Managing career proactively

In my last post Is your manager killing your career aspiration?, I raised the issue about good careers getting jeopardized when people read too much into manager’s feedback and kill their career aspirations. It triggered many comments from my friends on facebook, and it has taken me a while to internalize those comments and formulate my opinion and response. The discussions touched on the topics of ‘how much of the blame goes to manager, how much to the individual, and what role does organization’s culture play in all this?’. I also got some feedback on the lines of ‘this applies to me, I am in the same situation, what should I do, and how should I avoid it when I join another company’?

This post is an attempt to analyze why someone gets into this situation, and how they can be careful and avoid this fate.

Here are some of the things that went wrong for the person in the story:

  1. Job requirements are not aligned to what this person can offer or want to offer.
  2. Person is not able to put the feedback in perspective, and unable to see that the feedback is about the role and not always about him
  3. He doesn’t know what he wants from his job – this lack of direction leads him to believe everything what the manager says
  4. He doesn’t know what he needs to change in order to be excellent at the job, so he continues to follow what his manager tells him to do.

If you read this carefully, you will notice that everything points to a reactive approach to career in this story. A reactive approach happens something like this:

Accept Job Requirements: When you join a new job or take a new role, you accept whatever your manager tells you about his her expectation.

Create execution plan: Once you know what is expected, you figure out how you do the tasks and what results need to be produced. This becomes the execution plan.

Execute: You put in lots of hard work in doing the tasks that you think will fulfill the job requirements. Such hard work also raises the expectation in your mind about rewards and gives an impression that you are doing a good job

Receive performance review: Once a year (or 6 months or 3 months), you receive a piece of paper and a talk from your manager, which describes what you are doing well, and what you need to improve on. This assessment and data is put together by your manager based on your execution and results. Often times, this doesn’t match the impression you have about your own work, and so performance review becomes a frustrating experience for manager and you.

New job requirements: Based on the performance review, new things might have to be done, or things might need to be done differently. This forms the input for a new cycle to begin and you start all over again. This goes on and on in your career.

Reactive approach to career never works. One needs to be proactive when managing one’s career. A proactive version of the above flow will look something like this:

Analyze job requirements: You analyze the job requirements that are handed to you by your manager to understand what is required to do them. You also align it with your strengths, interests and weaknesses (see the post about Job selection and transition for more discussions on the subject)

Customize job: This is the first important and proactive step after analyzing the requirements. This requires working with your manager to make sure you focus on areas which align with your strength or with your interests. Job requirements which align with your weaknesses and are uninteresting to you will cause you to do a poor job and should be avoided. More managers are open about creative job customization than you might think, so you should take advantage of this to set you up for success.

Update career plan and measures: It is important to align personal career plan and how your measure your career growth with what you do in your job. Every new job requirement has the potential to impact your plan and may introduce a new measure (see this post for more discussion on career measures). Also, a self-measure for career is very crucial, you can’t rely only on organization’s measures.

Execute: You put in the hard work required to execute against these job requirements and career goals. Important difference here is that the execution is impacted as much by job requirement as it is impacted by your own career goals and measures.

Collect and analyze ongoing feedback: Collecting and analyzing feedback from managers and peers is important to know how you are doing against the goals and requirements. Typical performance review feedback are skewed by the fact that they are also tied with monetary benefits. Ongoing feedback keeps the feedback more genuine and gives an opportunity to change course much earlier if things are not going well. Such an analysis will also result in new requirements for the job and the cycle will start all over again.

For a proactive approach, it is very important that you have a career plan which you review frequently to make sure things are going according to plan. When the review suggests that things are not going as per plan, it is time to make modification in career plan or in the job requirement (role change, company change, etc.). Also, one of the things I have found to work well is to have a sense of urgency around the goals. For example, if you think you have all the time in the world to achieve the career goals, you will tend to follow the reactive model. However, if you give yourself a small window of time (I give myself 18-24 months) to achieve a particular big career goal, it forces you to be proactive because the time is running out.

A note on the role organizations’ culture plays in picking the model you use for your career. To use the proactive model, you require following things from the organization:

  1. Clear job description
  2. Openness of manager for job customization
  3. Get genuine feedback from manager and peer
  4. Alignment of your values with organizational values

Not all organizations allow these to happen. If the organization doesn’t have clear responsibilities and accountabilities, #1 may not happen. If the managers are rewarded only for short-term results and not for quality of results, #2 can be a problem. If organization doesn’t reward collaboration and team work, #3 will suffer. If organization is not tolerant of diverse views, #4 can be a problem. It is important to evaluate your organizational culture for signs of problems in each of these areas and then accordingly work on your proactive model. It is important to identify quickly whether you can manage your career proactively in a given organization; otherwise, it can cause tremendous waste of time and energy, and career gets jeopardized.

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