How to think about your career

I often get asked for advice from colleagues about career planning. So here are a few frameworks that have been helpful for me, and that I often discuss with others as they think through their careers.

There are three career models I want to share with you: (1) career growth is not linear; (2) competitive advantage; and (3) triangle of motivation.

Career growth is not linear

If you draw a graph of career growth over time, most people believe that their career will grow linearly. In other words, they think that their career should look like this.

Career growth on the y-axis can be measured by title, comp, responsibility, management, etc. With every successive time period (T1, T2, etc.), they expect that their career (title, comp, responsibility) will also grow linearly. Examples of this would include statements like, “I expect to get promoted every year.” Or, the converse of this, “I’ve been here for 2 years, and I haven’t been promoted.”

The reality is that most people’s career growth looks like this.

Throughout an individual’s career, there are periods of slower, incremental growth. And there are periods of fast, high velocity growth. These fast growth periods are marked within the red rectangles above. What causes those periods of fast, high velocity growth? Typically, they are caused when you take on new and bigger responsibilities. Often, they come with promotions, organization changes, or joining a new team or company. If you agree with this model, there are a few important things to keep in mind:

  • You should look at your career over a longer time scale. Have realistic expectations about how quickly your career will grow. Recognize that it’s ok to be in a period of slower, incremental career growth. There will be periods of faster growth as well.
  • You can’t completely control how often or how frequently you will experience fast-growth periods. They involve quite a bit of luck. You can’t control when an org change will happen, or even when you will get promoted. You may control if you leave your job to join another company, but you can’t fully control your trajectory within the new company or the growth potential of that new company itself. The only thing that you can completely control is the quality of your own work.
  • You can use the slower growth periods to prepare for the fast growth periods. Whenever you experience a period of fast growth, you will have to adapt to the new skill sets and behaviors required for your new role / responsibility. If you experience the period of fast growth and significant new responsibility before you’re ready, you may be “over your skis” — you may not have the requisite domain knowledge, leadership skills, etc. to be successful with that new responsibility. So use your periods of slower growth to build the skills necessary to be ready for the next period of fast growth. Think of the slow periods as the practice you’re doing to get ready for the “big meet” — the fast growth period.

(H/T to Wade Chambers for first introducing me to this model.)

Competitive advantage

A few years ago, I read a great book by Reid Hoffman called The Startup of You. Here is a great visual summary of the book.

One of the key take-aways that I had from this book was around the concept of “competitive advantage” in your career. In the “labor market” for professionals like you, it is important to develop your competitive advantage in the eyes of your “customer” — ultimately, your employer.

As Reid writes in his book:

“You are selling your brainpower, your skills, your energy. And you are doing so in the face of massive competition. Possible employers, partners, investors, and other people with power choose between you and someone who looks like you.”

As you think about your career, Reid notes that you should be able to answer the question, “Why should we hire you?”

“‘A company hires me over other professionals because…’ How are you first, only, faster, better, or cheaper than other people who want to do what you’re doing in the world? What are you offering that’s hard to come by? What are you offering that’s both rare and valuable?”

So how do you develop your competitive advantage?

© startupofyou.com, Sacha Chua

As shown in the diagram above:

“Your competitive advantage is formed by the interplay of three different, ever-changing forces: your assets, your aspirations/values, and the market realities, i.e. the supply and demand for what you offer the marketplace relative to the competition.”

Your assets are what you have right now: your education, your work experience, your analytical and problem-solving skills, your interpersonal and leadership skills, your network, your reputation and personal brand.

Your aspirations include your goals, interests, passions, and vision. This is all about what’s important to you, and what motivates you. (More on motivation later). As Reid points out:

“When you’re doing work you care about, you are able to work harder and better. The person passionate about what he or she is doing will outwork and outlast the guy motivated solely by making money.”

Market realities include the demand for your talent and services relative to the competition in the labor market. Reid explains:

“It consists of the people who make decisions that affect you and whose needs you must serve: your boss, your coworkers, your clients, your direct reports, and others. How badly do they need what you have to offer, and if they need it, do you offer value that’s better than the competition?”

