I'm managing my own career.. wtf?

You’ve been told that your career is yours to manage and that opportunities are out there for you to find. You find yourself master of your own destiny, but don’t really know what that means, or how to effect change. This post is for you.

What does ‘manage your own career’ even mean?

I once worked in a homeware shop, and when I first started the only thing I was allowed to do was stack and re-stack the shelves. If I did that well enough and for long enough I’d be allowed to work on the checkout. If I did that well enough and for long enough I’d be allowed to run a small section of the shop.

In that job, my career path was mapped out for me from the beginning, with little room for deviation.

For many jobs today, and particularly for knowledge workers, that’s not the case at all. You start in one position, and as you learn and mature, your career could go one way or another. It isn’t mapped out for you at all.

When people say “you manage your own career”, they mean that you are responsible for how you grow and what you do next, within the confines of that company’s business model. You can’t become a heart surgeon if you work in a game development company, but you could build a game called Mega Heart Surgeon Super Saga, for example.

When they say that, they also mean that the onus is on you to decide on that direction and to take steps to make it a reality. That’s hard.

Perception is your biggest ally or enemy

It’s hard because we’re all people. I came to realise that we’re all people the first time I was passed up for a promotion, even though I believed that I had done the most stellar work imaginable. The work wasn’t the problem. The problem was that people didn’t know that I had done it.

I realised it a second time, later in my career, when I was involved in passing someone else up for promotion and I was confronted with him sobbing about the whole experience. Why didn’t I think he was ready? How could I not know that he’d done xy, or z thing?

If you’ve been around the block a few times, you probably have stories like those. If you’re just starting your career, you’ll have one soon enough.

It all boils down to what people know about us, and how they perceive us. The unfortunate truth is that, even in companies that fly the meritocracy flag, your career hinges on a distinctly human element. It hinges on what people think of you.

It’s high school all over again.

Techniques for managing your career and how you’re perceived

People are quick to tell you that your career is your own to manage, but they’re slow to tell you what successful people do to manage how they’re perceived. It’s the great secret.

Here are the things that I’ve seen the most successful people I’ve ever worked with do to manage this, either in terms of their careers or their relationships with clients. I use all of the techniques I’m sharing, and can vouch for two things.. (1) if you have focus and put in the effort, they’ll work for you, and (2) putting in the effort means an investment in your time, and having the patience to see it through. There are no quick wins.

Ask yourself, what are you striving for?

Defining a career goal is a surprisingly difficult thing to do. It should be realistic, attainable, and well defined enough that you can work towards it. Sounds straightforward but, if you’re anything like me, the question “where do you see yourself in two years?” makes you clam up.

I use this model to define my goals, because it forces me to be specific about where I’m heading. It makes me think about how realistic it is by timeboxing it, and it encourages me to make sure that the payoff of the goal is what I really want/is worth it.

I want to.. [my goal]

Within the next.. [my timeframe]

Because.. [my reason/the payoff]

Writing out my goal(s) in this way takes the sting out of the “where do you see yourself in two years?” question. With a little (a lot of?) thought, I know exactly where I see myself, which is an amazingly empowering thing to know.

For example:

I want to be promoted to Junior Project Manager

Within the next two years

Because I want the extra cash to save for a deposit on a house

Now, this isn’t a plan, but it is an attainable goal. This is the star that you’re reaching for, and the reason you’re doing it. That last part is so, so, important because when times are tough it helps to be clear on why you’re there.

Stop for a second. If you don’t know how you’d fill this model in, give it a go. Do this before you do anything else. You may surprise yourself.

Plan your achievements

Once you have a goal that you’re settled on, planning how you get there is surprisingly easy. Every time I’ve done this, the path has opened up before me. Ask yourself these kinds of question, and note down everything you come up with:

  • What do I need to learn?
  • What do I need to do or deliver?
  • What skills do I need to demonstrate?
  • What requirements do I need to meet?
  • Can I achieve these things where I am?

After spending time answering those, you should have a bunch of ‘must do’ items. Now, you just need to put them in order, decide when they should all happen, and you’re set. I usually do this using post-it notes and an empty wall. You have the first draft of your roadmap to achieving your goal.

A word to the wise.. asking yourself whether you can achieve your goals where you are working at the moment can be a can of worms. Don’t be emotive. Be objective and factual.

If you answer no, then spend time really digging into the reasons why you think that. If you can’t achieve your goals where you are, you have some big decisions to make. Only once in my career have I answered no to that question, and the outcome was a very significant life change. It also extended my goal timeframe by a few years, at least.

Plan your comms

Here’s where we deal with the human element of the equation. You have mapped the journey to your goal, but it’s unlikely you’ll be able to get there entirely on your own. You need to bring people on the same journey, and this is how we figure out who those people are.

Relationship mapping is a technique that I first learned as a way to win big deals, and found it applied to my career goals just as well. Read my post, Get your message across every time with relationship mapping, to find out how to build a strong relationship map.

Armed with clear career goals, a roadmap of achievements, and a kick-ass relationship map, we now need to think about how we marry those things together. The people you highlighted in your map need to be aware of the awesome work that you’re doing, right? This is how people’s perceptions of you are managed.

Use the relationship map to decide who you’ll need to communicate with, and prioritise those people who are least likely to align with your goal. The plan will make sure you’re talking to, and writing to, the right people at the right times.

Ask yourself:

  • Who are the people who are least likely to endorse my goal? Which items in my career roadmap align to their interests or biases? How do I start making them aware of these achievements?
  • More generally, how do I plan to make people aware of my work? Directly, passively in meetings, word of mouth, direct email, newsletters? Will the same methods apply to everyone, or should I tailor my comms to each individual’s working style?
  • How frequently should these comms happen?
  • How will I know that these comms have been successful?

Additionally, it always helps to have an advocate fighting your corner. If you have someone in your sphere of influence, and who is also a decision-maker, make them aware of your goal. Get their buy-in for it, as well as their feedback. They will fight for you.

Hold yourself accountable

Set aside time every month to review and update the following:

  • Your broad career goal: Do you still want it? Has it changed?
  • Your roadmap of achievements: Did you achieve what you expected this month? Why/why not? If you didn’t, what do you need to do better next month? Do you need to add or change any of the future items?
  • Your relationship map: For each person, what has changed? If nothing changed this month, why not? If something changed for the worse, why? If something changed for the better, pat yourself on the back!
  • Your comms plan: Did you stick to the plan? What worked and didn’t work? Based on your updated goals and relationship map, is this plan still effective?

I do this on the last Sunday of every month. I lock myself away somewhere private, with some space to scribble on a whiteboard or on sticky notes. Everything I need is to hand; my favourite soft drink, all the stationery you could dream of, my favourite playlist.

Eliminate distractions, make the environment as close as you can to perfect for the way you concentrate and work, and gift yourself a few hours of personal reflection and thought. It feels good.

Wrapping up

If there was a tl;dr summary of all of this I’d say it’s this: make time to truly understand your goals, who influences their success, and set aside time to manage as many of those threads as you can. Be purposeful.

There’s a lot to digest in this post. Take some time to think about it, maybe read it again and try to take it apart. Ask questions in the comments, or feel free to get in touch.

I genuinely hope these thoughts are useful to you. Good luck in your goals!