What do you want?
Soon after Alice arrived in Wonderland she approached a place where the path diverged. Not knowing which direction to take she asked the Cheshire Cat for advice. The Cheshire Cat responded “Well, that depends on where you want to get to,” to which Alice responds “Oh it really doesn’t matter.”
The Cheshire Cat then tells Alice that if she doesn’t care where she ends up it doesn’t matter which path she chooses.
Careers are no different. If we’re just putting in our time or working a job without a direction in mind it won’t matter all that much what jobs we work or what companies we work for. Unfortunately, this mindset can negatively impact those around us as well. Managers that don’t have a direction in mind for themselves or their teams often fail to help grow the members of their teams and their organizations.
How to find out where you want to go
The other day a friend told me “I’m old enough to know what I’m good at and what I’m not good at.” I was honestly impressed that she felt comfortable telling me this. She then told me what she was good at and from what I knew of her she was spot on.
Most us would struggle when asked “What are your strengths? What are you really good at?” Many of us haven’t been in enough situations to even know what we’re good at. In college I realized that I loved statistics during my senior year after 2 years of working on my statistics major. Finding what you're good at takes trying a lot of things.
I find that throwing myself at something for a long time helps me understand whether or not it’s something I enjoy or am good at - to me a long time means at least a few months. I threw myself at programming for a long time, probably too long. I’m a techy, so I figured I needed to know how to code. It turns out that the time I spent programming really only helped me learn one thing. Coding is boring! Yeah, I can do it, but I don't want to.
Contrast that with the time I put into design. I didn’t have to force myself to work at it. I found time whenever I could for design. I love designing things despite the fact that I’m not very good. What do you think about when you don't have to think about anything else?
If you don’t know what you’re good at then you may struggle with deciding where you’re headed. More importantly, if your list of strengths is built on faulty assumptions you may point yourself in a direction that will be impossible to achieve which may lead you to feel that you’re always failing.
Once you know what you’re good at consider looking up jobs or industries that need your expertise. Talk to mentors or friends to get their take on what you would be good at doing and where your strengths would be helpful in an organization.
How to get there
Key performance indicators (KPI’s) can help focus a person or a team on moving in the right direction. You get results where you put your emphasis. That bears repeating, you get results where you put your emphasis. In the good organizations I’ve been a part of the emphasis of the organization is shown by the KPI’s they track. Do you have personal KPI's? Does your organization? How does your work contribute to your organizations KPI's?
Follow up is one of the great things that distinguishes great employees from the ones that are good or just okay. Following up has two important impacts on your work life. When you follow up you feel more responsible for your work and oftentimes take greater pride in it. Following up also sets you apart from your colleagues in a positive way. During the next meeting you are involved in consider suggesting that you’d be happy to take note of action items. Throughout the meeting regularly take note of action items including names, due dates, and specific responsibilities. Send the action items out to the people that attended the meeting then follow up on each of your action items once it is complete. Every time your manager asks you to do something be sure to take note of what it is, when it should be reported on, then go do it and report back. Your manager will write poems about you.
Schedule time for personal development regularly. Learn a new skill. Develop your talents. Everyone is busy. I was listening to a question and answer session a little while ago. A young dad asked something to the effect of “I really want to take time for personal development but with my work, family, and other obligations I never end up having the time for it. How am I supposed to have time for that?” The response was brilliant, “You make time for the things that are most important to you.” The way we use our time shows what we value you. If you aren’t spending time on personal development it means that you don’t value it. We find time to eat, sleep, watch our favorite sporting event, or go shopping. If we really value personal development we will make the time for it.
Network all the time. When you meet someone new try your best to get to know them. Ask them what they do for work. If it is something you might be interested in add them on LinkedIn and consider inviting them to lunch so you can get to know them better. Work with people that lift you and help you grow. Find a good mentor that is willing to teach you and cares about your success long after you’ve left your current job. I once had a mentor that told me it was time for me I’d learned most of what I could learn at my current job and he encouraged me to move on even though I knew that he didn’t want to replace me.
Be careful what kind of companies you accept jobs with. Taking a job with a company that has not grown in years can be a big hit on your career. Try to find opportunities at companies that are growing. This does two things for you. Growing companies are companies that will need to fill leadership positions in the future. It’s typically better to hire from the inside than the outside. Stagnant companies will typically leave you with stagnant opportunities.
Be patient with yourself. When it comes to our careers there are typically a lot of things out of our control. Enjoy the journey. Learn important skill sets, get to know the people you work with, and celebrate the fun times. Great people stand out and typically get their opportunity to shine and move forward in their careers.