[Originally posted part 1 on Oct 9 and then part 2 on Nov 9 of 2014]
— — Part 1 — —
At the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing there are many attendees offering and looking for good advice. Dear friends among them. I read some, “inarticulate” responses earlier today and they prompted me to think of what advice I might offer. As I considered this I found myself thinking the same thoughts I always think when counselling people on how to have a good career. And so I offer these tidbits, trite as they may appear, in good faith, to all genders, religions, orientations, ages, and other demographics equally. I do this partly because it seems timely but also partly because I promised Emma Watson I would do something in the spirit of #heforshe even if she didn’t exactly hear me make that promise.
1. Don’t compromise
It is, in my opinion, impossible to have a good career if you aren’t investing in a good life and so you must never sacrifice the things that most matter to you in the name of career progress. That kind of sacrifice will ultimately backfire without fail. It doesn’t matter if what matters to you is your husband, your wife, your children, your church, your fire department, your animal friends, your theater, your poetry, your dancing, or anything else. It is these things that we do when we leave the office that nourish us and put us in the frame of mind to feel valued, to do our best work, to not be spiteful, but instead be as successful as we can be. If you come to work feeling like what you really should be doing is something else, or that you failed to do that something else this past weekend, you cannot give matters at hand the attention they require and you will then fail at all the things.
It is my belief and experience that you will have the best career you can possibly have by taking care of all your needs. It only superficially feels like you’re compromising your career to do “that other thing”, in the end, you aren’t.
2. Bring all your experience to the job every day
Do not compartmentalize who you are. You are a whole person. All those other things I mentioned up there, whatever they may be, they enrich you and make you better. They are skills and knowledge that you can and should tap every day. If you try to turn some of them off, or fail to consider the utility of some of the others, you are less than all you can be, and it will show in your work. I’m unable to think of any endeavors a person could be passionate about that bring no material value to a professional context.
3. Find mentorship and sponsorship
Professional waters are difficult to navigate. You put yourself at a huge disadvantage if you do not have colleagues that can help you avoid common mistakes and give you important perspective. Mentors are out there for the asking, and while you may not succeed immediately I can promise that, as the saying goes, “When the student is ready, the master WILL appear.”
Sponsorship is as important but in a different way, and it can’t always be the same person. I think of sponsorship as having a person or persons “out there” that have a good sense of who you are, what your desires are, where you are in your career stage, and so forth. These people need to be in play so that when opportunities arise, they will be able to speak for you. It is truly unfortunate if “Jane” doesn’t get that choice assignment and promo opportunity simply because nobody knew that she always wanted to work on “ratafrat development” and had experience from her hobby.
4. Keep investing in yourself
Ongoing professional and personal development is essential to be promoted in a corporate environment, but I think it’s also essential for your happiness. If you end the year a [slightly?] better engineer, parent, husband, wife, poet, singer, dancer, or whatever matters to you… you’ve had a good year. That’s worth celebrating. Making yourself a better person will pay in the end. I’ve personally been astonished how many times my little side things turned out to provide just the thing I needed down the line.
5. Self-advocacy is great, but do it in the way that fits best in your environment
As far as promotions go, the best way to get promoted is to be doing the work already. The best way to get raises is to be extraordinarily competent. But those things alone might not be enough. Some corporations give raises through a fairly formalized process where asking for a raise really isn’t even an option. But in those cases the questions to be asking are more like, “what could I be doing to earn my next promotion, I want to be a strong candidate” — from a career management position that’s still a great take-charge way to proceed. And it shouldn’t be off-putting. On the other hand, there are plenty of situations where getting raises is a personal experience that practically requires a specific request. These are great things to discuss with a mentor.
Even if you’re not getting your promotions as often as you want, if you are constantly a candidate for promotion you can hardly be considered among the weaker team members. You will command a good share of the budget for raises.
If you feel you are being treated unfairly, I can’t recommend silence, but sadly I can’t make a specific recommendation that’s good in every organization.
6. Self-worth goes a long way to projecting, and inspiring confidence
In the end, getting assignments and promotions may come down to whether or not your management feels you can handle those situations. If you are always cautious and appear to doubt your own self-worth, or need to be reminded of it constantly, you are unlikely to inspire the confidence needed to get the big jobs. You are also much more likely to accept substandard pay because you think yourself unworthy of a fair wage.
