1. Define where you want to go next? Think of what in your current job makes you successful. Is it working with people? Is it your specific area of expertise? Is it motivating and leading others? What are your professional strengths? How do those contribute to your success? Use your experience, knowledge of yourself, self-discovery, and feedback from your colleagues, clients, and managers in answering those questions.
Once you answer those questions, think whether you want to move to what you presume to be the next career step in your immediate area of expertise or an adjacent area? This is a very important question even for an established professional. If you are an experienced software developer, would you like to become a tech lead or a project manager? If your are in quality assurance, would you like to learn to code or pick up automated testing skills? Do not limit yourself to a career ladder as it is defined by your organization. The world is becoming much flatter, and the concept of lateral adjacent move is widely acknowledged nowadays.
When answering this question, take your long-term objective into account. For example, when I was a software developer, I wanted to eventually become a Chief Operations Officer. However, I loved information technologies and was not as fascinated about Human Resources in their function as I knew it. There was no easy way to connect these two functions. However, I knew exactly what I wanted. I wanted to build beautiful software that will delight its users, and in orchestrating the processes and interactions around envisioning, creating, and enhancing this software I saw an opportunity to learn about people, their interactions, and their power in a highly technological world.
In my case, the progression from developer to business analyst to a project manager, than a manager of project managers, software delivery director, and COO was not a zigzag. It was a well calculated combination of short-term goals and a long-term objective.
Think of your projection strategically. Where you want to be in 5 years? What do you need to learn and understand before you get there? What are several possible journeys that would take you there? Create a map, put your timelines there, and make it happen.
2. Validate your plan. Now you have a plan and you know what are the options for your next steps. However, if you do not share it, no one will know about it. Most people wait until their annual performance review (if their company is doing performance reviews) with their manager to share their expectations for their next step. Do not do either of the two:
- do not wait until annual performance review, and
- do not share your next steps directly with you manager.
As any plan, your career plan needs to be validated. Validate it with the people you trust, within and outside of your organization. Create a form that is easy to present. I suggest that you consider using an infographic format for this. Years ago, I created a prezi for myself entitled "My Career Journey". I still have it and when I look at it, I am surprised how little it has changed and how much of it came true. I believe that one of the reasons it happened is because I've always had it in front of me, so I was able to validate and course-correct as necessary.
Once you came up with your career journey in any format that works for you, share it with someone you trust in your organization. Once I shared mine with technology leader who ran a huge program that I supported, and he responded in two sentences. The first was: "I would never think this is the next steps you see for yourself." This was not what I expected so I almost feared to hear the next sentence, which was: "But I have huge respect for you, so I want to support. What can I do to make it happen?" This is just one possible example. Get advice from you trusted friend, from a family member. From our experience, avoid getting advice from your peers - they may feel unnecessarily competitive and ask to your disadvantage.
3. Identify the gap. Most likely, there is a gap between where you are and where you want to be, otherwise you would be there already. In Step #1 when you are getting feedback and in Step # 2, when you share your aspirations, keep asking your five "why's" to identify this gap and find the ways to close it.
- "I've never thought you would be interested in taking managerial responsibilities."
- "Why so?"
- "You do not come across as a manager?"
- "You are always quiet in meetings. I've never thought you have an opinion."
Here's a gap and a way to fix it. Share your opinion in meetings. Advocate for what you believe in.
- "I do not think it's a great idea for you to become a project manager."
- "Project mangers are disciplined. They set up rules. Once they set up rules, they follow them themselves and hold others accountable too."
- "Why do you think I cannot do this?"
- "Well, frankly, you are always late to meetings. Maybe a minute or two, but you're never on time. And once you come, you don't seem too organized. You don't take notes and forget about your own action items so that others always need to remind you. How would you take care of other's if you can't take care of your own? Sorry, I did not mean to be harsh, you are a great Java developer, I'm learning a lot from you."
- "Of course, of course. This is actually very helpful. You also mentioned about holding others accountable?"
- "Yes, actually. You never call people out. I think you shy away from conflict. Remember, Alex did not write his sql queries which you depended upon, so you stayed late and just took care of it yourself, rather than confronting Alex or escalating to his manager? Franly, I thought this was nice of you, but this is not a quality I would expect from a project manager."
As you can see from this example, there are two immediate gaps identified, and a number of ways to close those. This takes us to Step 4: close the gap(s).
