Shaping Your Career: Tools for Making the Most of Your Job

Andrew L. Sandler
Sep 14, 2016 · 8 min read

The work that you show up to do every day can be more than just a job — it can be part of a plan you’ve made for your career. But connecting your job to your career isn’t always completely straightforward. In addition to defining your path and finding your passion, you have to figure out what to do, when to do it, and how to do it well…every single day.

There are a million different systems you can adopt with the hope that they keep you doing the right things. The list of time management strategies, project analysis schemes, and goal setting systems (OKRs, SMART goals, quotas, etc.) goes on forever. The paradox of choice can make staying on track even more difficult, because you now have to pick the right system and then apply it to your life.

I won’t pretend to have the perfect answer, but here are a set of tools that I’ve used with people on my teams to help them develop a deeper understanding of what each of them could and should be doing in support of becoming more engaged and effective professionals.

The Circle — Career Growth: Skills and Influence

By viewing your career as a set of nested impacts and influences, you can create thoughtful development goals that expand as you gain experience.

  1. As a newly minted designer, your focus should be on developing your fundamental skill set — usually in conjunction with your first project assignments. The goal is to build out your design and problem-solving toolkit while refining the things you already know. In larger companies, you’ll probably have a senior lead or a mentor to show you the ropes and a team of other designers to help you refine your craft. If you are fortunate enough to work in a smaller organization, you might want to consider joining community activities like Creative Mornings or local chapters of design organizations (AIGA, UXPA, IAI, SIGCHI) to gain exposure to other professionals in similar situations.
Getting started: It’s all about core skills

2. As you gain experience, you should keep investing in your core skills, with your focus on a blend of deeper subject expertise complemented by a view towards bigger picture efforts. The bulk of your day will be spent on projects, but often at a more integrative, whole-system level. You’ll be working on individual features while mapping out an ecosystem of how they fit together to build great products and suites of tools.

3. From a development perspective, I work with my team to look for ways that each person can contribute in making us all better, faster, or smarter. We call these efforts Give Back projects, and they can take many different forms. Some of my team members are creating internal training, delivering new prototyping tool evaluations and recommendations, or are suggesting processes improvement for design and delivery. Others own our internal consistency initiatives — serving as the librarian for our style-guide or coordinating our internal design reviews. We also have a couple of people partnering with Research and Product on early-stage generative investigations with an eye to clearly articulating the problems our customers are facing.

Mid-Career: Demonstrating excellence while moving the team forward

4, 5. Once you reach a very senior level within your role, your focus is very broad, with an emphasis on outward influence and communication. This might involve high-level company design strategy, industry conferences or speaking engagements, or publishing. As an example, we have a Senior Manager on the team that’s coordinating our design “brand” touchpoints — spanning our presence on Medium, Dribbble, Vimeo, our own Groupon Design Union site, and our (soon-to-be-resurrected) Twitter account.

Expert: Spreading the word, changing the world

Key lesson: Start with you — your skills and abilities. And then expand your impact and influence over time.

The Rectangle —Individual Goals: Allocating Your Effort

The rectangle is how we split up our time and focus. While the actual allocations are very dependent on level and role, the general construct remains true for everyone on our team. Goals are set around three themes;

  • Project work (~60% of effort): Tied to Product OKRs
  • Give-back work (10–30% of effort): Tied to Design Team OKRs
  • Personal development efforts (10–30% of effort): Aligned to our monthly “what do you want to be when you grow up?” conversations

I like this construct because it does three key things.

  1. It forces you to think about allocating your time beyond the day-to-day minutiae of your projects.
  2. It aligns you and your manager to a longer term plan for your career growth and success.
  3. It gives you permission (and accountability) to invest the time and effort to see your non-project-specific efforts through. Specifically the skill building tasks that so often get pushed aside when deadlines loom.

Key lesson: By setting goals and aligning with your boss, you can more easily make time to invest in your team and yourself. Take the long view on your career — some time periods provide more flexibility than others. Be aware of the “all project work, all the time” trap.

The Square — Prioritization: The Eisenhower Matrix

We are always bombarded by things that are screaming out for our immediate attention. In the heat of the moment it can be hard to discern how impactful those efforts are going to be. The matrix has helped me reason through whether something is important (a value that doesn’t change from the time it’s requested until it’s delivered) or urgent (the intensity of the need goes up until a certain point, then drops off), or both.

How it maps out:

  • 1s get done immediately and personally
  • 2s get a due date and are done personally
  • 3s get delegated (if possible) or are fit in as time permits
  • 4s get dropped

Often somebody else has a personal 1 or 2 that they want you to work on — accompanied by the social pressure that goes along with the request. Just because it’s urgent for them doesn’t automatically make it so for you. The best advice I can give here is to be upfront with them about how YOU are prioritizing the request and if or when they can expect a response. If you’re in the beginning of your career — inner Circle focused — then you should definitely leverage your leadership to help you set priorities and deflect work that isn’t in your sphere of impact.

Key lesson: Be clear on the difference between urgent and important. Work on things that matter. Be honest with your partners if you can’t spend time on their requests. Use your leadership to help prioritize and deflect.

The Triangle — Gaining Alignment

Based on work with Frank Siccone

There’s always that one project. You and the key stakeholder can’t seem to agree on anything. “Can you move it 20 pixels to the right? Maybe make it yellow? How can we make it Pop?” It’s the kind of project that makes you pull your hair and grind your teeth.

I’d like to offer you a path out of the madness. One that works more often than you’d predict.

When you find yourself in conflict over “how” something looks or how it gets done it’s usually disagreements on the tactics of a project. Tactics are the day-to-day decisions that we make as designers, as well as the processes we follow: Color A vs. color B? Which icon or image is better suited to a specific location on a particular page? Use the standard design pattern, a special-case solution, or an evil anti-pattern? All can be sources of contention.

Hierarchy of purpose — Great for deconflicting projects

Resolving these types of disagreements comes when you and the other person can gain alignment on a shared viewpoint. When arguing over the tactics of a project, the best thing to do is to see if you both possess the same understanding of the objectives. The objectives (the “what”) are the core solution to a specific problem statement or need. If you believe a product is supposed to streamline Registration and your colleague believes it needs to be yellow and mobile first — then there’s a reason why you can’t agree on the execution. Once you both have the same goals in mind, conversations around “how” become much more straightforward.

If you can’t come to consensus on the project goals, then you jump up a level and talk about the mission — the “why” for doing the project. While mission statements can be overrated, engaging the team in an honest conversation about the need for the work pays a multitude of dividends. Once you reached a common understanding and a shared purpose, you can then flow the goals and the tactics out more easily.

And lastly if you can’t agree on the mission, then you need to take it all the way back to the company vision and the reason for your (corporate) existence.

Key lesson: If you’re in conflict over a project’s execution (how), work up the pyramid (to what and then to why) until you find a place of alignment. Use that shared understanding to cascade back down to the tactics that will work for everyone.

The arc of a career can span decades. And work is a huge part of our daily lives. These shapes — and the constructs they represent — provide a concise shorthand to allow you and your team — or your manager — to have deeper and more meaningful conversations about your jobs and your projects. The ultimate goal is to tie them to the broader sweep of “What do I want to be when I grow up?”.

Andrew Sandler is the Director of Product Design for the Groupon Merchant experience. He is taking a break from endurance running to rediscover the joys of camping with small children. Depending on the how the next camping trip goes, he may decide that marathons are less painful to endure.

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Learn more about us at Groupon Design Union.

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