What does it mean “You own your career” ?

Many companies are in the process of doing their year end reviews this time of the year. This means that a lot of people are thinking about their career, where they stand and how to move ahead and make progress.

I am a firm believer that we own our career ourselves. This is also the advice I usually give to anyone who asks me “how can I grow?”. One of these times my team member bravely asked – What exactly does it mean to own your career? While I understood what it meant for me (I think) I realized it’s genuine and probably a very valid question. How do we define this? What does it translate to?

I will make an attempt to describe it in my way what does it mean: “You own your career”

What is a career?

In order to talk about career, I need to talk about the big picture. Without that we are just travelling with no destination. In my opinion we all should have a big picture, a destination in mind on where we want to reach. It does not always need to be achieving high ranks (although there is nothing wrong with that if that’s your goal e.g. to be a CEO). It should be what’s meaningful for you. A few examples could be, being a visible voice in your industry, being financially independent to retire early, a significant contribution in your field or org. It should be something that is organically yours and does not change from company to company.

Ultimately the professional journey towards your big picture is career.

Lot of us, spend most awake hours everyday working and making a career.

What is ownership?

There are so many amazing articles and books about ownership that describe it in so much more elegant manner.  In simple words, it means taking charge. Taking charge to change or maintain something is ownership and when we act like owners, we empower ourselves to make decisions that impact that ownership for the better.

Breakdown: You own your career.

Most companies I have worked with, there has been a career ladder. A level 1… to level n and a tool that drives what are the expectations and needs from a certain level. Performance reviews are benchmarked against those levels and as the company grows they get to tweak  accordingly.

The most common story I hear is, “I want to go to the next level and I need help from my manager to get there”. It is very important that your manager knows about your plans and intent to move to the next level. This is actually one of the steps in owning your career. What’s critically even more important, is that you and your boss know about your big picture goal. I believe most people miss this latter part.

It’s important to understand that current level and next level are mere tools to your big picture. As I said earlier, ideally the big picture wouldn’t change from company to company. It is likely that climbing that ladder is necessary to achieve that goal (it may help you with skills, relationships, money etc needed for the big picture). Being aware of the big picture helps you and your manager to see other paths to get to the bigger goal.

Let’s continue on what would be a good example of owning a career, where the immediate next step would be to go from level current level to next level.

  • Establish a baseline
    • Get an idea of where you stand today (are you performing above, at, or below expectations of your current level x) after discussing it with your manager.
  • Understand the why
    • Why do you stand where you stand? It is easy to interpret as, understand your weakness, but also understand your strengths. if I had to pick one, I would advise focus on your strengths1
  • Understand the level next level
    • Does your company have a written guide on what are the expectations on the next level, what are skills needed?
      • If your company does not have a written guide, ask your manager to provide that guide for you. Ask your manager to review job descriptions of the next level and help you figure it out.  (It might also be smart to go work for a company that has thought about growing their employees and have invested in written guidelines)
    • If so, have you read them?
    • It is probably more generic than you like, have you thought how does that apply to you?
    • Have you asked clarifying questions to your manager?
  • Who in your org is working effectively at that next level?
    • Understand few people in your org are working really well at that level?
    • Try to understand what are the things they are doing that makes them effective.
  • Workout a plan
    • Based on all above understanding, plan on how you will get to the next level.
      • Understand what skills you need to perfect.
      • Understand what relationships you need to build.
      • Understand what short term and long term projects/problems your organization wants to solve. Solving these projects will act as a tremendous catalyst for your growth.
        • How can you help solve that project/problem by your skills and relationships?
  • Team up with your manager
    • Share and align your plan with your manager.
    • Confirm that the projects/problems you have identified are worth going after.
    • Confirm the skills/relationship you need to build.
    • Adjust the plan after collaborating with your manager (make the most of your manager’s extra visibility in the org)
    • Utilize 1-1 to effectively communicate progress and gather input.
  • Adjust the plan as business pivots
    • Your company will grow over time (new managers, new business, change in priorities, pandemics) and everytime that happens, understand how it affects your plan and discuss with your manager.
  • Repeat until you reach the next milestone.

You may have noticed that the ownership of most of the work I described here falls on the person seeking to go to the next level. Your manager can and should always partner with you to tune your plan to have the most chance of success, but your manager cannot build the relationship and/or skills you need to gain to perform well at that next level.

Your manager will act as a facilitator, enabler and advocator for you, but not a doer for you.

Your manager also has a lot of responsibilities that will indirectly help you achieve your next steps.

  • Provide a written guideline of what are expectations at each level.
  • Provide clear feedback/feedforward on where you stand today and how you are progressing.
  • Help in finding the specificity that you need in your growth plan.
  • Create enablement for you so you can learn new skills or master what you have, build relationships.
  • Hold you accountable to your goals.
  • Think wider than their own org, i.e help you grow, even if it means you won’t report to them anymore. Identify new opportunities
  • Understand your unique style and find you mentors as necessary.
  • Build a team that supports each other’s growth.

In simple terms, if you have taken the time to think about the big picture, break it down to smaller accomplishments and next steps, worked towards understanding what your business values, partnered with your manager on a plan and are working towards that plan, then you my friend have owned your career. 

Thank you Praveena Johnson, Ailene Kim, Joe Chung, Binal Parikh for making this article better.

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