This is an important point. How well do your assets and passions match with the market realities? It’s incredibly important that you channel your assets and skills, your passion and energy, into those areas that the market needs most. The “market” in this case is your boss, your employer, your coworkers, your team, etc.

“It doesn’t matter how hard you’ve worked or how passionate you are about an aspiration: If someone won’t pay you for your services in the career marketplace, it’s going to be a very hard slog. You aren’t entitled to anything… Just because you’re good at something (assets) that you’re really passionate about (aspirations) doesn’t necessarily mean someone will pay you to do it (market realities).”

So always look for the areas of highest need and highest impact in your business. Develop unique, differentiated assets (skills, experience, etc.) to serve those market realities. Channel your energy and passion into the areas of highest need for your employer to create a competitive advantage.

Triangle of motivation

As Reid mentions above: “When you’re doing work you care about, you are able to work harder and better.” So what motivates us?

I’ve written before about motivation factors and hygiene factors in our work. Motivation factors help you feel satisfied with your work, and they include impact (achievement, responsibility, fulfilling work) as well as learning and growth.

I have extended the concept of motivation factors to create my personal model for career motivation:

There are three points for the Triangle of Motivation.

  • Impact
  • People
  • Learning

Impact

The first point in the Triangle of Motivation is impact. What motivates me is knowing that my work is having impact — at the organization, team, and personal level.

  • Organization: The organization’s impact is its mission and purpose. Ask yourself these questions: what value is my organization creating for society, and for the world? What impact does my organization have for our customers?
  • Team: The team’s impact is how it supports the organization’s purpose. Ask yourself: How does our team fit in to the organization’s goals, what impact do we have on those goals?
  • Personal: Your personal impact consists of your scope of responsibility, your organizational influence, your autonomy and ability to make decisions, and your resources (human, financial, technological). Ask yourself: am I personally creating meaningful impact with my actions, decisions, and influence? How is my personal impact supporting my team and my organization’s impact and purpose?

Too often, people only think about their personal impact. You can find even more motivation if you align your personal impact with that of the team and the organization.

Managers: be sure to clarify and reinforce how individuals on your team are having personal impact, and how that impact connects to the team and to the organization. We often assume that people on our team already know this. Don’t assume — over-invest in clarifying the company’s purpose, the team’s charter, and how an individual’s impact aligns with both. This enables them to feel like their work is meaningful and fulfilling a greater purpose. Help to remove obstacles for people on your team, in order for them to feel a sense of achievement and impact.

People

The second point in the Triangle of Motivation is people. The people with whom you work can provide a strong source of motivation. For me, this means working with a diverse set of people whom I trust, with whom I share common values, with whom I can have fun.

Trust is the foundation. Trust includes the obvious things, like openness and honesty in communication, sharing credit and information freely, and behaving with integrity and consistency. Trust also includes building the psychological safety for colleagues to take risks, speak up, and question the status quo. But trust also means having an intuitive understanding of your team members’ strengths, behaviors, and responses in certain situations. Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson has said, “Great teams consist of individuals who have learned to trust each other. Over time, they have discovered each other’s strengths and weaknesses, enabling them to play as a coordinated whole.” [1]

You want to work with people with whom you share the same values. These could include things like developing strong customer empathy; valuing diverse perspectives; moving quickly with urgency and purpose; transparency of information and intent; having a growth mindset; etc. The organization’s values determine how individuals on the team will make decisions on their own.

Finally, you want to work with people with whom you can have fun. This includes work-related social activities, like happy hours, offsites, etc. But it also means the little things, like where you talk about each other’s families, hobbies, and interests in 1:1s or even in group meetings. Or goofy traditions like having new people demonstrate a talent to the team. It’s even taking the time to bring humor into meetings and situations. Life is too short to take yourself seriously all the time. Make sure there’s a healthy dose of fun at work.

So ask yourself: are you working with people whom you trust? What can you do to increase the level of trust between you and others on the team? Do you share a common set of values with your colleagues and your leadership? Do you have fun with your colleagues? Make the answer to these questions “yes,” and people will be a source of motivation for you.

