspirations in no way guarantees their realization.  To maximize the likelihood of real growth and progression, home in on the most urgent and important problems not to you—but to your manager.  Knowing what keeps your manager up at night and then proactively approaching her with viable solutions is to recognize an essential truth of all organizations: they need and look for problem-solvers.  The best problem solvers tend to see their careers unfold naturally over time, whether via conventional promotions or through important, high-visibility projects.Treat company problems as primary and career problems as secondary, as the former is more likely to take care of the latter.The reverse almost never works.

Give More of Yourself While Asking For Absolutely Nothing in Return

As you focus more on pressing problems facing your manager and team, not only do you become more valuable, but by definition you focus less on yourself.  This is key.  Often—and perhaps ironically—the last person a manager wants to promote is the employee constantly gunning for a promotion, a raise, a title change, or more prestige in one form or another.  This employee tends to miss entirely the philosophy, we, not me. And there is a term for this type of employee: a ticket puncher.  Ticket punchers focus on themselves and their own short-term gains over what may be of greatest value to the manager, the team, or the organization.  Consequently, they tend to have shorter tenures, less interest in solving thorny, long-term company problems, and tend to do less for others in general.  And perhaps most conspicuously, they resist taking on more work, higher-level projects, or longer hours without first insisting on more compensation, an elevated title, direct reports, etc.  Here again, they miss an important truism of organizational life: the one who does more than he is paid will soon be paid for more than he does.

Do you take on some risk by not aggressively asking for more in the face of new opportunities?  Sure, but you take on risk no matter what path you choose.  Which approach do you think will pay off more over time?  Implicit in the word career is a 3 long-term orientation, so if you are really thinking long-term, the answer becomes obvious.

Time in Current Role is a Gift; Resist the Urge To Cut It Short

Partly a result of proliferating career advice, and partly a result of millions of young professionals facing uncertain career decisions in an uncertain economy, there is a growing impatience toward career development itself.  We see more and more cases of employees mistakenly thinking that one year in the same job is a long time, or that finishing a successful project should lead to punching the ticket and gaining a more senior title.  Yet titles have little to do with real development of any kind.  And one year over the course of what is likely a 40+ year career is precious little time at all.  For those who press for more after completing just one year or one project, here again they miss an important reality: for most disciplines, it takes 10,000 hours to achieve mastery.  That's at least five years of full-time work focused in the same domain.  In this respect, depth is more valuable to you than breadth, because if you are promoted more than once, you may one day lead teams and functions that you don't know everything about.  Having developed deep expertise in one area will provide enormous advantages later in your career when trying to master unfamiliar areas.  If you skim the surface of the ocean in every role—particularly early in your career—you will forgo opportunities to develop depth of any kind, which will ultimately harm your career.  How could it not? Recognize that for most of us, if our careers unfolded as fast as we would like them to, this would actually impair our development, and possibly worse.

Finally, recognize that the best development happens on the job, in your current role.  Your current role is where your expertise lies, where you hold the most influence, and where you have the most opportunities to practice new skills.  A training class cannot provide these things in a sustained way; nor can a conference.  Nor can, for that matter, a mentor.  Only your current role provides so many developmental gifts at once—make the most of it. 

The Chance Factor: Not Every Career Develops, and That is Okay

One dynamic of career development is particularly hard to accept: the chance factor.  There is a chance your career will develop in a way that is desirable to you.  A chance that you will be in the right place at the right time (where your skills clearly overlap with company problems); a chance you will meet a mentor who will give you honest feedback, no matter how painful to hear, that makes you more effective; a chance that the economy and resulting opportunities will play to your strengths.  And while luck favors the prepared and there are definitive steps you can take to position  yourself well in a world of chance, there is a deeper, perhaps more important question: do you like what you are doing?  Recognizing that there are no perfect jobs, does your work give you some measure of satisfaction?  If the answer is yes, why do you need to develop your career at all?

Popular advice on this subject would have us believe that compensation, titles, and promotions are surrogates for real development, that we should negotiate aggressively at every turn, and that we are all entitled to a fast track of one kind or another.  Unfortunately, much of this is misguided, leading to frustration and disappointment.  Be discerning when consuming this kind of advice, and take the time to look inward, reflecting on your true motivation—what you most want from your career over the long term.Then, be patient and thoughtful in how you achieve it.

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