Don't be a back seat driver on your own career path.

Even if you aren't prepared to take the wheel yet, at least move to the front seat where you have a better vantage on the options that lie ahead for you.

Is it time to take the steering wheel and make some different turns?

One of the cultural distinctions between the USA and New Zealand is highlighted in how people manage their careers.

In the States, you're encouraged to have an active voice in how your career unfolds, which often includes a fairly explicit goal on where you're headed, as well as the roles you'll need to serve in to get to your dream role.

We're more subtle in those conversations here in New Zealand, likely fuelled by the tall poppy syndrome, where people are not as explicit about their career ambitions out of concern that others will interpret that as self-promoting. Consequently, career discussions often happen in stealth, or are not as explicit in terms of tangible next steps that will advance you toward your dream role.

Use the analogy of a car on a path that has many exits, turns and stop-offs along the way. The path represents your career.

It's important to reflect on where you've been sitting in the car.

Have you been in the back seat, largely floating like a drifting log from one job to the next, with little control over which direction the car will turn next?

Or have you been in the driver's seat with your hands firmly planted on the steering wheel, making purposeful choices about how you will grow your career?

In the driver's seat, you have to take more accountability for the roads you choose to travel down. More importantly, you have to really back yourself once you decide to take the next exit in search of bigger opportunities.

A big factor in employee engagement is whether or not there are growth opportunities - where you get to help the company grow and, in turn, the company helps you grow and become more capable. That is a fundamental philosophy that underpins talent strategies in progressive companies globally.

The proposition is simple: join us, help us grow and we'll help you grow.

In the ongoing war for the best talent, companies are starting to recognise that career management is a two-way proposition. The company definitely will have its views on where you can contribute best. But you will also have some views on what roles will best tap your natural talents or aptitude, or where you believe you can make the biggest impact.

Finding your Path

Here are some things to think about as you climb into the front seat and get behind the steering wheel.

1. Know yourself. By the time you're 30, you have a reasonable grasp on who you are and what floats your boat. If you're an introvert, you may shy away from scenarios with an inordinate amount of social stimulation. If you're an extrovert, you may struggle in an office where people live largely in analytics and constrained boundaries.

You will also have a feel for the types of roles and challenges that either energise or drain you. Are you happier as a technical expert who would rather not take on managerial responsibilities? Or are you aching to take on bigger leadership roles because that's where your adrenaline really starts to flow? Do you get a rush from interacting directly with customers?

It's never too early to start asking the question: is there something that I love to do, which would also enable me and/or my family to live a good quality life?

2. What's your dream role? The power of vision, both personally and for companies, is evident in how some people get really tenacious - in high drive - when they set their sights on something they really crave.

Vision is powerful because it's compelling. It givesyou reason to push through hardship and unexpected challenges.
Putting your sights on a dream role can energise you to take action, rather than getting mired down in the day-to-day minutia of work. You're not likely to move away from the day-to-day unless you constantly refresh in your mind where it is you're headed.

Or you may have a different mind-set, where life takes you wherever it takes you, where your adrenaline comes from the spontaneity of the next adventure. Even so, you should still have a handle on the jobs and roles that enable you to get some good satisfaction from your work.

3. Map out the various paths. This is the step that separates the curious from the serious.

You'll know that you're serious when you begin to feed your curiosity by learning more about the company, how all the parts fit together, and where you might be able to make the biggest contribution.... and grow.

Some roles may require a higher level certification, or require you to enrol informal study in order to qualify. If being a student is not your thing, the challenge is then how to convert your practical and technical experience into a platform for something more challenging.

It makes sense to focus on that path that gets you to your dream role the quickest.

At the same time, you don't want to cut yourself short on any experiences that might land you in that dream role prematurely. This is where conversations with a mentor can be invaluable. These often are not cookie-cutter decisions, but rather are about defining the path of least resistance that will help grow you into a more capable person.

4. Put your foot on the accelerator. Not to overplay the car analogy, but this is truly where the rubber meets the road. This is what commitment looks like inaction. You decide to enrol in a particular course, or begin building credits toward certification, or take on a tertiary degree.

These actions are what we often refer to as 'discretionary,' which implies a strong degree of engagement and personal accountability. People know that you're serious when you give up six hours across two evenings for four months to attend a course that will help you advance in your career.
That truly is akin to forging ahead and putting stakes in the ground in new territory. This is where you often don't realise how inspiring you have now become to others, especially your kids [of all ages].

5. The lattice has replaced the ladder. The metaphor of the corporate ladder was part of our psyche last century. A prominent model borne from Deloitte puts some definition around what has become known as the corporate lattice, replacing the vertical ladder model which suggested there was really only one road to the top. From the bottom up!

The lattice model encourages employees and companies to consider moves in all directions - up, sideways, laterally for broader scope, and even down if a particular technical skill is required, or if you've reached that point where you want to throttle back a bit, perhaps in a mentor role.

The flexibility in which direction you move is not just tied to your dream role, but also to the lifestyle that you want to live.

Not only have the traditional boundaries between work and home blurred in a major way over the past two decades, but there are also more single parents and dual parents working. It's clear why the lattice has replaced the ladder. It provides more viable options.

Get in the Front Seat

Even if you aren't prepared to take the wheel yet, at least move to the front seat where you have a better vantage on the options that lie ahead for you. Have a good discussion with your manager, or ask someone to be your mentor and you can begin to think out loud about where your career path might take you.

There's no better time than now.


Originally written for, and published in the New Zealand Herald.

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A headshot of Dr. Harold Hillman