Develop a satisfying career by exploring the other rides available in the amusement park we call work.
Few people would disagree that the past two years have forever changed society's relationship with work. We're working from alternative locations, serving customers (internal and external) in wildly new ways, leveraging technology for meaningful communication and collaboration, and navigating health and wellness issues. As question of career development looms large. we continue to try to make sense of it all, the question of career development looms large.
Many working professionals are struggling to reconcile what's in their hearts with what's in their minds when it comes to growth, their careers, and their futures. And that gets even more complicated when we overlay the traditional yardsticks of success.
Take two minutes to capture as many responses as possible to this question: What does career mean to you today? You likely listed a wide range of responses. Maybe, for you, career is about service and contribution. Or about:
- Community and relationships
- Getting better and better each day as you master your craft
- Enjoying ongoing challenges
- Finding meaning
- Making choices and exercising control
I am continually surprised and inspired by the lists that participants in my workshops create when defining what career means to them.
Now take 10 seconds and answer this question: How do you evaluate career success?
For many people, words such as title, level, position, and latest promotion come to mind nearly immediately. And that makes perfect sense—the classic question "What do you want to be when you grow up?" trained us from the time we were kids to equate successful grown-up careers with roles. In the workplace, that idea is inadvertently reinforced every time someone asks where we see ourselves in five years.
The disconnect between today's morphing, expanding definition of careers and yesterday's limited way of evaluating career success may be responsible for a considerable portion of the dissatisfaction people (including you?) are feeling regarding career development and the workplace in general. Continuing to conflate promotions and positions with career development and success is a recipe for disaster.
It's time for a mindset shift—a reconciliation of those incongruent thoughts and feelings, an update of how we evaluate our career development—to release promotions and positions as the default measuring stick of success. Enjoy greater growth and satisfaction by getting off the role-r coaster.
Navigating today's mirrored fun house
Let's face it, the pictures we've traditionally held about career success began cracking some time ago. Changes within our external and internal landscapes have left a fractured new reality to be navigated for career development.
On the outside, we're experiencing significant flux. The narrowing pyramid that characterizes many org charts teamed with years of delayering means that promotions are simply not plentiful. If your employer has become a virtual organization, you may face stiffer competition given the loss of geographic limitations. Unfilled positions render workers who remain stretched beyond capacity. Shorter tenures change the development investment calculus for some companies, and the gig mentality has permeated some business cultures (as well as many employees' psyches).
The inner landscape is transforming as well. Younger employees may not identify as personally nor as profoundly with their work or specific roles. Pandemic epiphanies have emerged from the great reprioritization that many people have engaged in as they've reconsidered their relationships with work.
"The pandemic changed WHY people work, not just HOW they work," New York University professor and human capital management expert Anna Tavis writes in "Reflections on 2021, the Year We Rediscovered the Humanity of Work."
The experience economy—and an understanding that experiences drive greater happiness than things—is seeping into the workplace. Likewise, many employees are realizing that they want their jobs to do more for them—to meet needs beyond just paying the bills.
Given the profound changes to the inner and outer landscapes, career development satisfaction and success demands a reconciliation of our traditional, long-held pictures with today's fractured funhouse realities.
The good news is that the role-r coaster is not the only available ride. Today's workplace offers a whole amusement park full of opportunities. A wonderful array of attractions awaits those who pursue career development beyond, between, and besides promotions and roles. There are nearly as many possibilities as there are people looking for growth, engagement, and satisfaction.
Heighten visibility (on the Ferris wheel)
One powerful and highly accessible approach to developing your career that requires no new or different role is an intentional focus on enhanced visibility. Visibility offers two distinct approaches to growth. You can hop on the Ferris wheel to find yourself well above the crowd, better able to appreciate the big picture. But making the choice to step into that rotating compartment doesn't only offer the opportunity to see; it also offers the opportunity for others to see you.
Take for example Mark, an instructional designer in a small L&D department. He knows that his opportunities to advance and develop won't happen through a new role, but he has a keen desire to keep growing. Working primarily from home recently has been great for his output; however, it has left him feeling a bit adrift and disconnected.
Mark mentioned that to his manager during a one-on-one meeting, and it opened the door to some interesting dialogue and a brainstorming session about actions that could elevate Mark's sense of connection, engagement, and growth. Many of the ideas revolved around visibility—giving him a different view of the organization and letting the organization see more of him.
Together with his manager, Mark crafted a twofold plan. To combat his sense of isolation while also allowing him to take his instructional design skills and sensibilities to the next level, Mark took on the role of community manager for a couple of cohorts going through an online leadership course he designed. He would curate resources, spark conversation, and gather feedback directly from his internal customers. In addition, Mark's manager began inviting him to regional L&D meetings where he could meet and establish himself with leaders from other parts of the company.
Hopping on the Ferris wheel to explore greater visibility offered Mark the connection, access to a bigger picture, and exposure he needed to interrupt his disconnection while presenting rich opportunities for him to remain engaged and grow in his current role.
What about you?
- What could greater visibility (to the big picture or different parts of the organization) teach you?
- What could you learn by raising your profile and becoming more visible to others?
