Practical Thoughts on Career Progression

In the past, I’ve written about how I think about my career. In short, I look at three elements—Learn, Improve, and Impact. Provided those three boxes are checked, I’m moving in the right direction.

I’ve been thinking about this more and more over the past several weeks after talking with a colleague. The prevailing view in many companies is that a career progression involves things like changing job titles and work responsibilities.

What do you do if you want to change jobs or move into another area of the company?

As someone actively interested in doing this at the moment, here’s how I think about the problem from start to finish. Keep in mind that when I use “you” throughout this post, I’m talking to myself in many ways.

Considerations before you start

Let’s talk briefly about two ideas to keep in mind before you get started.

There’s no guarantee.

Career progression is a sexy topic to discuss in the lifehacker/self-improvement space. The focus is almost always on the individual—”10 Hacks to Get You That Promotion” or something to that effect.

Rarely do these pieces talk about career progression from a company standpoint. Why should companies want you to progress up into a new position?

Unless you’re working for an evil empire, some answers are obvious (there are a ton more):

  • They want to keep you happy. Hiring is incredibly expensive so they would rather keep the awesome talent they already have.
  • They want to keep your library of knowledge. You understand how the company operates and have access to past historical knowledge that could influence future decisions.
  • The company is invested in its employees. This is a less tangible and more idealistic, but companies that are truly invested want to see their employees succeed.

Those elements are fantastic, but from a company perspective, there’s another aspect to consider.

They want the best people doing the job.

From a purely financial standpoint, this makes sense, but it can be a tough pill to swallow on a personal level. Seth Godin touched on this in is recent post “Do what you’re good at, or…”:

The market is selfish. It doesn’t care a whit about how hard you’re working or how difficult the task is. If someone else is consistently telling a better story (and delivering on it), the market will find them.

If you find yourself starting a sentence with “I’ve worked really hard so…” or “I’ve been with the company X years so…”, stop. Your time and energy inputs are no guarantee of specific results.

You can’t drop the ball in your main area.

This is another aspect that frequently gets ignored. If you’re looking to move into a different area and pick up a new set of skills, there’s going to be a period of time where you’re effectively juggling two jobs. You’ll be maintaining how awesome you are at your core work while also branching out and learning how to kickass and prove yourself in a new area.

Letting your current role slip while you spin up something new isn’t really an option. It’s a juggling act for sure.

It’s going to be hard.

Above, we agreed that any company wants the best people doing the job. It’s going to take a lot of work and time to get to that level. This isn’t a month-long process. It’s six months or longer. Play the long game. Prepare, get your ducks in a row, and build your case over months, not days or weeks.

Identifying gaps

The goal with identifying gaps is exactly what it might sound like—figuring out what you need to learn to excel in the new area. “Learn marketing” isn’t nearly specific enough to build any sort of plan.

The first step is to get a frame of reference for what you’re trying to learn. Let’s keep up with marketing in this example. For marketers at the top of their field, what kinds of skills do they have? What tasks do they work on on a daily basis? What tools do they use? What do they read?

On a practical level, I would do this:

  1. Setup a private list on Twitter. Google search “Top [insert field] Twitter.” Add every person to your new private list. Look at what they’re sharing, reading, liking, etc.
  2. Run another Google search for “[insert field] jobs [insert city].” Don’t worry—you’re not applying. The goal here is to find out what you don’t know. Find 10-15 job descriptions and read through them. If a specific skill or task is listed in three or more descriptions, write it down. An example of this might be “Understanding and running A/B tests for our email campaigns.”
  3. Find individuals in your company that currently do that job. Ask them about their career progression and about how they learned their craft. Ask what they wish they would’ve learned sooner or skipped entirely.

After you’ve done all three above, you should have an idea of what this position will look like and what you need to learn to be competitive.

Do a complete mind dump of all the skills you need to learn/improve. Put them all down on a piece of paper.

At this point, it might be a bit overwhelming. The goal here is to notice patterns and group items. Start grouping the items into similar chunks.

