Career stewardship is about being purposeful and proactive in taking ownership of your career. It’s a concept that I and my colleagues at Next Step Partners, the leadership development firm I co-founded, have espoused in working with thousands of executives collectively over the last two decades.
To start taking this ownership, we recommend first stepping back and reflecting. Answering the following five questions (and related follow-up questions) can inform your planning and actions for the year ahead. And while this article is written for a professional context, the questions can also be applied to your personal life.
How fulfilled am I?
To what extent do you find meaning and purpose in your work? Values are what you hold as important and are the key to feeling fulfilled. They represent who you are. Examples of values are collaboration, impact, fairness, autonomy, adventure, recognition, creativity, and security. Expressing your values at work improves satisfaction and performance.
Our core values typically don’t change over time, but what does change is the relative importance of these values and how we express them. For example, one of my colleagues once shared that financial security was never that important to her, until she had children. This value then went close to the top of her list. Likewise, I have a value of adventure. When I was a teenager, I expressed this value by doing things like rock climbing and rappelling, but now middle-aged, I express this value through international travel and running a global business.
Once you’ve articulated your top values, ask yourself for each value “On a scale of 1-10, where 10 is the ideal, how well am I able to express this value in my job?” For example, if you’ve rated your value of creativity a seven, then ask yourself, “What makes it a seven?” followed by, “What would make it an eight or a nine?” This might prompt a discussion with your manager to find ways to express more of this value at work or inform the types of projects or roles you pursue within your organization or at another organization altogether.
How am I learning and growing?
Learning itself can bring an immediate sense of achievement. To what extent are you building competence or expertise in your sector or function? Often, we don’t realize how much we’ve learned until we need to teach someone else on the job. What knowledge, skills, or traits have you acquired in the last year? Perhaps you learned more about the government contracting process, improved your presentation skills, or learned how to be more patient.
What competencies do you want to develop further in the year ahead? What investments — in time, effort, or money (either your organization’s or your own) — will you make? Learning can take many forms. It can include things like attending conferences, taking a course, reading a book, observing others, meeting with mentors, taking on a stretch assignment, experimenting with new mindsets and behaviors, and reflecting on your challenges and progress made. What actions will you take in the year ahead to support the learning and growth you desire?
Am I headed in the right direction?
Day to day and even year to year, it can be hard to tell if you are headed in the right direction if you don’t look up periodically and assess where you are. I’ve worked with scores of clients who have said some variation of “I’ve never had to look for new opportunities. They just fell into my lap or came to me.” While it’s nice to have new opportunities come your way and it can be very flattering — or even seductive — to be recruited for certain roles, it can cloud your judgement and result in a more haphazard versus intentional path. Many of the same people who shared the above-mentioned experience (often 20+ years into their careers) also shared, “I don’t know how I got here. I just kept taking the next job that came up. I’m not sure that this is where I really wanted to be.”
It’s ok to be opportunistic when a good project or job comes your way but being too reactive or blindly giving in to flattery can throw you off course. While everyone hates the question “Where do you want to be in 10 years?” stepping back to figure out a broad vision or direction can be a helpful screen for new opportunities to pursue more proactively, versus reactively. You might ask yourself “What do I want in my (work) life in three to five years?” which is a more manageable chunk of time, and then create some space for reflection. You might want more autonomy (or even to be self-employed), to be a recognized expert in your field, or to have global responsibilities — or all of the above. This three-to-five-year vision will inform the experiences you’ll want to acquire to get there.
What seeds do I need to plant now?
Whether it’s realizing a three-to-five-year vision or something longer term, career success is often the result of the cumulative effects of small, regular actions — what I refer to as “planting seeds.” A seed you plant today may sprout two months from now, two years from now, or 10 years from now — and it typically takes planting many of them. You can also think of this as your 20% time, outside of your regular job, as Google once encouraged their employees to explore and experiment with something new.
A few years before I gained global experience working in Paris (something I always wanted to do), I took French classes on the weekends, hired a French tutor, had my resume translated and researched U.S. companies with operations in France, among other activities. These, and several other seeds I planted, ultimately culminated in an overseas assignment.
“We often underestimate the impact that small, consistent steps can have on our careers,” said Dorie Clark, author of The Long Game: How to Be a Long-Term Thinker in a Short-Term World. “The fact that many people don’t want to commit to something that doesn’t have a certain payoff becomes your competitive advantage, because if you’re willing to do the work without a guarantee of success, you actually enhance its likelihood, because you put yourself into a much smaller category of people that you’re competing against, and the effort that you put in compounds over time.” This is exactly what got me my job in Paris. My U.S. counterparts often asked with envy, “How did you get to work in Paris?” The short answer was that I asked. The longer answer was that I did many small things over several years that allowed it to happen.
What relationships do I need to build?
Relationships are fundamental to career success. You can’t do it alone, no matter what the “it” is. Given your near, mid, and even long-term goals, who are the people who can help you get there? You may know some already and others you may have yet to meet. When you’re “heads down” in work, it’s easy to neglect your relationships. Take some “heads up” time to step back and take stock of your network by drawing a rough network map, identifying those you know to varying degrees (stream of consciousness is fine) and mapping them according to the strength of the relationship. Write your name in the center of a blank page. Note down stronger ties closer to you and weaker ties further away.
Then ask yourself “Where am I over-invested? Where am I under-invested?” If you’re an engineer in the technology sector and your network is mostly other engineers, but you want to pivot from the tech sector to education, who do you need to meet or re-engage from your past to start to make this shift? Likewise, if you are a mid-level finance professional and want to eventually become a CFO, but your network contains very few C-level executives, this will inform the focus of your networking efforts since you’ll want to have relationships with a variety of CFOs (both public and private) and other senior leaders. What are the relationships that you want to build, maintain and leverage to facilitate achieving your goals?
We all know that careers are not linear, and they evolve and unfold over many years — even decades. Asking yourself the questions outlined above can help you shift from autopilot to being in the driver’s seat so that you can be more intentional and ensure that you achieve your definition of career success.