Career Advice

Managing the switchbacks of your career

A successful career is rarely a straight line up the slope. It is so often a weaving up through experiences and it’s important to recognize how and when to weave.

I did a coaching session yesterday where just this question came up. This time the individual had years of engineering, both as a stellar software engineer and also as a manager and can feel he wants to do more – can do more – and knows he needs to broaden his skillset.

I have a handful of principles which can be helpful when you are wanting to grow and create more upward momentum in your career:

  1. Make sure you are in a critical path for the company (and this will vary by industry). For tech companies success hinges on sales (revenue and cash) and product. In, and in-between, these functions there will be a number of critical roles and projects. These could be supporting the top customers, could be developing a handful of critical new relationships, could be bringing a new product to market. Learn what these are and which would be i) new to you, ii) challenging for you and iii) valuable to the company.
  2. Make sure you advocate for a new position you can be successful at if you work hard and learn fast (which I assume you would!). It’s important that you succeed in each role you take on even if it’s a bit rocky as you come up the learning curve. It’s OK to make short term tactical mistakes in your career, it’s not OK to make strategic ones.
  3. Stay visible. In some companies a tour away from HQ is truly valued but in others it may be the kiss of death for future promotion because you are out of sight and out of mind. If you do decide to step away from HQ to stretch yourself – for example to China or DC – agree on a time frame with your management (e.g. 2 years) and be sure to discuss what you would be eligible for when you come back, but before you go.
  4. Be aggressive – that you are very focused on personal growth – but humble  – that you know you have a lot to learn. I’ve had too many engineers tell me they know they’d be good in sales while massively underestimating how truly skilled great sales people are, and too many sales people sure they can do marketing (better than marketing is doing it) with no comprehension of what it takes. If you have not worked in a job I guarantee you underestimate it, so be humble.
  5. Be direct. It’s rare, especially in small companies, that your executives are sitting around thinking about taking risk with you to broaden your career outside of what’s immediately expedient for them so don’t beat around the bush.

If you’ve been in the same role for 3 years look up, and across, and consider stretching yourself in to a new role – unless this is truly what you want to do for the rest of your working life.

Photo: Mine – from the garden of La Foce in Tuscany