I’ve been coaching and mentoring people over the past few years and the question of “How do you manage your own growth?” or “How can I make sure my career is on the right growth path?” often comes up. I’ll distill some thoughts below that I’ve built up over my career, hopefully some of them are useful for you.
This is your path, take accountability for it
As a manager, I make it my mission to help my teams with their growth. I search for opportunities, I coach, I explore pathways that may not yet be open, and I will bend over backwards to help my team. I hope you have similar support.
That said, your career is not my career (or your managers). The average time with a manager can be short, and often will be no more than 2-3 years. You may not always consistently have support from a manager during your career. There will, hopefully, be many opportunities to amplify your pathway by leaning on others as you’ll see below in the tips, but you cannot use these as the basis for growth.
Making your career pathway your own is essential. You taking accountability for your own growth, especially early in your career, will pay compound dividends further into your pathway.
Who are you and what are your gaps? Take a self inventory
Many of the tips below require you to have some insights into who you are and to honestly and critically reflect on your skills and approaches. Self reflection is hard, so you will see a number of tools in the resources below that can help. Spend time understanding your personality type, your learning styles, ask others to give insights (things like the johari window), look at your biases etc.
If you have a strong feel for who you are, this approach can validate it, or you may just learn something new!
Make it sustainable
I’ve seen people (and have been one of them) stretch their week and make learning an extra-curricular activity. To a small extent, I don’t think this is unhealthy - perhaps 3-4 hours of your own time each week, be that listening to podcasts while out for a walk, reading a book while at the gym, etc. There is certainly a ‘healthy’ amount of self development to have outside of the workplace.
That said, in my early career, I equated growth with 'time spent' and was adding 20-30 hours per week to an already cognitively busy schedule, which was simply exhausting. Do not listen to those motivational speakers who talk about the ‘hustle’ and how you have to be willing to extend your days massively. I simply WAS NOT effective in those hours because I was exhausting myself. Something I wouldn’t realise for many years unfortunately.
Be deliberate in any extra growth time you spend outside of work, but do not overburden yourself.
You should be at no more than 70-80% utilisation.
Yes, there are times when we spike above that, but if you are routinely working at 100% or more, your employer isn’t looking after you. I’ve had the mantra of 70-80% utilisation max for my teams for many years now, and it is essential to high performance.
You should have space in your week to reflect, to learn, to grow - if you do not, please ensure you are being paid well for that lack of opportunity. Your employer should also be encouraging you to take that time to grow and learn. If they aren’t, consider if they are culturally the right place for you, as many employers will see this as a valuable use of staff time.
There is a famous phrase that I think has some truth to it:
“At every job you should either learn or earn. Either is fine. Both is best. But if it’s neither, quit.”
(I recognise there is privilege in this view, and it isn’t universally true.)
I’ll get the spoiler out of the way first - there is no ‘one true way’. We cannot cargo cult our way to effective career growth unfortunately - we have to carve a pathway that works for ourselves. The below are merely suggested as a set of triggers to get you thinking and exploring what may work well for you.
Find your learning style
Each of us learns differently, and there are many models to accommodate this. There are some links in the resources to evaluate learning styles, but understanding your own learning style preferences will really help accelerate the impact of the time you spend learning.
Understanding how you learn best will help you maximise the time you do spend, and get the most out of it.
Don’t neglect the human skills (soft skills)
This is especially true in my own field (software engineering), but we typically under index on the importance of human skills (empathy, compassion, emotional intelligence, communication, courage, etc.) and under invest in their growth in our careers. I neglected my own growth here for far too many years.
Give enough space to learning and growing human skills - the time will always be worth it.
Find and raise your voice!
The aim of this is to maximise your exposure to opportunities, and it could easily favour extraversion, though it doesn't need to. It is important to ask the question, to raise the concern, to be active in the conversation - especially with your manager. Do you want help understanding your next step at work? Are you struggling on a problem in your growth? These are all perfect opportunities to leverage your voice. If this is something that fills you with anxiety or dread, safely speak to your manager or a friendly peer about it - I’ve found that many people are supportive and want to help.
Look for places to raise your voice and seek opportunities to help you grow.
Seek advice, lean on others
This is linked to the previous point, and may seem counter to you owning your own path, but I’ve learned so much in conversation with others over the years.
Lean in to peers and your manager, or others in the org who are more experienced. I’ve found that many people who are further into their career are only to happy so share that experience and learning. You may also find that there are formal options at your employer - is there a coaching/mentoring scheme? or study groups? or special interest groups in areas you want to grow? Sign up and use them!
Don't be afraid to lean on others with more knowledge than you while you grow.
Plan the end point and then labour the path
I’m a big fan of solution focussed practice, popular in therapy and healthcare situations, but it puts you as the expert in your own path, and has you ask questions of yourself not from the problems of ‘now’ but from a state where things are better.
“If you got to the end of the year and you felt successful in your growth, what would that look like? What would you be doing more of? What would it look like around you? How would your peers view you? What would they be coming to you for? What would you have removed from your day to day?” etc.
“You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems. Your goal is your desired outcome. Your system is the collection of daily habits that will get you there. This year, spend less time focusing on outcomes and more time focusing on the habits that precede the results.”