Visibility can be an exciting and accessible development ride because of the vast opportunities you can pursue from the comfort of your current role: attending meetings and conferences, coaching, being on the giving or receiving end of mentorship, leading special high-profile projects, or even reconnecting your work with the bigger picture. Powerful growth is always available—and no new position is required.
Seek out stretch and certainty (on the Rotor ride)
In many ways, the world of work today feels a lot like the Rotor ride. It's spinning faster and faster, and at just about the time you get used to the speed, the floor beneath your feet begins falling away. That's why that ride is such a great metaphor for contemporary development.
Let's examine Norah's situation. She joined the training department about one year ago from a technical writing role to become a technical virtual trainer. It was a natural move, and she quickly developed the competence and confidence to excel in the role. As the workforce returns to the office, more learning will occur live and in person. Norah has only known virtual facilitation. Somehow the screen feels safe and comfortable, and she is not so sure about facilitating in front of "real people."
Norah shared her concerns with her supervisor as well as her goal to challenge herself to develop confidence in her live facilitation skills. They generated a plan consistent with the physics of the Rotor ride.
Norah would begin slowly by observing and shadowing experienced trainers. Then the speed would pick up as she attended a train-the-trainer program that would offer skills and practice. That would accelerate to co-training with seasoned professionals, with Norah taking on more and more of the content and training time. Finally, when she hit CF (for the Rotor ride, that stands for centrifugal force, but for Norah it means confidence force), the supports would be removed and she'd be ready to fly solo.
New challenges are a classic vehicle for professional growth and development. Stepping outside of our comfort zones is when attention, awareness, and sometimes adrenaline increase. We build new muscles and find ourselves experimenting, sometimes failing, and learning in real time. The key to success is finding and cultivating that optimal stretch that doesn't snap or break.
For most of us, developing through challenge shouldn't be an endeavor that accelerates quickly from 0 to 100 miles per hour. Thoughtful steps and appropriate supports create a safe space to take risks, explore limits, fail, recover, and most importantly learn. It all begins with a goal, not a position.
What about you?
- What kinds of challenges would enable you to grow in ways that are satisfying and help you remain relevant in a fast-changing world?
- In what part of your current role would you like to feel more confident, secure, or certain?
Nourish your network (on the teacups ride)
The adage "It's not what you know but who you know" is a bit overstated, but there's certainly truth in the relationship between connections and career growth. So much of what we learn is through and with others. For many people, the past few years have had a significant effect on that.
Fatima is an L&D manager in consumer products business that was hit hard during the pandemic. During the past two years, she and her team have been focused on shifting content to new platforms, identifying evolving skill needs, and finding creative ways to meet them. Fatima also has been ensuring that her team members have the support they need to remain healthy and well (sometimes at the expense of her own well-being). As a result, the organization and her team have recognized Fatima for her efforts.
She likes her role and has no plans to change. However, growth is still on her mind, and she had the feeling that it may be most satisfying and effective if it came through peers and other connections.
So, Fatima decided to reignite her old network, to mix it up much like the spinning teacups at an amusement park. She started dialing in to more discretionary calls, working in the company's shared spaces, and connecting organically with peers she didn't have a reason to speak with regularly. She also approached her development intentionally, making a list of the matters she wanted to learn more about—from evolving political dynamics to a new product line—and scheduled time with those who could fill her in.
Fatima's development didn't demand a new role but rather the awareness of her desire for growth and an intentional approach to pursue it through relationships, networking, and strengthening the community around her.
Although she felt comfortable reaching out to individuals she wanted to get to know and learn from, not everyone does. Sometimes it feels easier to get to know and learn from others organically within the workflow. Seeking out special projects, joining targeted groups, and proposing collaborative efforts are alternatives to picking up the phone or sending a message.
What about you?
- Who within your current network has something to teach you?
- What activities could you engage in that would expose you to individuals who can support your development?
Skip the line
Satisfying careers and career development today involve letting go of old mindsets that define success exclusively in terms of promotions and positions. The possibility of new roles will continue to be part of this amusement park we call work. But why stand in line all day (or year or career) for the role-r coaster—or a future position you have little control over? Skip the line and pick another developmental ride (or two or three) that is available now. Also start creating your own adventure that will offer the growth, satisfaction, and engagement you're looking for today.
What It Takes for an Enduring Career
Did you know that before the current all-you-can-ride pricing strategy, Disneyland used to issue a book of tickets? There were A, B, C, and D tickets for the tamer, kiddie rides and only a few E tickets that visitors could use to board the more thrilling attractions. Visitors would spend their tickets on the attractions of greatest interest and pace themselves through a range of experiences.
Do you see how that parallels careers and development? We get to choose our paths through the park (or work), pursuing more or less stretch, exhilaration, and effort at any time. Sometimes we want the E ticket experience—we're ready to put out optimal energy, challenge ourselves, and scale the corporate ladder nonstop. But that's not sustainable over the decades that define our careers.
That's where the A, B, C, and D tickets come in. There are times in everyone's career when we must pull back, rejuvenate, build confidence, tend to issues outside of the workplace, fuel positive feelings, cultivate connection, or find greater meaning in work. With intention, development can come from those experiences as well.
The question is: Are you spending your development tickets to create an experience that allows the full range of your career dreams to come true?