Lessons in Career Development

Jul 6, 2017

As I’ve been working through a career change for the last 6 months, friends and family like to ask how I’m enjoying retirement. My usual response is a genuine smile accompanied by a chortle, and a brief shrug of acknowledgement that hey, this isn’t so bad. Of course, it isn’t really retirement, but their comments are typically on the heels of the latest Instagram post of my cat napping, or the delicious wisps of espresso and milk comingling in my latte, or a curvy road to seemingly nowhere. Oh, and the fact that I don’t have a job / income at the moment.

Being retired is hyperbole in case you’re new here (I’m for hire!).

This period of time has been an invaluable source of self-discovery and growth. I have experienced days of elation where I feel like I know everything and can take on the greatest of challenges, to paramount fear where I know nothing and feel like I just made the biggest mistake of my life. Throughout this time of self-reflection (most days it’s just me and my cat for 10 hours at home, and she doesn’t talk much), I look back on my prior positions and companies I worked at. The one thing in common between them all was that each phase provided experiences and learnings that would help shape and solidify my desires out of life – personal and professional. With hindsight as my guide, I’d like to offer up some thoughts on development.

Take the Risk

No matter which job advice blog or article you read, this gem is in there somewhere. In case my name didn’t reveal it, I come from a family of immigrants. The Land of Opportunity shone like a beacon on the big screen and through tall-tales, and one-by-one they began to migrate over. Each person has a similar tale:

“We just wanted to experience the American lifestyle for a bit. We wanted to make some money, see some new things, and head back home to raise our families. 4-5 years, tops.”

40+ years after the first one and we’re all still here. While we’re all owners of diverse personalities and viewpoints, one thing that binds my elders is that they’re entrepreneurs. Accepting risk is inherent to being an owner of a small business, let alone traveling halfway across the world with a suitcase, some cash and a hunger to achieve and little to no experience in what you ultimately create. As we the children of these successful giants grew older, however, we were presented with other ideals – that of stereotypical corporate America.

“Work hard. Keep your head down. Listen to your boss. If you work hard you’ll do good work and you’ll be rewarded with riches and titles that’ll lead to other riches and titles and someday you’ll be your own boss!”

Something to that effect. Looking back, it’s kind of silly. I’m not saying that hard work doesn’t matter. The ability and desire to ‘work’ is embedded in all of us. It’s wired in our instinct to survive and together brings about our ability to create. This is where the decision of how much risk to undertake defines our actions – how will it affect my future? When in doubt, the benefits typically outweigh the dangers. Especially in our workplace, where something may not be ‘a part of your job description’, this invariably results in growth. How so?

You feel like you could use a chart that shows some trends that would be important. Build it. Don’t just wait for an official response. Add it to your modeling package. You feel like your training materials don’t cover a topic properly. Update it, submit it to the document owners and discuss the whys. You’ll never make your opportunity creation numbers if you don’t pick up the phone and call that company to find a new contact yourself. Approach your product owner and tell them of your big idea that might be too expensive to implement or need more human capital to invest in; maybe you’ll impress someone enough to invite you in next time.

Or maybe you’ll have an idea or outcome that brandishes your inexperience. Worst case, you’ll be told to redo or forget about it altogether. Regardless, you’re learning something new – about the methods at hand, your leader’s abilities, and of yourself. Embrace this courage. Continuing the same daily grind without change leaves you in the same daily grind. Take the risk. Ask the question. Say yes. Maybe even say no.

Nurture Relationships

For an introvert, this can elicit feelings similar to taking risks. Never forget the people around you, around the corner, in the other building, or that friend of a friend you met that is involved in an industry you’re interested in. This seems basic, but I found far too often I would let those out-of-sight contacts slide into obscurity. Throughout my early life, I was rewarded by what I knew: good grades, certifications, plaques, degrees, resume highlights. Only when you begin to take care of relationships and advance (or want to advance) your career do you comprehend the power of ‘who you know.’

It’s a cliché for a reason – research from the Federal Reserve Bank of NY and MIT suggests only 6% of applicants come through referrals, but 29% of them are hired vs. 60% of applicants going through a job board with 23.5% being hired. That’s a 6% greater chance of being hired. I’ll take those odds.

Even if you’re not looking for work directly with a new contact, keeping in touch with what they’re doing, or relaying what your goals are, can build conversations and grow ideas that will be beneficial to both of you. Trust begins to build, respect forms, and a support system is born. At the very least, you’re expanding beyond your echo chamber and discovering a new train of thought. Perhaps even a new way to defend your current one. Do not underestimate the power of a conversation.

Embracing Passions

This is an important one. We won’t always have passion filled days due to the fact that we’re human and carry around emotions and react to our surroundings. Sometimes we don’t have a lot of physical work to do, so we focus on ideating that day, creating work in bits and pieces. Other times, our jobs are just jobs, and your passions are engaged in afterhours activities (wouldn’t you love to be doing something meaningful between that time, though?). Being able to control a large portion of your time by being committed and engaged to the work that you’re doing provides not only an outlet to staying sane in a chaotic world, but also avenues for further growth even among mundane tasks.

For example, I was working as a data analyst in my early years. During a particularly ‘boring’ stretch (you know how it goes when things are just working like clockwork), I proposed an intranet site for our engineers and sales leaders to use to be able to better collaborate. After the typical retorts of the time like “They can use email,” or “That tool she uses doesn’t work for me,” and “We don’t have a budget,” I just built the damn thing. Sure, it took extra time and effort to gather the proper content, build my skillset, and understand what users ultimately would need without detracting from my ‘day job.’ In the end, it didn’t create any extra monetary value for me or special recognition/promotion at the time, but it was another seed that was planted within that I could cultivate. And I felt really good about the end product.

14 years after that fact, I’m left wishing I had embraced those passions and started this journey sooner. At least I’m on it now, and the feeling is wonderful.

Create Measures, Not Rulers

We are so often trying to create successes as a team, or a department, or an organization that we fail to revel in our own merits. Of course you were supposed to streamline that process, it’s why you’re a business analyst. Of course you were supposed to close that deal, it’s why you’re a salesperson. Of course you were supposed to figure out the problem behind that annoying little bug, it’s why you’re a programmer. You need to keep focus on how those successes were had to continue them; build upon them.

This does not mean everything is a competition. If that helps you in your journey, so be it, embrace that and discover the strengths that competing brings. Being stuck to a particular ruler for that measure becomes the eventual obstacle. When people spoke to me of being successful, it was always in terms of salary. When it wasn’t salary, it was title. When it wasn’t title, it was some number of people you get to manage. “Oh, you have 20 analysts under you?! Wow! I only have 5…” For all you know that leader of 20 analysts is working 12 hours a day and not willing to let any underperformers go since they’re at the break-even point on service levels as it is. Perhaps your 5 works much better as a team because of your efforts, and experience real work-life balance while you get to encourage them to pursue other points of interest for development, working to achieve goals as a cohesive unit. Which person is now more successful? Pumping out 1,000 lines of code when 100 will do doesn’t make you more successful, it just means someone else has a better way of getting to a solution.

Measure yourself in bits of what you want to achieve for yourself. When those achievements are intertwined with personal and professional results, and not just written to fill out a personal development form at your year-end review, you begin to reap them all.