4. Close the gap and plan for BATNA. Once you collected enough information on the gaps, you have to plan on closing those. There are two things that have to happen: first, you have to close the gaps identified in Step #3 and confirm by soliciting feedback that this is noticed. To do so, you cannot take any feedback personally. Acknowledge it, summarize, and plan for it.
For example, in the first case above, create a checklist: meeting, date, did I speak up? Make sure though that you do not just speak up for the sake of speaking up, but in each case, you have something valuable to share. To do so, prepare for meetings, study the background, research the issue, talk to stakeholders, and form an opinion.
In the second example listed in Step #3, you need a more complex plan with ongoing feedback. Initially, you would list all the instances where you are not organized or disciplined as a checklist:
- come to meetings on time;
- always be prepared;
- take and share the notes;
- always fulfill your action items;
- follow up on other's action items and dependencies;
- ensure a well structured repository for your documents and data, share it with others.
Be innovative and creative is coming up with those steps, share your data with others, and your contribution will be noticed and appreciated.
As for you being assertive and your ability to deal with conflict, you may need to do research, modify your behavior, solicit feedback, or even find an external advisor or mentor.
If you were not able to close the gaps in a long period of time, consider revising your goals. But if you were and you feel that you are ready for the conversation with your manager or other decision maker, there is one additional task you need to accomplish: formulate your BATNA. The term BATNA comes from the Negotiations Theory and literally means "Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement". BATNA is the most advantageous alternative course of action a party can take if negotiations fail and an agreement cannot be reached. BATNA is the key focus and the driving force behind a successful negotiator. Before you share your aspirations, decide what do you do if you hear "you are a great developer but I do not see you as a business analyst, no one can understand what you are saying" or "we do not have a director title in this organization so don't expect a title promotion here".
What is that minimum outcome that you are comfortable accepting from this conversation? An action plan to help you get the role, the title, the responsibility you are interested in with a specific timeline? An opportunity to move to a different department where your dream is an option? A conversation with a peer who can make your next step happen? What would you do otherwise? Do you have a backup? Is your reputation strong enough to explore other options within the organization? Did you explore the market outside? Do you have external relationships built? Be very clear with those answers before you have this important conversation or, in other words, have your BATNA ready. You do not need to share it with anyone except for yourself, but you have to be honest with yourself on those topics.
Don't overlook this, as a failure in this conversation may lead to loss of motivation and sliding job performance. For example, you speak with your manager who does not see you neither now nor in any foreseeable future in the role that you want to be in. If you are right and your manager is underestimating you, without BATNA you are staying in your current role and feeling miserable, or you quit and start looking for a job while being unemployed (which is rarely a good idea). If you have a BATNA, you move to a different department in the role you are interested in (or with a clear negotiated plan how to get there) and feel more energized than ever.
What if you are wrong though, and you are not ready or do not skills/qualifications for this role yet? This topic we will cover in the Step #5.
5. Share, agree, and follow up. Now you are finally ready to share your expectations with your manager or the other person who is the decision maker in making this happen. You set up a meeting with a clear objective so that you do not surprise your manager with this conversation and give him/her time to prepare, and have this important dialog.
If you manager is supportive and receptive, you jointly on the plan to make it happen. If he/she is not, you have to make your decision. Does he/she have a point? Are you confident this is what you want and this role plays to your strength? If not, get very detailed feedback and take time to think about it. From a manager perspective, the most difficult type of employees are steady performers who lack leadership, confidence, creativity, but do a consistently good job in their subject matter area, and come to you on a regular basis with the same question: when I am going to get promoted to a tech lead? business analysis manager? head of QA? They take feedback literally:
- you said I do not show any initiative? Look, there is an Excel template I created last year.
- you are saying I lack leadership skills? Everyone comes to me to ask about business logic behind this screen.
Few of them are coachable, but many keep having the same conversations until they come up with their BATNA and move on, and this is the best scenario in this case. If I see they cannot perform in the next level role, I will not promote them. In other words, following the Peter's principle, as a manager, I won't be the one who will promote them to the level of their incompetence.
However, in most cases you will have a good meaningful conversation with your manager, get helpful feedback, and jointly come up with a plan for you to get where you want to be. In this case, make sure that this is a SMART goal and make it your priority following up with your manager on a regular basis in implementing every step along the way and getting immediate feedback. If your manager changes, it is your responsibility to ensure continuity.
Meanwhile get yourself prepared for your new role: read books, establish relationships, find mentors in this area internally and externally, practice things you will need to do once you officially get this role, pilot, get feedback, so that you are completely ready even before your complete all the tasks discussed. Once you reach the goal, initiate the conversation on making your next step official.