After earning an undergraduate degree in mathematics I pursued a career in systems engineering. I found the work enjoyable enough but realized that a sizable part of my brain wasn’t fully engaged in it. So I went to business school to find my next career. At the end of the first year, I decided organizational development (OD) and leadership would be a good fit for me. To make sure, I took every class offered on the topics, did pro bono projects in the field, and spent the summer between semesters doing OD work at a tech company.
When I interviewed at Hewlett Packard, a manager told me, “We don’t have a career ladder here; we have a career maze. That means there’s no pre-defined career path so you’ll be able to design your career.” I wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing. A B-school friend had joined IBM where her next five career moves were clearly mapped out for her. She liked knowing the next steps, but I wasn’t convinced. What if the direction laid out for her took her somewhere she didn’t want to be?
I found HP’s maze more to my liking. While it offered more opportunity it also required that I take the initiative in plotting my career. After several years, my HP colleagues in leadership development had taken their careers down different paths. One took a marketing job with HP’s printer division in San Diego. Another went into manufacturing in HP’s fiber optics division where she eventually became general manager.
Another colleague continued in training, and I took my career in a direction that eventually led to coaching.
Choosing to be the architect of your own career rather than following a structured path means you will have more many decisions to make along the way and, at times, precious little guidance. When my client Gayle, a vice president with a financial services company, was presented with options to remain a subject matter expert or move into management, she hesitated. She liked the technical part of her job and having the opportunity to go deeper in that area or go broader and learn about adjacent areas. Or she could step into a management position, a path that would lead her away from doing the work and toward managing the work and the staff.
Some people get more enjoyment doing the job than managing it. For others, the opportunity to develop staff and integrate their expertise into better management practices is more fulfilling. For Gayle to choose the right path, she needed to examine her skills and passions and understand the work environment that truly made her happy, not what would result in the highest salary or most prestige. After she made her decision, Gayle worked with her leadership team to gain buy-in and put her plan in place.
If you are interested in paving your own career path within your company, keep in mind that, like a trail deep in the woods, a path less chosen will also be less clear-cut. Your manager and mentors can help identify opportunities within the organization, and you’ll find the same tools and skills used to find a new job outside the company are applicable within it. We all know that networking can be important for making personal connections and staying on top of industry trends. But it’s also useful for making connections within your own organization. For global-scale networking, consider actively posting on work-related social media sites like LinkedIn.
Being able to articulate your brand succinctly will help others understand your strengths and interests and envision how you would add value to their department. And knowing how to partner with your boss, identifying ways to add value, and sharing feedback in a sensitive, productive way can all further your reputation as a team player.
It may seem counterintuitive, but it’s important to create a solid resume even if you have no plans to leave a company. More than a marketing piece, a resume is an inventory of your skills and accomplishments. Most companies maintain professional biographies of their senior executives to demonstrate the organization’s depth of experience. Even if you are not at the “corporate bio” level, keep your resume up to date.
Making the right career decisions is rarely a matter of luck, whether you are forging your own way within your organization or looking for a new path outside it. The Juicy Work approach is designed to ensure you are intentional in managing your career, helping you assess your capabilities and behaviors, identify mismatches between your interests and your job, and guide your decision-making all along your career path.