Foundational career skills

Or, as an alternative, wordy title: The Theoretical Pyramid of Professional Development.

Today, I want to chat about career skills, but if you’ll spare me a moment for a quick digression, I’d like to wax on about a completely separate topic: CrossFit. We’ll tie this all together here momentarily.

Courtesy of

One of the fundamental principles in CrossFit is communicated through a pyramid, specifically the “theoretical pyramid of athlete development.”

Nutrition exists at the base of the pyramid followed by metabolic conditioning (aka cardio), gymnastics, weightlifting, and finally, sport.

This pyramid has a few different implications as we’re looking at athletic development over the long-term, the primary one for today being:

Your success at any given level is predicated on how well you’ve developed prior levels.

For example, your weightlifting capacity will be impacted by poor nutrition. A solid conditioning base will improve your gymnastics capability. And so on.

Let’s bring this all back to the professional arena.

A few recent experiences1 have caused me to think about what professional development pyramid would look like. Meaning, if our goal was long-term success and fulfillment throughout our career, what kinds of skills would form the backbone of that success?

I’ve listened to two podcasts on the topic and chatted with some managers at various companies during a recent conference I attended. Here’s a tentative list I’ve come up with in no particular order.

  • Effective Communication—This is critical regardless of whether you’re working with a team, sharing timelines with your boss, or chatting with a potential customer. Can you articulate your ideas in a clear and concise manner both verbally and textually? One may be more important than the other depending on context.
  • Reliability—Can I count on you to do what you committed to doing to the level that you promised on the timeline we agreed to with minimal follow-up? That sounds like a doozy, but it really is a core skill. If any of the components (delivery, scope, or timeliness) has to slip, do you communicate that as early as possible?
  • Organization—It doesn’t really matter if you use the latest productivity app or a notebook and a pen. Can you effectively plan out your day/week/month to deliver results? If you’re tasked with something during a meeting, do you have some method of recording that so you don’t have to be reminded?
  • Focused AttentionCal Newport has literally written books on the importance of focused attention. I’d direct you to Deep Work for starters. The ability to concentrate all of your talents on the most critical task at hand for long periods is critical for accomplishing anything of value.
  • Humble, Adaptable Mentality—Can you take feedback on your work? Are you open to debating points of view on a certain issue? If we move forward in the direction opposite your viewpoint, can you adapt and come along? Are you up for tackling new things, even if you might not excel in the beginning?

These skills form the foundation on which you can build specific skills like learning JavaScript or data analytics. If you focus on the specific skills first though and ignore the foundation, you’re shortchanging your future self.

Tying this all together then, if we built out our own pyramid of professional development these skills would sit at the bottom. I feel like this is important primarily because it’s easy to interview for and focus on developing the career-specific skills that look good on a resume. These foundational skills are harder to tease out in an interview, which is one main reason I love the trial interview process at Automattic.

Building a Rock Solid Career Reputation

I’m currently working my way through The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene. The book is fascinating as it draws on dozens of historical examples to pull out key takeaways and suggestions for building power and influence. Each chapter is dedicated to a particular lesson or takeaway and how you can apply it to your own life.

A few chapters in particular have stood out to me, but one in particular (Law 5 – “So Much Depends on Your Reputation—Guard It With Your Life”) is applicable to some of the topics I’ve been writing about recently.

In the beginning, you must work to establish a reputation for one outstanding quality, whether generosity or honesty or cunning. This quality sets you apart and gets other people to talk about you. You then make your reputation known to as many people as possible (subtly, though; take care to build slowly, and with a firm foundation), and watch as it spreads like wildfire.

The two parts are then:

  1. Building a reputation.
  2. Spreading your reputation.

The trick is always “How?”. How exactly do you build a reputation? Perhaps more importantly, once you have that reputation, how do you spread that reputation without feeling like a selfish jerk?

This post will touch on the first piece – building the reputation. I recently wrote a piece on The Muse all about soft skills that will help you excel in your career. I have another one coming up on Todoist about demonstrating your value within an organization.

I wanted to pull together some common threads from the research I did for both that apply to building a reputation and some distinct points in the process that I’ve found helpful. In a follow-up post, I’ll discuss some thoughts on spreading that reputation and talking about yourself without feeling sleezy.

Continue reading “Building a Rock Solid Career Reputation”

Building Many Different Career Ladders

In Primed to Perform, the authors discuss the importance of building a few different career ladders within your organization. The typical career ladder (become good at something then move to managing people) isn’t for everyone and susceptible to the Peter Principle.

What kind of other career ladders could you build within your organization? The authors lay out three potentials.

The Managerial Ladder

This is the career ladder we’re all familiar with. Individuals that pursue this ladder are masters of motivation and leading others. They thrive with solving difficult problems and seeing others thrive.

The Expert Ladder

Individuals that pursue this ladder develop extensive domain expertise. They become masters of their craft and share that knowledge with the rest of the company.

Let’s take a sales rep as an example. Instead of moving into a managerial role, they could perfect the art of talking to clients and making the sale. The trick then becomes not leading others but downloading their expertise in a way that helps everyone else.

The Customer Ladder

Before reading Primed to Perform, I didn’t think of this as a separate ladder. The authors describe the “Customer ladder” as a role where employees master the art of talking to customers, understanding the direction of the company, and translating feedback to product teams. This role straddles marketing, sales, and product development.

