Start 2019 Off Right With a Career Check-in

In my previous life, I was a management consultant. As a consultant, my job was to provide knowledge and expertise to clients on how to solve a problem or challenge and usually involved giving them a set of recommendations on how to proceed. In my experience, even when we were really familiar with the client or problem, the recommendation on what to do did not magically drop into our brains one day in a flash of insight.

Instead, it’s something we would discover, through a rapid but thoughtful process of gathering insight, testing, getting feedback, and then coming up with a recommendation on how to best proceed.

 

This notion is similar when it comes to making career decisions. As a Career Coach, a common question I get when working with my clients on building their careers is “How do you balance doing your everyday work with thinking about the next career move, or, how do you know when to look (or not look) for a new job?”

These are important and thoughtful concerns — we are not certainly defined by our jobs but they make up a significant portion of how we spend our time each week. And like anything important, putting in time to think and reflect before making a decision is a good thing to do. Over the years, to help me answer these questions I’ve built a series of questions to help me answer some of these questions and figure out how I am feeling about work, which helps inform if I need to make changes.

With that, I like to think of my career as 2-year sprints. During that sprint, I do a major check-in once every six months.  Given that it’s still early in 2019, now is a great time to reflect on where you’ve been, and to start thinking of where you want to go, which is a great time to conduct a quick check-in.  I ask myself the following questions:

  • Am I learning everyday? — I am at my best when I’m most engaged/immersed in my work, and that happens when I’m challenged or when I have to learn something in order to do my job. It’s important for me to make sure that I’m still learning and being challenge.
  • Do I like and respect the people that I am working for and with? — I get my energy by working on high-performing teams, and I do my best work in a supportive and collaborative environment. Furthermore, I value and respect people who treat others with respect. This environment ensures I can do my best work. For this question, it’s about making sure I still enjoy and like working with the people I am working with.

 

  • Am I committed 100% to doing my best work? — I do my best work and exceed my expectations when I’m fully committed to what I’m doing. I don’t meet my expectations when I’m sort of committed or ambivalent. For this question, it’s about making sure that I’m fully vested into what I’m doing.

 

  • What have I improved, or strengthened since my last check-in? — As someone who believes in the growth mindset, I believe it’s important to continue growing both strengths and weaknesses. If I can accurately pinpoint skills I’ve developed or development areas that I’ve improved since my last check in, I know that I’m probably happy where I am.

 

  • Is there something else that’s taking a significant portion of my mindshare or attention? — I think about the things that are on my mind, and pay attention to my thoughts. Can I identify a specific problem, challenge, or topic that I’m constantly thinking about? If my time is spend on what is currently in front of me, I know I’m probably progressing down the right path. But if it’s on something else, I’ll need to revisit what that is, and understand why I’m focusing on it so much.

For me, it’s about doing a check-in every once in awhile to take stock of what I am doing, how I am doing, and to get a sense of if I need to make changes. Changes can mean anything from adding additional things in my personal life to help with my well-being, to reaching out to mentors for advice, picking up a side project, or in some cases,  starting the process of finding a new job. The focus for me is getting clarity on what’s currently going on, and figuring out the best way to keep going. In some cases, nothing needs to be done, but in others, changes are needed.

As I’ve conducted these check-ins numerous times over my career, I’ve learned a few things along the way:

There are always ups and downs — That’s okay, and it’s part of life and your career. Work is just that — Work! Which mens, there are ups and downs and stressful weeks. This happens and is part of life

You need to give it time — In my experience both as a professional and career coach, I’ve come to believe you need at least 6–8 months to get a first set of hypotheses/feedback on a job. If you stay for anything less, you might not get the full cycle (save for a few exceptions)

Considering The Future is a good thing — It can be easy to put your blinders on and execute on the tasks in front of you, so thinking about what’s next is a good thing to do. However, it’s important to stay focused on the task at hand. Try to time box your future planning, or, save it for times when you have more energy/time to devote to other things

If I can answer yes with supporting evidence for all those questions, that’s usually a green light to keep going. If there is a no, or a lack of supporting evidence to any of those questions it means I need to do some additional probing to understand the root cause.

In some cases, there are factors that cause me to answer no that I recognize and appreciate but am OK with moving forward on. In other cases, I need to either A) dig further, B) create an action plan for how I am going to work through it or C) it’s time for me to put the wheels in motion for moving on to my next opportunity

It’s not a binary decision of Yes/No, but it’s a simple framework for how I like to evaluate my job in the arc of my career. The main takeaway here is not the questions or the check-ins but the ability to dig deeper into understanding what’s causing my feelings and to do something about it, whether that means keeping up the great work or starting to search for something new.

I encourage everyone to come up with their own framework and series of questions that they can reflect on every few months. I think you’ll find it will help you figure out what’s going on, what the root of it is, and what actions you can take to make the right next move.

 

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Career Growth comes down to these two things

When I was deciding on a career as a college senior, I took the advice of those around me and chose to optimize for learning — That is, to select a job with a steep learning curve. The hypothesis was that if you find a job that by taking on a difficult job, you’ll learn how to handle challenging assignments and build a greater range of skills which which will propel you forward in your career.

While I still think this is great advice, I want to update that to include a new element: speed, and specifically, speed of feedback and teaching.

Sarah Tavel talks about this in her post about fast learning cycles. The idea here is you want a job that can teach and provide you feedback so you can execute, learn, fail, and scale faster. Her example:

“At a fast growing startup, your learning cycle is incredibly fast. For example, at Pinterest, particularly early on, if I had a hypothesis I wanted to test, I could ship an experiment fast, and because we already had an incredibly engaged user base, learn from the results within a week or two. Basically, my learning cycle was as fast as you could ask for, which meant I was able to cram an incredible amount of learning into a very short period of time.

On the other hand, I’d often interview product manager candidates who worked at big companies like Microsoft. I’d always be amazed at how little product management they actually got to do over their many years of experience. It’d take them years (literally!) to ship a feature, despite many promotions along the way.”

In many ways, the concept of slope and speed is similar to agile methodology, where instead of building everything all at once, you build and launch a much smaller set of features and functionality in a much shorter period of time. Once it’s launched, you obtain feedback, find what works and what doesn’t, and use that to build your next iteration.

As it turns out, it’s not just about finding a steep learning curve, but also an environment that allows you to get feedback and iterate quickly. It’s not just about a brand name company, or getting to work on a lot of projects, but having a continuous cycle of learning, testing, getting real-time feedback and iterating.