“They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.”
Part of a useful self-inventory is the periodic exploration of where and how to invest our talent. Most of us occasionally consider the career question where do I want to be in five years? We may reflect upon a title (e.g.), Manager, Director, Vice President, a “C” job like COO, CIO, CMO, or CEO. We might think about a new occupation. Or, we may have no idea other than “something else.”
Much of our consideration about what we want to do professionally is external: the job, the organization, and the field. As you consider options, think about not only your externally focused goals but also internally focused personal development that prepare you for success when you get there. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that the best technical skills always win. The difference between success and failure at senior levels often does not come down to the best technical skills, but the ability to grow and change in ways the job requires.
Consider an example. The best sales person in a group has superb sales skills. She knows her products inside and out, knows her competitions’ strengths and weaknesses, has a sharp eye for market trends. Her customers appreciate her knowledge of their strategy and goals. They reward her ability to present customized ideas with increasingly big orders. Her negotiation skills are top-notch, allowing her to frequently strike win - win outcomes for her company and her customers. The bottom line is that she’s developed her technical sales skills to be best in class for her group. So, when it comes time to promote the next first line sales manager, she expects be the front-runner. She believes that her skills and experience as a sales person will carry her to continued success as a sales manager.
Is she right? Will experience in the field, highly developed selling skills and a track record of results be enough to guarantee her success a sales manager? No.
While her skills and experiences will certainly be assets, they will not be enough because they enabled success in her last job, not her next job. For continued success, she has to shift her development focus to requirements to the job she wants next. This re-orientation affects everything about her job: her priorities, how she uses her time, the relationships she builds and the resources she uses. For our sales person to be successful as a sales manager, she will need to learn how to get results with and through others rather than on her own. She can start her development where she is rather than wait for the next job.
What if our sales manager does not transition her developmental perspective? What if, instead, she relies on the strengths developed in her sales job? After all, she was good at those skills and knows what works. Failure to transition opens the door to negative outcomes for our manager, not to mention her direct reports. First, she has to work much harder, as she tries to do her job and those of her reports. Her people may not develop the confidence and ability to develop the skills that made her successful, so she jumps in for them. Second, she neglects her role as a developer of people when she keeps tasks that might be fun for her instead of delegating them as important learning opportunities for her associates. She gives up time to observe, coach, or build new mentor relationships because she’s busy doing her old job. Finally, she isn’t able to use the manager position to develop a set of skills that would enable her to advance because she’s attempting to repeat an old experience, not fully participating in the developmental possibilities of the new one. The consequences of a failure to reset orientation to new requirements include a talented employee who does not reach her potential, a team of sales people who miss important opportunities to grow, and an organization that has less capability in their leadership depth.
As you consider opportunities for your time and talent, think beyond the external features such as titles, jobs and occupations. Plan for your personal development needs. Here are some ideas for discovering what’s required beyond technical skills for future roles:
- Interview others you admire currently in your target roles. Ask how they spend their time over a typical week. How much of their time is spent away from purely technical skills, but on influencing, coaching, motivating and engaging with others?
- Get some personal feedback on your interpersonal and leadership skills. Perhaps you have access to a 360 process. If not, seek feedback from trusted but candid colleagues. Learn how they perceive your ability to engage, influence and motivate others. Determine which of these skills you can work on in your current job to get ready for the next one.
- Volunteer for assignments that allow you to practice the orientation shift required for your desired next assignment. For example, if you are an individual contributor who wants to be a manager, volunteer to train a newly hired employee on your team. If you are a functional manager who wants to lead a business unit, spend time getting to know services of the functions outside yours that support business leaders. What do they offer? How are they evaluated? How do they communicate with the business leaders they support?
As you consider your future, identify not only what you want but also how you’ll succeed. Add a development plan to your career plan. It will not only increase your odds of success for where you are going, but where you are now.
Two good resources for thinking about jobs in your future and the development they require:
Charam, R., Dotter, S. Noel, J. (2001) The Leadership Pipeline: How to Build the Leadership Powered Company. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.
Watkins, M.D. (2009) Your Next Move: The Leader’s Guide to Navigating Major Career Transitions. Boston: Harvard Business Press.