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Defining your career path: journey or destination

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Star Trek: the original series. A five year mission (destination) adapting to a journey (ongoing). When asked about career path, some are quick to say things like “VP of … in 10 years” or “world’s expert in ….”  Others might say “work in engineering, sales, management, and ….”  Or maybe some would say “start 3 companies…IPO.”  Taking a step back it is worth putting a framework around how to think about the experiences you build over time.  Climbing the corporate or businesses ladders aren’t the only ways to think about careers, even though they occupy much of the energy devoted to talking about careers. Do you view your career as a journey or a destination?

Please be sure to see the three quick questions poll at the end of this post along with results from the last poll and take this post’s survey on career paths here.

For some, a professional career is a destination.  From the very start, the goal is to achieve some level of proficiency or stature in your chosen field of work.  The destination can be a role, a company, a level of achievement, or other specific and measurable goal.

For others, a professional career is a journey.  From the very start, the goal is to experience work from a variety of perspectives in your field and adjacent field.  The journey can be different companies or organizations within a big company, job types, geographies, or other varied aspects of your profession.

Destination and journey are different ways to look at career progression.  While it is tempting to think of these as mutually exclusive or as a one-time choice, the reality is (as you can expect) a little less clear.  Even so, you want to know not just the next step but the reasons behind next steps and how they contribute to a career path.

Destination

Many start careers with a goal of working their way “up” the chain.  Going to manager, to general manager or director, to vice president, and more (gaining rank, earning tenure, making partner, etc.) defines progress.  This might be exactly right for you.  Setting your sights on specific and measurable milestones fits with how many view career progression.

Progression up the corporate ladder is not the only way to about your destination.  In planning your next steps, one might consider two views of a destination-oriented path:

  • Org leader.  As an org leader you follow the path of moving “up”.  While your path might involve moving laterally at times, you focus on meeting the objectives as defined by the organization for what skills and experiences enable you to move through the milestones of management.
  • Domain expert.  As a domain expert you follow the path of being the leader in your area in your company.  For many technologists, this is ultimately where the highest satisfaction comes from.  You know the ins and outs of a technology, system, or product better than anyone.  You do this through years of experience and effort.

Focusing on your destination is not for everyone.  This is not just a statement of skills that not everyone might have, but time and place play a role in achieving this type of goal.  In most large organizations there is a fraction of the total team at “top” positions.  For every VP there might be 100 or even 1000 other employees.  Similarly, for every top domain expert, there may be 100 or 1000 other employees not as far along in their domain knowledge.

A destination goal is a long term play and means that during your path you will have periods that feel like you are not moving up, but that should not stop you from moving forward.  You might need to take a step left or right sometimes to keep moving up.  Most of all, never think that for you to move up, someone needs to move down.  Most of the time with a destination oriented career your next steps are visible to you and the organization, and patience and timing play important parts of progression.

When you are set on a destination you also want to be prepared to manage through changes in the landscape.

As an org leader you are ultimately accountable for large projects or budgets, and the people that deliver on those commitments.  Sometimes things don’t go as hoped and as an org leader you have to step up and accept responsibility. These become the key learning moments in your career progression.

As a domain expert, technologies change and paradigms change.  The long-term domain experts are expert not in the specifics but in the solutions.  As an amazing programmer you want to reinvent yourself as new languages and tools emerge.  Leading the team through these discontinuities are the key learning moments in your career progression.

Journey

Many people start their careers knowing that the world is a big place waiting to be explored.  They see the world through the lens of an adventurer or explorer.  Going thoughtfully from one role to another or one organization to another fills your expectations of progressing through your career, or life.  Setting your sites on a collection of experiences that you wish to have is the measurable way of managing your career.

Variety is not easy to measure and there is a fine line between variety and job-hopping.  If the journey is your goal you want to have a clear understanding of how you intend to assemble a collection of experiences.  You will move thoughtfully through these experiences and time your moves based on achieving some level of proficiency, satisfaction, and success.

In planning your journey, you might consider two views of a journey-oriented career path:

  • Breadth leader.  With breadth leader, you aim to have very different roles over time.  You might choose to move between sales, marketing, business, or development in a product area you know and love.  You might choose to move to different parts of the world to experience sales and marketing with a local flavor.  You might choose to work on a variety of products within a large organization.  You might even move from company to company.  All of these broaden your experiences, and if you’re focused on the journey you will meet different people, learn from different perspectives, and experience your career from a variety of vantage points, absorbing these along the way as you grow and mature.  Along the way you will be in a position to lead more as you gain experiences.
  • Field expert.  As a field expert, you collect experiences much like a domain expert but you establish breadth expertise by looking at your domain from a 360 degree view.  You might be a technical expert with experience implementing such as system at different companies or you might have engineered similar systems from the ground up several times in different contexts.  You seek to grow and progress through your career with depth experiences explored from different angles.

A journey career is not for everyone.  You substitute the certainty of goals such as ladder levels or career stages, job titles, and pay grades with more substantial transitions.  With a journey career your next steps are much more about what you seek out to achieve and less about what “comes next”.  As with the explorers from another era, a journey career is driven from within and by your own desires.