Managers: build a strong people foundation with your team. Develop a lattice of trust at all levels of the organization by creating psychological safety, and by creating stable long-term teams. Encourage teams to discuss the organization’s values, and celebrate examples of individuals acting according to the values. And spend your own time making the workplace more fun.

Learning

The third point in the Triangle of Motivation is learning. Personal growth and learning are powerful motivation factors. For me, learning comes down to a model I learned at McKinsey back in the day: IQ, EQ, and CQ.

  • IQ: I’m not talking about raw intelligence. In this context, I’m talking about analytical skills, problem-solving skills, critical thinking, first-principles thinking. These skills are like muscles — you need to exercise them continually, otherwise you can become lazy in your thinking. Are you improving your analytical and problem-solving skills, and therefore learning from your work?
  • EQ: This is emotional intelligence — interpersonal, leadership, and influence skills. EQ is an area of continued learning, throughout your career. How are you improving your ability to collaborate with, communicate with, and lead others?
  • CQ: This is “content expertise,” and often the first thing people think of when they reflect on what they are learning at work. This includes functional skills — being a better engineer, PM, finance analyst, marketing manager, salesperson, lawyer, etc. — as well as domain expertise. How are you improving your functional skills — your ability to be better at X, where X is your job function? And what are you learning about your domain — technical know-how, customer needs, market trends, etc.?

I often hear from people, “I’m not learning as much any more in my current role.” They often refer to CQ (content expertise), and usually domain expertise, when they say that. I always encourage them to think holistically about all three aspects of learning — IQ, EQ, and CQ — and push themselves to be honest about whether their learning has really slowed. And if it has, in many cases, the individual can do more themselves to push themselves to learn.

You have more control on your own learning curve than you realize. Read books and apply the learnings to your workplace. Observe and emulate behaviors from others. Do retrospectives and reflect on lessons learned, either on your own or with others. Learn through discourse — with mentors, colleagues, or direct reports.

All three concepts in the Triangle of Motivation (impact, people, learning) mutually reinforce each other.

  • If you work with great people, you can learn from them and also have great impact.
  • In order to have impact, you need to continually learn, and you need to team up with great people.
  • Having great impact will attract other people to your team, and will also enable you to learn by tackling difficult challenges.

During those tough times — when the work is extremely challenging, when the risks seem daunting, when the setback seems insurmountable — you will need to draw upon your inner motivation to push through and persist.

Use the Triangle of Motivation to reflect on where you currently are, as well as new career opportunities that may come your way. You may underestimate how good your current role is, unless you think holistically about impact, people, and learning. You can take control over your job satisfaction with your current role if you intentionally improve those areas of impact, people, and learning that you can directly influence. You should also ask the hard questions about new opportunities to understand the answers to questions like:

  • What is the organization’s purpose? Do I feel inspired by the purpose? How is my work connected to the team’s and organization’s impact?
  • What level of trust already exists between people in this organization? Do I share the same values with this new company and team? Can I see myself having fun with them?
  • How am I going to learn in this new role, from an IQ/EQ/CQ perspective? Will I be working with people and mentors from whom I can learn in each of these areas?

I started this post by saying that I wanted to offer three frameworks for career planning. Whenever someone wants to discuss career advice with me, I often share with them three frameworks that I have found useful in my own career:

  • Career growth is not linear. Your career trajectory will alternate between fast-growth and slower-growth periods. That’s perfectly fine. Take a long-term view, and use the slower-growth period to prepare for fast-growth.
  • Competitive advantage. In the market for your brainpower, skills, and energy — you face massive competition. Find the intersection of your assets, your aspirations, and the market realities. Develop unique, differentiated skills to serve those market realities.
  • Triangle of motivation. Whether reflecting on your current role or considering a career move, think holistically about impact, people, and learning. Find motivation by aligning your personal impact with the team and organization. Ask yourself if you’re working with people whom you trust, share common values with, and have fun with. And push yourself to learn using the IQ, EQ, and CQ model. The more motivated you are in your job, the better and harder you will work, and the greater success you will achieve.

If you enjoyed this post, please click the “heart” icon to recommend, so that others can see it. Also, please check out my other posts in “Leadership, Motivation, and Impact.”

[1] As quoted in Team of Teams, by General Stanley McChrystal.