Some Un­con­ven­tional Ad­vice on Ca­reer De­vel­op­ment

The Washington Post Sunday - - JOBS - Wash Post Life is the peo­ple side of The Wash­ing­ton Post fo­cus­ing on stew­ard­ing a cul­ture of in­no­va­tion, own­er­ship, speed, and di­ver­sity within a rapidly grow­ing me­dia and me­dia tech­nol­ogy com­pany. The pro­duc­tion of this sec­tion did not in­volve the news o

Ca­reer de­vel­op­ment ad­vice abounds, so much so that there’s ac­tu­ally too much of it. Read­ers are often left with the im­pres­sion 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 per­son’s 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 prob­lems that are most ur­gent and im­por­tant 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, high­vis­i­bil­ity 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. 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, longterm com­pany prob­lems, and they tend to do less for oth­ers in gen­eral. Per­haps most con­spic­u­ously, they re­sist tak­ing on more work, higher-level projects, or longer hours with­out first in­sist­ing on more com­pen­sa­tion, an el­e­vated ti­tle or direct re­ports. 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 long-term ori­en­ta­tion, so if you’re re­ally think­ing long-term, the an­swer be­comes ob­vi­ous.

Time in Cur­rent Role is a Gift, So 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. Those who press for more af­ter com­plet­ing just one year or one project 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 than breadth, be­cause if you’re pro­moted more than once, you may one day lead teams and func­tions 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 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, so make the most of it.

Not Ev­ery Ca­reer De­vel­ops, and That’s 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 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’re 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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