In the marketing example we discussed above, you might have a chunk for advertising that includes skills like “Optimizing campaigns for AdWords” and “Running paid social media advertising on Facebook and Twitter.” Another chunk for analytics might include skills like “Running A/B tests for landing pages” and “Understanding and optimizing sales funnels.” These are all real skills pulled from open job descriptions by the way.

The outcome here should be a list of 4-5 attributes with specific skills listed under each to help us understand what that attribute looks like. For example, when will you know that you have experience with advertising? When you’ve run a paid social campaign and run a campaign on AdWords.

Building a plan

Now that we have that list of attributes, it’s time to get to work. We need to identify ways to learn/sharpen those areas. The actual implementation here differs a bit depending on the skill you want to learn, but here are a few ideas.

Learn through projects.

The ideal desired outcome is that you learn the attributes from our list above and learn them through building real life projects. Think of these projects like supporting arguments when you make your case for the new position.

The best projects are public and directly applicable to your field. Let’s say you were looking to learn design. You could:

Not good: Read a bunch of books on design and publish notes.

Better: Read a bunch of books on design and publish a blog post about each specific chapter with a related real-world design example.

Best: Read a bunch of books to set a foundation. Start a blog series covering key design concepts with a weekly design teardown analyzing designs you enjoy and how they could be improved.

The “public” piece here is important. At the end of this journey, you want to be able to say “Here’s where I started; this is how I’ve grown; and here’s where I am now.”

For most skills, you can start a project on your own. For marketing, you can start a blog, setup an account on Mailchimp, and start working on landing pages. For development, there are hundreds of open source projects you can contribute to.

If you want to work with an actual organization, programs like Catchafire can pair you up with nonprofits. You get to build a portfolio. They get a bit of free work.

Find a mentor.

Ideally, this mentor is in your current organization doing your ideal role. Setup a weekly or bi-weekly meeting with this individual. Let them know what you’re trying to accomplish and how you’re going about it. Some quick tips:

  • Keep it to 15 minutes. Don’t go over.
  • Come prepared. The worst thing you can do is to show up unprepared and stare at one another. Bring questions.
  • Say thank you and mean it. They’re giving you free time.

The goal here is two-fold. First, you need a bit of guidance making sure you’re on the right path. Second, you want to build a cheering section, someone that knows where you started and what you went through. If you’re applying for a different role in your existing company, your mentor can vouch for your efforts.

I have a bunch of additional ideas on mentorship right here.

Help out with projects in your organization.

This piece has two prerequisites:

You’re rocking out in your current responsibilities. If you’re at the back of pack, you’ll want to focus on bringing your core work up before asking to help out with something new. Remember, your core work can’t suffer as you learn something new.

You’re sure you can deliver. The benefit to tackling projects in your organization is you get to show them how much progress you’ve made. The downside is that if you fail to deliver (let’s say you get busy and have to drop the project) it doesn’t look great.

A perfect starting point is to talk to your mentor from above and ask one of two questions:

  • What kinds of things are in your someday pile? That is, what kinds of potentially high impact work do you not have time for right now?
  • What low hanging tasks could I take off your plate to free you up for other items?

How do you know when you’re done?

This is the hardest part. How do you know when you’ve done it? You’ve learned it all?

I don’t have the answer here. The answer is most likely “You’re never done.” There will always be something new to learn.

Practically, the question becomes “How do I know when I’m ready?” To answer that question, the best advice I have is to go back to your list that we created above with the attributes and specific skills. The goal with that list was two-fold. First, it provided a map to guide our next actions. Second, it provides a reflection point to look back on and evaluate progress.

If you can go back through the list and confidently say “I have experience with this and here it is,” you’re probably ready..

Wrapping up

I really didn’t anticipate to write 1,800 words on career progression, but it’s something I care about deeply. More specifically, I care that individuals feel ownership and control over their professional lives.

If you’ve made it through this entire thing and have questions, reach out to me here. I don’t promise to have all of the answers, but I’m happy to talk things over with you!

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