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Career Development: Tips for Growing Your Career a Bit Every Day
Progress is not about milestones but rather small steps
Too often, we measure our career success by the next promotion, the next raise, or the next opportunity. These events are few and far between, and if we mark our progress based solely on these milestones, we only see progress over the course of years. But career development is actually something you can invest a bit in every day, through small but important actions.
Know where you stand
Most people have no idea where they stand in their careers at any given moment. Start by taking stock of where you are today. Figure out whether you are on the couch thinking about making the journey, or at base camp, about to make the climb. Otherwise, you will not take the right steps to prepare for what comes next.
Talk to your manager about your career path. Make your aspirations clear. For example, “I would like to achieve <goal, such as the next level, becoming a manager, or taking on a new role>. What do you think the gap is between where I am now and where I want to be?” Most people listen for how long this will take, but the important part to understand is the critical skills gap that you need to work on.
Ask your peers and trusted friends in the industry for feedback. Recently, I had a former colleague worry that he was not getting callbacks for the roles he wanted. He asked me directly, “If you were hiring a CPO for Ancestry, would you consider someone with my background?” His background could be read in one of two ways: deep domain expertise in his sector, or strong general manager for a traditional brand. But many of the hot pre-IPO companies he was looking at were searching for innovators or product visionaries to fill their CPO role. Knowing where he stands will help him decide if his next step should be to take another role to round out his experience or shoot for a CPO role now.
Look carefully at what opportunities people are reaching out to you for. This is an important external signal of how you are perceived outside of your company. If you are being offered roles that are below your level, think about how you are presenting yourself in your industry, whether through LinkedIn or other channels. For years, I was pinged about VP of Product roles. Then I started hearing from companies about CPO or GM roles. Within the past year, people started reaching out for CEO roles. Perceptions change as the environment changes, and your personal voice and brand also evolve.
Know who surrounds you
I didn’t consider becoming a CEO of a company until recently. What changed my mind was something surprising. Most alumni of Facebook go into venture investing, join another large tech company, found their own successful company, or become executives at promising startups. Few leave to run established companies. On the other hand, Intuit, where I serve on the board, has a strong pipeline of senior leaders going to lead other companies. More than half the board is former or current CEOs. When I was in the process of exploring the role of CEO for Ancestry, I reached out to many of them for advice. Without exposure outside of my company, I likely would not have taken the leap.
Be aware of the subtle influence of the people around you. We unknowingly mimic the attitudes and culture of those around us. For example, I've been a part of the same weekly Bible study for over a decade. In our group, every wife worked full time outside of the home. One day, a friend, who attended a different Bible study, asked me if she should quit her job at a top tech company. I was confused and asked her why she would consider that. She shared that in her group, she was one of the few women who worked. We each based our expectations on the people around us, and until we had that conversion, I didn’t realize it.
Learn from those you want to emulate. If you want to move into a different discipline, such as product management, the best thing you can do is find a community of PMs you can learn from. If you are looking to join a board, you should reach out to someone who is on a board you admire and ask about their path. The kinds of advice and insights you get are often very much a reflection of the people you ask for advice, so think carefully about who will support your dreams.
Build your own board of advisors. When I was deciding on whether to take this new role after eleven years at Facebook, I knew exactly who to ask for advice. I have a small group of people whom I trust to help me evaluate major decisions. Some were former managers, others were mentors, and still others were trusted colleagues and friends. Your board of advisors should be the people you go to for support, advice, and help opening doors. They give you candid, even painfully raw, advice, but also give you the kick in the pants you need to end your indecision.
Know where you are going
If you don’t know where you are going, that is where you will end up. But where is “there”? Aimlessly going from job to job based on casual interests or exogenous factors is not a career. I remember when I first joined Facebook. I felt like I had stayed at PayPal and eBay too long and my growth had stagnated. I promised myself I would not do that again. I didn’t really have any specific destination, so I stayed and stayed as new and interesting opportunities arose within the company to build new teams and products. Looking back, I wish I could say I had set a more definitive plan so I could have evaluated each opportunity against clear criteria.
Start with the destination. Write a pre-mortem for where you want to be two -- and then five -- years from now. Sketch out a few sentences about where you will be and what you will be doing. Will you be at a large company or a small one? Will you be in the same role or a new one? What will your family situation look like? Define success on your own terms.
Evaluate your ability to achieve your goal. Look for examples of people who have been able to carve this path. What skills did they have? What opportunities and risks did they take? Often people start with a destination but don’t look at all the pieces of the puzzle, such as the skills, opportunities, and education needed to achieve it.
Look for more than one way to get there. There isn't one single way to get to where you want to go, and one size doesn't fit all. Seek out multiple paths to get to where you want to end up. For example, if you want to get a job at a specific company, take a different role. I joined Facebook in Product Marketing rather than Product Management and transferred eighteen months later. If you miss an opportunity or get blocked, find another way to achieve your goals.
Know your journey
I decided in elementary school to set a goal of graduating as valedictorian of my high school. I grew up in a town where I was bullied for being Asian, so I needed to get into a good college in order to leave my hometown. In order to get into a good college and to be able to earn a scholarship, I needed to be at the top of my class. It took many steps along the way, but I planned out my classes to maximize my GPA, studied for the SAT for three years, and applied to dozens of scholarships. You can't decide your senior year that you're going to get a scholarship to a good school. The same is true with your career.
Map out how you will get there. Break down the skills you need to get to where you want to go. If you want to transfer to product management, start building skills by joining hackathons or working more closely with product teams. If you are looking to join a board, seek out mentors on boards who can guide you. Have specific things you can do each month to get closer to your goal.
Stretch yourself. The best leaders are not the smartest, but rather the most adaptable and learning-oriented. Take ten minutes a day to get better at something. For me, the thing I wanted to learn to write. I started reading a lot and learning how to improve by practicing in events like NaNoWriMo. When I felt like I wasn’t progressing, I hired a writing coach to get feedback on my work. Invest a small bit of time in learning each day, and slowly and steadily, you will gain a new key skill to take with you in your career.
Invest in things you can take with you anywhere. Your job today is important, but to achieve your goal, think long term. Build skills you can use no matter where you go. I spent years writing and sharing my articles internally at Facebook, but I only rarely published externally. This year, my New Year’s Resolution was to create a Substack and publish more outside of the company. Little did I know, I would take a job outside Facebook within a few months, and those who read my work came along with me for my journey. I only wish I had started sharing publicly sooner.
Careers, unlike classes, are not conducive to cramming. The key is planning and taking small steps each day to build your skills, resume, and community. Look to the future and know where you want to go. This will inform your journey.
I share these lessons because I wish someone had told me five years ago to take these simple steps. While I ended up where I ultimately wanted to be, my journey would have been much easier if I had put more planning and forethought into my destination.