How to Build Career Momentum
My next few posts, will be devoted to the topic of building career momentum from scratch. I’ve always thought success is like making money – much easier when you already have a lot of it. So how do you quickly get to a point where each success naturally brings more and more opportunities for you without you having to work quite so hard for it? Most people just let nature take its course. They work diligently on whatever is assigned to them and eventually get more prestigious assignments that allow them to have a larger impact on the organization’s success. That’s the “textbook” progression of a career, but besides taking too long, it leaves too many things to chance. Generating real momentum for yourself doesn’t happen overnight, but you have the tools you need accelerate this process right now. Rather than hoping to someday be in the right place at the right time, there are a few things you can do to find what the right place is and just go there already.
Three Steps to Career Momentum
- Learn why your role exists and how your work creates value for others
- Find out the most difficult or important challenges facing the business
- Become an authority on something that allows you to solve problems for people
Once you understand how your role really adds value to your organization, it will become clearer how you can be part of the solution to the important challenges facing the business. Of course, you’ll have to find out what those are first, which will require some digging. And lastly, you need to make sure that all of the great work you do really does translate into the next good opportunity. That means making sure that the skills you’re building are relevant and in demand.
I also want to point out two principles that underpin my philosophy for building career momentum. In fact, if you take nothing else away from this post, it should be this:
- Every organization, no matter how successful, is constantly tackling big challenges
- The bigger the challenges you address, the more valuable you are
If you want to be important, then do important work. It’s that simple. Senior management usually address the largest challenges and opportunities, because that’s their job. But as I’ve hopefully made clear, I believe solving big problems is everyone’s job. It is not something you want to do on an empty stomach, though. First things first, you need to understand why you’re even in the building.
Understand Why Your Organization Needs You
Something you may have noticed about people who are well into their careers is that they frequently talk about their roles in abstract terms. A customer service representative says, “I talk customers off the ledge,” or the IT Manager might say, “I make sure people can get work done.” That’s usually the mark of years of someone who has spent years observing how their work really benefits others at the end of the day. Aside from the rhetorical flourish, that understanding of actually makes these people better at their jobs. How? Because they understand in a deep way how their work adds value, these people make better decisions when it comes to making tradeoffs. This person doesn’t need to be told what to do. On the contrary, their compass lets them set a vision for what they should be doing (that’s one of the things that makes people good leaders). You may not have years of experience yet, but with some critical thinking and imagination, you can absolutely reach a similar level of understanding about your role.
Now, pause for a moment: have you ever asked why your position exists? Does it seem painfully obvious? It may sound strange, but the first mistake most people make in their careers is not knowing what their job is. Hint: there is always a more nuanced answer to this question than you initially think. The first thing you should understand is that your role and the responsibilities associated with it represent a management decision. Specifically, your job represents a decision the organization has made about how a specific set of activities should be accomplished, as opposed to all other possible ways of accomplishing them. The decision may have been thoughtful, misguided, or even unwitting, but every job represents a decision, and you need to understand how and why it was made.
Let’s say you just started a new job as an accountant at a software company and are asked why your role exists. Your first reaction might be that, obviously, the business needs to know how much money it makes. Accountants know how interpret the gazillion laws and regulations that govern how to company reports its finances. Open and shut, right? I say nope. The problem with this train of thought is that it only explains why the accounting function exists in general. It says nothing about why the role is set up as it is at your specific company. Remember, the management team had to build an organization at some point and make decisions about how to best organize different functions. Your role somehow fits into that game plan, and you need to get to the bottom of what guided those choices. If you don’t understand what your role really is, how can you excel at it?
It may take a little imagination to picture your job differently, but try to think of other ways of doing your work. How might the organization be set up differently? As the accountant, you might ask why your role is performed in-house rather than outsourced to another firm, for example. After all, the company’s core competency is developing software, so why not let outside experts handle the books? You may find that the floodgates open once you start thinking of alternate realities: Does your team really need three people in this role? Why does your VP of Finance report to the Chief Operating Officer instead of the CEO? Why are accountants allocated to regions rather than individual product lines? Schedule time with your manager to lay out these alternate realities and ask why you do things the way you do. So as to not seem petulant, approach the conversation from the perspective of understanding why the current way is optimal rather than suggesting that things be done differently. Even if they don’t have good answers, most managers will appreciate the thought you put into it. You might get great answers or scary ones, but you should regardless walk away with some new insight into how the big decision makers see your role adding value.
Back to you, the new accountant. Let’s say that you found out your company at one point outsourced the accounting functions but later brought them back in-house. With a little probing, you find that the cost savings weren’t worth the communication problems it created. Interesting. Senior management hated spending time double-checking the books every month, and not having people in-house who really understand the individual projects as well as the accounting rules turned into a headache. It was fine when the company was small, but when they got larger they needed people on-hand all the time so that senior management could focus on growing the business without worrying about the finance team.
These moments of truth show you how the business values your role. It’s now clear that part of your job is providing peace of mind to management, not just making sure the numbers are right (and you’ve also learned something about how a business’s accounting demands might change with company size, which could be useful down the road). Now that you’ve internalized this lesson, you start seeing all sorts of new ways you can help the business by relieving uncertainty for senior management. Maybe you could put together a weekly report that anticipates their likely questions. Or better yet, you could create an online dashboard they can access anytime to answer their questions. You could attend development meetings more regularly to get a jump on potential issues and message them upward to prevent surprises later…now you’re cooking.
It’s on you to uncover these hidden aspects of your role, but the good news is most new people don’t do this, so it’s a relatively easy way to set yourself apart. Those who have the best understanding of how to create value for others are always in the best position to succeed. You may be in a role that is considerably more specific to your industry or company than our example. If so, it may take more effort for you to go through this exercise. From one professional to another, it is worth whatever time it takes you. I promise that you will better understand how to stand out in your job as a result. If your manager refers you to more senior people, even better. You’ll get exposure, and you’ll build your brand as a strong thinker. Think of it as a small down payment on building your professional momentum. When a new opportunity arises, you’ll be in better position to grab it.
In my next longform post, I'll explore where you can look for those opportunities and how to find information that often stays hidden from new hires.