Trust your skills and yourself, do not accept the unacceptable, conduct yourself with integrity and professionalism, these things will inspire your organization to give you the rewards you deserve. And if they don’t, it may be time to consider another organization. A skilled worker knows their value.
I’m sorry if all those thoughts seem like so much trite advice, it seems like I said nothing noteworthy at all, and yet those are the things that people seem to most need to hear in my experience, so there they are.
Best wishes and thanks for reading.
— — Part 2 — —
I wrote some career advice a few weeks ago now, those few points are largely distilled from talks I’ve given here at Microsoft over the years and those are in turn distilled from the various mentoring sessions I’ve given over the course of my career.
There are two memes in particular that I like to impart to every mentee on their very first session with me, both of which I acquired rather than invented. I find them to be very useful for starting discussions. If you read the previous article you’ll readily see how they are infused into the short list of points. Both are very simple as you’ll see below.
I learned the first one from a close friend who learned it from Prof. Seviora of U of Waterloo. Prof. Seviora had (has?) a habit of injecting some of his real world experience into his classes at the end of a lecture if there was time and this is one of those little tidbits.
“VIP” stands for Visibility, Image, and Performance. So if you like the rule is Success = VIP. I have yet to figure out if it’s S=V*I*P or S = V*(I+P) or something else entirely but it doesn’t seem to matter in application. I explain it something like this:
I have never met anyone who thought they could be a great success whilst performing poorly. So pretty much everybody gets the P. Likewise, most people who think about their career at all discover that visibility is important. This basically leaves one letter left to discuss and that’s the “I” — Image.
Thankfully for me Image does not refer to the clothing you wear (though dress for success isn’t without its place) it’s more like your “brand.” When people think about you, what do they think of? Reliability? Integrity? Productivity? Determination? Motivation? Leadership? Do they think you work on hard and important problems? That’s the crux of it. The problems may be management problems, technical problems, recruiting problems, or any other domain that is valuable.
If people know who you are (V), know that you work on hard and important problems (I) and that you it well (P) it’s pretty darn hard to be a failure.
Cultivating your brand is super helpful for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that when your brand is well known then many people are able to represent you and your interests when you are not there. Some of my favorite work stories involve people correctly channeling me at important meetings which I could not attend. Sometimes several at the same time. This is not bad for your career
I learned this one from a dear friend (Tara Prakriya) who learned it from a mentor during her time at Merck. I explain this one pretty much the way it was taught to me with a few extra bits.
The essence of it is that you do not want your career to look like a tower (at this point I draw a long skinny rectangle) — you want it to look more like a pyramid (at this point I draw an equilateral triangle). Why? Well, consider that tower looking career — you’ve advanced along nice and fast but do you think your management really wants to put another metaphorical brick on the tippy top? Looks like the thing might fall over. And getting bricks down near the bottom is now a lot harder because “you’re too important.” This is not a good place to be.
On the other hand that triangle takes a lot longer to build up but it’s nice and sturdy and provides a great base of knowledge upon which to build future success.
Now is your career going to look like a perfect triangle? I doubt it. You’re more likely to have something rougher with maybe a main peak and a side peak and some bumps here and there but that’s ok. All of those gaps and mini-peaks represent growth opportunities. People will see those and think “here’s a chance to flesh out that area” and they will give you those jobs with confidence. Even going wider is easier because management knows you enjoy the breadth play as well.
In this model when you have choices to make you consider what “brick” the opportunity will allow you to acquire and where it will land. Do you want a brick on top? Or do you want to fill in a gap? Or start something new?
But wait… I started with pyramid and I drew a triangle. At this point I fix the picture to show the 3rd dimension.
A triangle falls right over, you need a nice solid base. That third dimension, the other faces of the pyramid if you will, is everything else you bring to your life. Success with your family, your church, your theater, whatever it is that makes you a well-rounded person. Maybe you have so many faces your pyramid is actually a cone.
It is the overall combination of life experience you bring every day to your job and your other endeavors that will allow you to succeed. You may think that working exclusively on the career face is the path to success but that’s an illusion — all these things build on each other. That’s why it’s so important to not compromise — you need to be working on all the things that are important to you in some unified plan to achieve the best result for yourself. And you need to bring all your assets to bear in all your endeavors.
When you find that balance, then you’ll be the best you can be.
And this inevitably leads me to start quoting Kung Fu Panda, at which point all seriousness is lost, but hopefully, retention is enhanced.