I’m not sure I agree that the Customer ladder is useful as a third ladder. In reality, I think it could fit in the Expert ladder category, which would leave us with two options:

  1. Move into a leadership role.
  2. Become an expert in your field and help everyone else level up.

Regardless of which you choose, there needs to be an aspirational point, the pinnacle for success amongst those on your ladder. This is pretty straightforward for the Managerial ladder, but what about the Expert ladder? How do you define the pinnacle of that track?

Primed to Perform provides the example of IBM, which created a position called a “Fellow” to honor their top research scholars. It’s often considered more prestigious than a management position. A “Fellow” is someone within IBM that “embodies a place with pioneering vision in an ever-expanding field.” Fellow achievements include things like developing the first microscope that could show atoms and building the system that put the first man on the moon.

I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit with Automattic. How do you create a culture that emphasizes the importance of the Expert ladder? One way is simple. Automatticians continue to get pay increases regardless of whether they move into a leadership position. Therefore, a typical incentive (pay) is removed in many ways from a specific career ladder. This is just one idea, and other opportunities certainly exist to really highlight the contributions of the expert.

If you’ve figured out how to create the Expert ladder within your company, I’d love to chat. It’s certainly something I’m interested in!

What skills are worth paying for?

This post on the NY Times from Cal Newport has been circulating around the internet recently. Cal makes a simple argument. “In a capitalist economy, the market rewards things that are rare and valuable. Social media use is decidedly not rare or valuable.”

The kerfuffle normally originates from the second sentence. Let’s focus on the first one instead. What kinds of skills are rare and valuable?

Here’s a non-exhaustive list that came to mind. These are obviously very abstract.

  • The ability to teach yourself. Previously, you could learn one trade and depend on that trade being around for a long time. That’s no longer the case. We now need to be endlessly adaptable. (previously)
  • The ability to coach others. Giving feedback well is absolutely a skill. It’s hard and painful to develop and therefore definitely rare and valuable.
  • The ability to receive feedback and listen. I’m just starting to realize what a skill this is. It’s certainly not easy, and it requires immense self-control.
  • The ability to lead. That’s different than “manage.” Leading is equivalent with saying “Follow me. That is where we’re going and this is the plan to get us there.”
  • The ability to communicate effectively. This includes both text and voice and could manifest in a team meeting or up on stage at a conference.
  • The ability to create a symphony (adapted from Dan Pink). Symphony is the ability to take a bunch of different inputs and create an output. It’s the ability to think strategically and consider how decisions will impact the future.

As I start to think about growth opportunities for 2017, these skills are top of mind. What would you add to the list?

Previously with Cal. If this post struck a chord with you, I would recommend reading A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink, which expands on many ideas listed above.

How to keep and grow great customer support talent

Imagine a Customer Support team with high turnover and low tenure across the board.

Your customers will only speak to people who haven’t had time or mentorship to become experts. They’ll receive continuous poor service, become frustrated and despite your great product, churn.

I loved reading about how Intercom is encouraging career growth in Support. We’re working on solving the exact same issue over at Automattic.

I particularly appreciated this comment:

Ensure people management is not the only progression path.

I don’t think there’s one right answer to how this should be done across every company, but I think it’s something companies should continue to talk about openly. Support isn’t a stepping stone to another position. It can be a career if you want it to be.

How I’ve Managed to Grow My Career Without Managing People

So I kind of just made it up as I went along. Instead of trying to map out a career path and worrying about where I was going to be in five or ten years, I followed my interests and tried not to worry too much about measuring my success in traditional ways such as title changes and promotion announcements.

I enjoyed this read by Pamela Vaughan on career progression. This sounds similar to how career progression works at Automattic as well. Team lead positions are not viewed as promotions, just a different type of work. Teammates can step down from a lead position without it being viewed as a demotion. There also isn’t a corresponding decrease of pay.

My Winding Path to Customer Support

This is part of the 2016 Support Driven writing challenge. Here’s the prompt: “History: Our history shapes us — what path led you to Support? Was it a planned career? Or did you happen upon it?”

I just passed my three year anniversary at Automattic, which is crazy to think about. I remember applying in August of 2013. I sent off an email that I thought would land in a blackhole never to be read or answered. I remember joking in the email that I had the perfect PJs for working at home. I remember doing my final chat with Matt and receiving the offer letter.

If you would have asked me throughout college or grad school if I ever thought I would be working remotely for a tech company, I would’ve given you an emphatic “No.”

Continue reading “My Winding Path to Customer Support”

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.

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The Tragic Gap

Jessica Lawrence presenting “On leading” from PopTech. Many thanks to John Maeda for sharing on one of our internal leadership blogs.

It’s a video well worth watching. A quote I particularly enjoyed:

For those of us who are overcome with visions of what’s wrong and how it could be made right, we often find ourselves in positions of leadership because at least at first we can’t stand that gap between what is and what could be, a space that educator Parker Palmer calls “the tragic gap.”

If you want to hear Parker Palmer explain the tragic gap in more detail, read this interview.

Static is the Worst Place to Be

I’ve been diving into quite a pile of personal growth books over the past few weeks. The goal was to help answer the question “How can I excel professionally?”

I’m planning on compiling a master list of everything I’ve read thus far, but one commonality I’ve noticed is the emphasis on remaining fluid. I discussed my thoughts on this briefly in describing how I think about my career, but I feel it’s so darn important that I want to expound on those thoughts even further becuase of three specific reasons.

Continue reading “Static is the Worst Place to Be”