Career Progression | Weeknotes #2
“What does Career Progression mean? Anyone wants to share their view?”
The room is filled will dozens of product people. A few hands are raised high but one guy in a white shirt has already started:
“As a product person, it’s aiming for the next level. Going from associate to Product Manager, to Head of Product, and so on.”
Someone in the first row wants to build on this first intervention:
“I think you have to make a choice. Become an expert in one of your skills or start managing teams. Figure out what you want to be: an individual contributor or a leader.”
Is it just me or did he sound a bit condescending when he said “individual contributor”?
A woman across the room takes a different direction and says that, actually, career progression is about continuously learning. According to a guy two rows in front of me, status is obviously what everyone wants. Climb that ladder, right? The tall grumpy dude on my right disagrees: it all comes down to finding the job that makes you happy. The man next to him somewhat agrees but would like to add that, for him, it’s about finding the right life/work balance and going home to his kids early at the end of the day.
And on we go, everyone sharing their personal view of what you should be aiming for in your Product career.
I raise my hand.
“You, in the middle” “Me?” “Yes, you!”
Great start, Lu! (In my defence, his pointing game was totally off…)
“Ah, yes, hum… Well, from what we’ve just heard from everyone, I think it’s fair to say that we all have our own perspective on what career progression means. Also, we’re focusing on the word ‘career’, should we look a bit further? Maybe career progression is about finding the job that fits the wider picture, the life that works for you…” I leave that sentence floating. Maybe someone will pick up on the idea?
Blank stares from the room. Then the next hand is raised: “I think you don’t have to move up all the time, you can also move horizontally to move up later.” Nods around the room. We’re back on track, I guess…
That was the first meetup of the year from The Product Group, London.
I didn’t know the topic would be “Progressing your career”. I only went there to meet people and find out if I still have some affinity with Tech/product.
After this first question, the group discussion moved on to cover other topics: How do you plan for progression? How do you execute your plan? How do you know what next role to look for?
We heard some very patronising opinions (“You can’t succeed if you don’t have a plan”, “You will make bad decisions if you don’t set yourself clear goals”)… But in the end, many voices rallied around a common theme:
- Context changes, shit happens
- Goals and plans are important but they’re not set in stone
- Better sometimes to be agile and ready to try a different road if things don’t work out
The event left me with mixed feelings, but it did allow me to reflect on my own approach to progression. And I realised there are a few things that are more important to me than making career plans:
Knowing what matters to me (and what doesn’t)
When I started working after Engineering school, I wasn’t too picky in my job search (and couldn’t afford to be). I only wanted to find a way in and secure a role that fit the career I wanted to pursue, whether it was Software Engineering, UX design, or more recently Product Leadership. If something in a job description felt icky or contrary to my operating system, I often looked past it, thinking “eh, I’ll find a way to fit in”.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve put more and more focus on understanding what works/doesn’t work for me at work: practical things like transport time, office settings, hours, flexibility… but also team dynamics, leadership models, communication styles, working principles, company culture… And I’ve also spent some time articulating my own core values and principles.
Now, when I look at a job opportunity, I know which aspects I’m not willing to compromise on, which ones I could flex around, and which ones are not that important to me.
Having a (vague) life direction
I’ve never had a mid/long term plan for my career. I don’t have a vision, a North Star or a clear picture of what or where I’d like to be in the future.
But I do have some elements of a direction. An attraction to a certain life quality/style. For instance, I know I want to live closer to nature eventually. I know I want to build a family. And I want a job that allows me to make a positive impact on people around me (see? super vague) and gives me financial security as well as enough flexibility to enjoy life with the ones I love. This could play out in many different ways and I don’t want to stick to a picture that could make me blind to opportunities. So I keep this vision blurry and trust that, if I follow what matters to me, I’ll end up in the right place, or at least one of the right places, for me.
The most promising jobs sometimes turn out to be a disaster or a position that used to be exciting can slip into a slow-killing slump. I’ve been through both scenarios in the past year.
Even if I do my due diligence I know I can end up in another position that doesn’t work for me. I can’t have a foolproof plan against that. Instead, I’ve promised myself that I would never ignore signs that a situation isn’t quite working and would take action to improve it.
Lucky me, my body is usually prompt at telling me something’s not right at work. If I’m ever bored, anxious, depressed, I can spot very clear symptoms, from cravings and restlessness to shortness of breath and stomach ache. I immediately know that something needs to be tweaked or removed from my current situation.
Actually, I think this is fundamental to progression: finding your sensors and being ready to respond when the alarm is ringing. You can have the most amazing vision, the most ambitious goals, the best-laid plans, and execute them perfectly, if you persist in doing something that clearly doesn’t work for you, are you really progressing?
Anyway, that’s only my personal view on career progression. What’s yours? :)