Spend time understanding the end state, then spend time breaking that down and understanding how you will get there, measure the journey, and make those incremental changes.
Get uncomfortable, and stretch
We’re not talking “I’m stressed and need time off here” but our best learning tends to come when we are moderately uncomfortable. When you feel you haven’t been here before, and you don’t know how to solve the problem - this is typically the best place for your growth. Staying comfortable will see you move more towards a pathway of mastery in an area you already know than in actually expanding and growing your skills and knowledge.
Jump into discomfort, it will help you build the learning muscle by forcing you to adapt to the unknown.
Stay visible, tell stories
Find a way of keeping your learning visible. It keeps us accountable, but it also helps those who may sponsor us (bosses or peers) do so quantifiably. This may not feel natural. I blog because it helps me understand a topic and absorb it, I find writing cathartic. Though over time, it forms a record of my thinking, my approach, and my growth also. It doesn’t have to be major - give a demo of something you’ve been learning, write up a slack/teams message with a summary of a recent article you read. The smallest triggers can make a huge difference.
Don't isolate your growth, find ways of surfacing it, it can bring likeminded people to us, and help us validate our pathway.
Keep a diary, catalogue your growth
I wish I’d done this earlier in my career! I have a terrible memory, so if you asked me what I’d done of significance at the end of a quarter over the previous 3 months, I couldn’t have told you. I’ve found that regular diary keeping is hugely beneficial. It doesn’t have to be a lot - I have reminders 3 times a week, and it takes me 10mins to think, reflect and catalogue.
I don’t think I can emphasise the importance of this one enough. It not only helps you see progress and small gains, but longer term it can help with the business case for progression, salary review, or indeed for you to reflect on your whole career pathway.
Track your activities, document your gains and losses, it will help motivate you as you reflect on the journey.
Consider giving to help with your growth
This perhaps applies as you get further into your career, though don’t discount it earlier. Consider mentoring (and coaching) others. I’ve found it to be hugely beneficial to my own growth, and I continue to coach and mentor people in differing backgrounds with differing experience and needs. I’m hopeful it is beneficial to them, though I am always keen to highlight the benefit I also get - it is a reciprocal relationship, and it helps me with my own growth. Even early career, you have skills, experiences, and ideas that are not the same as someone else, and they have huge value.
Think of that one thing you can give back, and leverage it to help you grow other skills.
Take personal development time at work
This assumes you work for a healthy employer that affords personal development time (if you don’t, I refer to the pointer above about salary - you should be being paid above market if you are being 100% utilised).
I under invested in personal development time, that my employer supported and encouraged, in my earlier career - instead, I would focus on delivering ‘just one more ticket’, or ‘just finishing this piece of work’.
As an employer now, I’ll categorically state, this is a false economy. Investment in the improvement of daily work (growth) is as important as the daily work. You getting better at your job is an investment in a better future where you will be more effective, more impactful, and a better person for the organisation.
Take the time.
Focus on the bad, not just the good
I work in an industry that typically values generalists more than specialists. We talk about ‘T-shaped people’, generalists with deep specialism of a particular area. I’m a huge fan of ‘gap shaped people’ (sometimes called ‘comb shaped’ or ‘m-shaped’). People who operate and evolve their specialisms in the gaps within their organisation. Deep specialism in one area will never go out of fashion, of course, but if you can see opportunity to extend those specialisms into other areas, take them.
Consider what shape your skills will take for your industry, and be deliberate about what the development towards those looks like.
As highlighted, this isn’t a definitive shopping list that you have to follow all of, but use this as a guide to reflect upon your own pathway.
The key is to make it active and not passive, and to be deliberate about what you do with your own career growth. I feel sure that focussing on, and solving for some of the above in your own context will help you accelerate and amplify your own journey, and will give you far better outcomes for your career.
- Making your career pathway your own is essential
- Be deliberate in any extra growth time you spend outside of work, but do not overburden yourself
- Understanding how you learn best will help you maximise the time you do spend, and get the most out of it
- Give enough space to learning and growing human skills - the time will always be worth it
- Look for places to raise your voice and seek opportunities to help you grow
- Don't be afraid to lean on others with more knowledge than you while you grow
- Spend time understanding the end state, then spend time breaking that down and understanding how you will get there, measure the journey, and make those incremental changes
- Jump into discomfort, it will help you build the learning muscle by forcing you to adapt to the unknown
- Don't isolate your growth, find ways of surfacing it, it can bring like minded people to us, and help us validate our pathway
- Track your activities, document your gains and losses, it will help motivate you as you reflect on the journey
- Think of that one thing you can give back, and leverage it to help you grow other skill
- Take the time
- Consider what shape your skills will take for your industry, and be deliberate about what the development towards those looks like
I wish I'd know much of this in my earlier career, I hope it helps you on your own journey.
Self Reflection Resources
- Tools to help with self reflection - a broad collection of approaches to support your own self reflection
- Project Implicit - a means of measuring and understanding your implicit biases
- 16 Personalities - similar to MBTI, a means of more broadly understanding personality type
- Tools for self inventory - another collection of tools to support self understanding and inventory
- The Johari window - a means of surfacing traits through peer discovery
- Learning style assessment - a means of understanding your learning style
- Learning style assessment (alternative) - another means of understanding your learning style