Take the Lead

Sumit Kumar
May 14, 2018 · 5 min read

A recent mind-shift changed how I approach my career goals. From a passive hope for opportunities to an active pursue towards my own goals.

Underpromise, Overdeliver

In the ~12 years of my professional life in building stuff for the web I lived by a mantra that I wasn’t even aware of: underpromise, overdeliver. I shied away from ever overpromising my skills or expertise and honestly I even downplayed my abilities in most interviews.
When someone pointed out my strengths, I often quickly pointed to the weaknesses or clarified that I still have a lot to learn in a specific field. Because I couldn’t stand the thought of going into a project and underdeliver on peoples expectations of me.

Consider it a combination of a minor impostor syndrom and an effort to stay humble.

When working though, I strived to blow my bosses minds in overdelivering in all metrics. Time, quality, feature-set, code-quality, attention to detail and keeping the big picture and business goals in mind. Solving problems nobody asked me to solve but were clearly benefiting the team.

This worked well. I trusted my managers and colleagues to notice my work without me having to sell it. Promotions were easy, I never needed to negotiate nor did I ever got a bad performance review in any team or company.

My Eye-Opener

I currently work at a company that’s part of a huge organization. I’ve never been part of a 250k+ employee strong enterprise before and I had no idea how a career paths work there. Up until then all my work was based in companies with 30 employees or less. After my first year and dozens of talks about this to other developers (outside and within the company) I noticed that basically everyone thought like me.

Do the best work possible and a promotion or opportunity will be handed to you because people can’t help but notice that your work here is very valuable. Wrong.

In my first performance review I again got a blazing feedback. I overdelivered on my target achievements over 200%, everyone was happy. But what about possible promotions? Leadership positions? Salary increase? Any kind of reward? Nope.

What happened?

Don’t go to work feeling undervalued and dissatisfied. Go motivated to change the situation that bothers you.

I said to myself that I won’t go to work unhappy, feeling undervalued and lose motivation. Because this won’t help anyone. People will notice. Notice my mood, notice I don’t work 100% anymore. And nobody wants to invest in someone who is not motivated, feeling negative about the team/company/mission. More importantly, I don’t want to complain and wait until someone fixes it. I’m a developer. I debug the problem, come up with a solution and then implement it. I will do this here too.
I’d also not let this happen without knowing the motivation of the people that decide about my career (my boss, his boss and HR). So I went to research and read a few books about self improvement & careers to understand what happened in my previous professional life and the thinking of people in charge.

Then, I went to HR and did what I never did before: I told them in which direction I want to develop myself (Leadership) and what I can do (starting immediately) to get there. That conversation opened my eyes.

They told me that people won’t just hand stuff to you. Maybe a person overseeing a team of 300 people will hear of someone outstanding but there is no way they just put people in a leadership position without knowing and seeing that this person wants it and tries to qualify for it.
If I would be the manager, I would want to promote the talented and motivated people that can’t wait to get started and show me they are qualified for it. I finally understood that nobody will give me the lead — i have to take it.

A leadership position is my specific example but this counts for all kinds of next steps. Be it Senior Developer, Principal Product Owner, whatever. You not only have to show your competence but more importantly show that you are willing and motivated to take on more responsibility. Preferably by just doing it. Mentor young employees, moderate discussions. Be decisive and positive. Motivate others and take responsibility.

Don’t: “urgh I don’t know, I don’t think this works, especially not in that timeframe”
Do: “It will be hard but we will find a solution, let’s do it 💪”

Just Do It

I asked HR how they would see it if I start to communicate my high ambitions to them and taking action to achieve it. Like a greedy person who thinks he can do everything? That was my fear all the time. But no, turns out they see it as a motivated learner willing to take responsibility and develop his skills.
I loved that.

The next week I finally got in my head that I am the one that needs to actively work on my future career opportunities.

Not only did I start to participate in leadership programs and qualification workshops but I even went so far in creating a new job position that tries to solve problems that I felt we had but nobody took care of. I presented this new position to someone further up in the hierarchy and basically applied for it in the same conversation. It worked 🙌.

My learning from all of this was that staying humble is fine as long as you don’t go so far as to hide your skills/expertise or even feeling ashamed when someone congratulates you on your recent achievements in front of a group.

If you’re awesome (and you probably are) accept compliments as well as accepting responsibility if something went wrong.

Most importantly, don’t wait until someone hands you the opportunity of your lifetime. Think about what you want, set specific goals and then work towards them.

So go, and just do it.

All the best,

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