Three Major Career Milestones

Developmental readiness is a key part of learning and growing.

We don’t expect a four-year-old to completely grasp social nuances; their mental readiness and life experience have to develop before they can adapt other instructions. This sort of thing is true at other stages, too.

Understanding how mental development connects to professional development is part of self-awareness in managing’s one’s progress. It’s also key to coaching and mentoring.

The First Career Milestone

Imagine a young person just out of college and taking on their first job. Or, try to recall yourself at that stage.

That person has a limited understanding of the environment they’re heading into. Internships or summer jobs may have given them a taste for how interpersonal business communication works, and what some of the expectations may be for their jobs. Still, an intern is never that much a part of the environment, and our new graduate may have been treated quite differently during that experience.

While an internship may have focused on a single project or a narrow responsibility, their new career is likely to be broader, with a greater demand on skills like flexibility, ability to manage one’s time and prioritization.

I recall a couple of the instructions I received early in my career that started to define expectations. The first was the importance of speaking at a level of detail appropriate to the audience. The next was about messaging effectively, i.e., knowing what to say and what not to say.

There’s one other item I learned although no one was able to put the principle into words. I recall being impressed that I’d be in some meeting and someone would make a good suggestion about what we should do next. A few years later, I’d be impressed when someone was able to speak confidently and off-the-cuff about the pros and cons of a particular plan.

For me, however, it felt like I every time I suggested something, it got shot down. I wondered why I never had an idea that was any good. Sometimes I’d have something that sounded like a good idea, but it would turn out someone else had already thought of it. And, if I did have an original idea, it would turn out to be absurd or inapplicable.

Eventually, I figured it out: ideas don’t just come from anywhere. They come from experience, particularly from the experience of discussing all kinds of ideas that just weren’t any good.

So, the first major career milestone:

You can have an idea that is both original and correct

Once you pass this milestone, you’re really in a position to contribute beyond being another set of arms and legs.

The Second Career Milestone

In the last few years I’ve identified a second significant career milestone:

You know how to define your own job

Think of a job. Any job. Any job you’ve been assigned to or hired into. You had an interview (probably). You were told what the circumstances were and (hopefully) what the expectations were. You might have been asked questions about what you did in a similar circumstance, but that was mostly to confirm your experience. It wasn’t to ask you what you would actually do.

At nearly every role below that of the top dog in a department, building or business unit, we almost never expect someone to walk in the door with a plan. The expectation is that the new person will fit in, taking on the plans, issues and ideas of their predecessor.

Maybe you’ve been brought in because the person before you wasn’t working out. In all likelihood, that’s probably not because their ideas weren’t any good: It was because they weren’t executing, weren’t meeting expectations – they weren’t delivering results.

Achieving that second milestone demonstrates leadership. This comes when you understand enough about the role, the environment and the expectations that you can tell someone else – notably your boss or your client – just what the job is that you should be doing. It’s what makes you different from your predecessor and begins your delivery of successful outcomes.

The person you’re reporting to probably doesn’t know everything that your job entails. Maybe they had a written job description for it. At the very least, they had the experience of managing your predecessor, so they have an idea what the issues are. The fact is, however, that they don’t know everything you’ll have to do, or understand the priorities of the items on the job description. They may understand that you have to get a certain report in every week, but they may not realize what other processes that report enables. Maybe they don’t realize that the report is actually a legal requirement, so you can’t just skip a week if time runs short.

They need you to tell them what your job is.

What does it mean to design your own role?

First, it means having independent expectations of your resources, not just accepting what you’re handed. Your design should not just state a bunch of (unrelated) tasks and duties. It connects them or justifies why an outlier is included. It should also include the resources needed. That could be the skills and number of team members, or it could be facilities, technology or access.

Second, it means defining the objective of the role. This doesn’t mean you should be building a box around yourself; it means setting the strategic objective, i.e., what does success look like? What are the components that support it? How do you support those around you, and how does your work support the success of the whole?

So, why define your own role?

Several reasons. First, you’ll know better than anyone what the role should look like – you’re living it, day after day. You’re seeing what works, what doesn’t and what’s a waste of time.

Next, it’s empowering – it’s taking ownership. It’s easier to own the goals if you set them yourself.

It’s also a positive contribution – it’s not a passive acceptance of the way the world works. It’s a take-charge approach to making a contribution.

Now, you may not always get the positive response you want from this.

Certainly, if you got hired to wash dishes, your boss is going to want you to wash dishes. He doesn’t want you spending your time doing a time-motion study on dish washing, or conducting evaluations on dish soap quality.

Defining your role is demonstrating that leadership. It’s part of the personal brand you’re trying to maintain. You may have to negotiate on the role, or phase in (or out) certain elements. You may even change your mind over time. No matter what, though, you should own the vision of your role.

Those are two pretty major milestones we’ve just discussed: First, going from newbie to contributor by being able to come up with ideas that are both new and original; second, graduating to leadership by defining your own role.

The Third Career Milestone

I can see you, nodding with determination and positive energy, and you say, “This is great! Now: What’s the third milestone?”

That’s where you’ve got me; I don’t know what the third milestone is yet. Just like defining your own role, that’s something you have to figure out for yourself.