On your journey, the transitions are key times you take action and plan on your next steps.  Your deliberate next step makes all the difference when you reflect back on your path.  Did your next step look “random” or did you have a clear rationale for choosing what you did?  Think about how you might explain your steps to someone looking at your resume/CV as you explore the step after the next one.

When you choose your next step, you need to be prepared for a lot of change.  You will work for new people, work with new people, and have different processes.  You will need to adapt and conform.  Things you thought you knew might not be right in the new context.  On the other hand you will meet all sorts of new people and experience new ways of approaching the problems and challenges of business. Down the road when you have to define a process for a group, you have all your experiences and contexts to draw from to avoid repeating mistakes you might have experienced.

With a breadth leader path you might feel like you really jumped in the deep end at one transition.  You might feel like you made a big mistake, going to work in a far-away place for example.  Stick with it.  Live through it.  Adapt and grow.  You will become more valuable to the team as a whole when you can call upon the collected learning.  These are the learning moments on your journey.

As a field expert, you might find yourself in a familiar domain but without the resources you became accustomed to at your last role.  You might wish you could call on that trusted associate or allocate budget in a way you did before, but these are not available to you.  You will need to blaze a new trail or creatively solve the problem using the experience you have but applied differently.  Using your domain knowledge and experience in this new context is how you learn as a field expert.

Adapting

You might reach a stage in your career where you want to settle down after many a journey.  You might similarly reach a stage where it is time to explore new domains, new organizations, or just different perspectives.  In other words you might find a stage in your career where the other of journey or destination becomes your new goal. Resetting your approach can be part of the journey of life.

Of course both paths have room to grow your salary and responsibility. While destination roles have high visibility in terms of material benefits, most organizations strive to have material benefits available for a broad array of people and assignments.

Keeping in mind your path and where you see the moves in your career will help you to have much more informed discussions with your managers and mentors.  As a manager (or mentor), helping the members of the team to see their own desires and wishes will assist in coaching them through transitions.

If there is one piece of advice that transcends the description of your path, it is that no matter where you intend to go, the most important thing is to be excellent at what you are currently doing.  When you’re doing excellent work, you create alternatives for yourself and open doors to new opportunities and paths.

–Steven Sinofsky

Three quick questions poll by Cameron

In the “Being a Leader…” post we asked three questions about your manager’s behavior and your empowerment/productivity.  We had a great response from this popular post, here is what we learned together:

  • Over half of you (54%) report that your manager “asks me to solve vaguely defined problems”, while only 14% report that their manager “spells out expectations in detail”
  • Nearly half (48%) said that their manager “mostly edits” when reviewing their work and 45% said their manager “adds works without taking work away”
  • There is nearly a 10% difference in the % of managers that provide “feedback quickly”(43%) vs. managers that provide “thoughtful, thorough feedback” (34%)

Next, we wanted to look at the relationship between your managers’ traits and your level of productivity and empowerment, both of which you ranked on a scale of 1-5, where 1 is low and 5 is high.  The results were interesting:

  • Those of you with managers that “mostly edit” when reviewing your work were about a point lower on the empowerment scale
  • Those of you with managers that provided “thoughtful, thorough feedback” were about a point higher on the empowerment scale, but on average a half point lower on the productive scale
  • Similarly, those of you with managers that use “delegation as a way to give others authority to make decisions” are a half point higher on the empowerment scale, but a half point lower on the productive scale.
  • Those of you who had managers that “add work without taking work away” have a half point higher productivity

Bottom line: A consistent theme was that quality and quantity can be a trade-off, in leadership and in our deliverables.  Often having both can prove difficult.

Disclaimer: As a caveat, it’s worth noting the subjective nature of these questions, and the potential bias of people taking this survey—those who likely have an interest in being an effective leader themselves.

Take this post’s survey on career paths here. Results reported with the next post.  Thank you!

–Cameron

Written by Steven Sinofsky

March 28, 2013 at 9:00 am

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  20. Great article.

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    April 4, 2013 at 5:40 pm

  21. It’s a really great post that I can completely relate to myself. Personally, I treat my career as a Journey but for some reason, my parents and seniors find this wrong. They keep pushing me to have a specific goal in my mind and work towards it. They claim that without one specific goal, I would never succeed in life or feel satisfied with my achievements. As per their arguments, without a goal, I would just keep moving on and not really get to achieve something and feel happy about it.

    This post changed their mind sets. (at least to some extent).

    Thanks.

    Amogh Natu

    April 2, 2013 at 10:58 pm

  22. Thanks Steven. I think I’ve found my north star.

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    March 31, 2013 at 1:55 pm

  23. Absolutely!

    Steven Sinofsky

    March 29, 2013 at 9:28 am

  24. Good,detailed post. But to be a domain leader or even an Org leader, isn’t it very necessary to be a breadth as well as a field leader? Can a person have a mutually exclusive approach for his career? I guess not. What are your views?

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    March 28, 2013 at 9:31 pm

  26. Great post, but I would add one thing: in addition to career paths, people also get a choice around the energy and focus that they put into their career at any given time. In the grand scheme of life, a career is just one piece and there will be times when it is right to floor the gas pedal and times when it makes sense to put on the brakes. And often this choice is intertwined with the choice of destination vs. journey.

    Anonymous

    March 28, 2013 at 10:40 am

  27. as I sometimes put it: career – verb or noun?


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