The work we do, to a large extent, acts as our primary interface to the world. It’s in the time we spend at work that we develop skills, get exposed to unfamiliar ideas, learn to deal with people, and hopefully, form an objective view of the world. The accumulation of knowledge and experience happens over a long period and can significantly impact our ability to contribute to society. It is remarkable, then, that we leave the responsibility of development to others and hardly ever spend time thinking about it ourselves. Thoughts about development, if they occur at all, happen at times of distress such as the loss of a job, or the necessity to move.
The familiar example of development is the path pursued when working for an organization: start at a suitable position, slowly develop useful skills, establish some confidence, and over time find ways to increase your contributions to the organization and the domain, in general. In a good system, those who are reliable, show good judgment, and produce value will be shown the step to the next stage of development, usually accompanied by increased responsibility, pay and other perks.
The alternative is the path of the freelancer, a breed of worker increasing in number over the past few decades – a trend that started with the advent of “knowledge” work. Untethered by time or place, freelancers have the freedom to choose varied work and the option to explore multiple careers. Constant exposure to diverse ideas, technologies, organizational structures, and working methods allow them to develop an unconventional mix of skills, strongly desired when complex problems need to be solved.
Both paths have their drawbacks as it relates to career development. In the former, the path within an organization, the development process, even when it works well, is influenced and controlled by external factors – needs of the organization, the impact of previous projects, rapport with managers and peers. There’s rarely any consideration for an individual’s changing interests and preferences; if the individual’s skill is not valued by the organization, they’re unlikely to make much progress.
Career development can be even more of a challenge if you work outside the confines of an organization. Freelancers have to produce work too. But unlike their counterparts in organizations, they have to do even more: find clients with suitable projects, market their skills, maintain relationships, and, in many cases, even manage general administration. Also, within an organization, there are the pseudo signals that indicate progress: annual evaluations, increments, and titles. The added responsibilities,”stuff” that need to be completed to move along, and the lack of progress markers, could cause freelancers to focus on short-term goals and leave a serious dent in long-term development.
All of this implies, that regardless of the way you choose to work, the responsibility of development falls squarely on us. So, how should we go about directing our careers? What questions must we ask ourselves, and answer, to position ourselves where we can make the greatest contribution? What should we consider when designing our development plans? These are some of the questions, Peter Drucker, management guru, writer, and teacher, discusses in the aptly-titled, “Managing Oneself.” In this short book, he provides several insightful thoughts on how to evaluate progress, manage a career, and consequently, a life.
What are your strengths?
Every interview includes some version of the ‘What are your strengths?’question, and the truth is most of us don’t really know. We think as strengths only the skills we’ve developed on-the-job, and even then only those that directly contribute to a project or task. Equally valuable skills that come easily and naturally – different modes of thinking, how we handle tough people and situations – are dismissed, and never discussed. If we don’t know what we’re good at, how can we inform others of our abilities? The first step, then, is to learn our strengths:
Most people think they know what they are good at. They are usually wrong. More often, people know what they are not good at — and even then more people are wrong than right. And yet, a person can perform only from strength. One cannot build performances on weaknesses, let alone on something one cannot do at all.[…]The only way to discover your strength is through feedback analysis. Whenever you make a key decision or take a key action, write down what you expect will happen. Nine or twelve months later, compare the actual results with your expectations.
It’s worth noting that even with constant analysis it takes years before we discover our strengths.
The next step is to focus on our strengths and develop them. More importantly, resist the affliction of modern society – the need to do everything and at the same time – and leave your weaknesses behind. Here Drucker provides a piece of advice that we should all take to heart:
[W]aste as little effort as possible on improving areas of low competence. It takes far more energy and work to improve from incompetence and mediocrity than it takes to improve from first-rate performance to excellence.
How do you perform?
We rarely spend any effort figuring out how we learn. But this is valuable knowledge and significantly impacts how we gather, retain, and use information to guide ourselves and those we lead. Delve deep into skills you developed for your own needs, without any external pressure, a hobby perhaps, and figure out how you learn and what keeps you engaged. The key idea is that we’re the only ones who can identify our preferences. A few areas for self-assessment suggested by Drucker:
- Am I reader or a listener?
- How do I learn? – by writing, talking, doing.
- Do I work well alone or with others?
- Subordinate or team member?
- Decision maker or adviser?
- Under stress or in a highly structured environment?
Like one’s strengths, how one performs is unique. It is a matter of personality. Whether personality be a matter of nature or nurture, it is surely formed long before a person goes to work. And how a person performs is a given, just as what a person is good at or not good at is a given. A person’s way of performing can be slightly modified, but it unlikely to be completely changed – and certainly not easily. Just as people achieve results by doing what they are good at, they also achieve results by working in ways that they best perform.
What are your values?
A person’s strengths and the way one performs rarely conflict; the two are complementary. But there is sometimes a conflict between a person’s values and his or her strengths. What one does well — even very well and successfully — may not fit with one’s value system. In that case, the work may not appear to be worth devoting one’s life to (or even a substantial portion thereof).
Where do you belong?
The organizations, surroundings, and people you choose to work with will impact your output. Larger organizations, in general, tend to be siloed and don’t provide much opportunity to develop breadth but are great places to develop expertise. To some, this might be boring. In a small company, one can contribute to multiple areas and there’s always work to do but it can also feel chaotic and overwhelming.
Knowing where one belongs can transform an ordinary person — hardworking and competent, but otherwise mediocre — into an outstanding performer.
What should you contribute?
We’re always on the lookout for novel and interesting problems to solve and miss the simple opportunities for improvement that stare us in the face. In many cases, people don’t contribute or delay their contributions, because they feel their work is not creative enough. The more relevant question to ask, though, is if the work is valuable – will it make a difference?
Knowledge workers in particular have to learn to ask a question that has not been asked before: What should my contribution be? To answer it, they must address three distinct elements: What does the situation require? Given my strengths, my way of performing, and my values, how can I make the greatest contribution to what needs to be done? And finally, What results have to be achienved to make a difference?