Whose job is it to manage your career?

I have had the good fortune to work with many talented people through the course of my career — men and women who take pride in their work, and are extremely good at what they do.  I have seen some of these people achieve significant success and upward movement through their organizations, while others haven’t been as happy or as successful.  What’s the difference?

It used to be that people in my parents’ generation spent their entire career with one company — and that company defined what your career would look like.  The personnel system would specify how long you had to stay at a given level before you could get promoted, and which jobs you were allowed to apply for;  once you were on a given track, there was nothing to decide — you just followed the rules and you were “successful”.  For those of us in the military, the story was much the same.

Today the situation is much different.  If you let “the company” determine your career path, you will find yourself on the slow road to nowhere.  In order to succeed in today’s job market you have to take hold of your own career and make sure it is going in a direction that will take you where you want to go.  Nobody else can do this for you, but you can’t do it alone, either.  Here’s a simple checklist to follow in determining your career path:

  1. Know where you want to go — Look 5-10 years down the road and think about what kind of job you might want to be doing.  Looking further out isn’t as practical simply because you may not have enough perspective to understand a longer term objective.
  2. Get some good advice — find a mentor (more than one, if you can) in your desired career field to help you understand the career landscape you will be navigating.  This could be your current manager if you are already in your desired career field, but tread carefully in case they could perceive your questions as a threat to their own job.
  3. Keep your eyes open — once you have decided what your next couple career steps need to be, keep a lookout for openings you can fill.  This doesn’t always mean active job hunting — it could be an occasional hit on the job boards to see what’s available.
  4. Excel at what you’re doing now — this is the best self-marketing you can do.  Seek out opportunities for you to broaden your experience, to gain new skills, and to show your manager that you are willing to stretch yourself.  As a minimum, you’ll get great resume fodder … but it could also get you an offer for your next job.
  5. Don’t hesitate to make the change — when the opportunity presents itself, you need to have the courage to grab it and hold on tight.  A job change is one of the most significant life events we go through; but if this is the right job to keep you on your career plan, you just have to do it!  Frequent job changes can be viewed as a negative on your resume, so try to stay put for at least a year or two in each position — it also will make your managers along the way less grumpy and more willing to help you.

Run this checklist every so often — definitely every time you change jobs, but more frequently won’t hurt either since new directions could open up as the economy or technology changes your landscape.

As a manager, it is difficult to have high-caliber people working for me.  They come in, make a huge splash, and leave a huge hole when they move on.  Is it worth it?  Absolutely!

My job as a manager is to enable my people to be successful — and it is the ultimate indicator of my success when my people are recognized for their abilities and move on to bigger and better jobs.  It’s not my job to manage their careers, it’s theirs — but I will do as much as I can do to help them.

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