November 10, 2006
I spend a lot of time going with the flow. I'm frequently happy for someone else to have the opinion that ends the meeting or sets me on a course for lunch. In terms of social interaction, this is a good thing - we can't all make all the decisions all the time. Sometimes I care where we go eat, so I make the decision. Sometimes I don't, so I'm happy to go where someone else wants to go.
When it comes to careers, though, a lot of us spend way too much time on autopilot, letting someone else decide what promotions we should be interested in and what career paths we should take.
I think some people handle their careers this way because they are pleasers at heart, and when they are asked to take on a new assignment or role they want to make the asker happy. And it's nice to feel needed, to be picked for the team. For many others it may simply be a matter of not deciding that these decisions are really yours to make.
Which got a group of us talking at lunch the other day about decisions you should make on purpose as you are going through your career and developing your own leadership abilities. Here is a list of six and a half things that we came up with as a start. (If you've got others, send me a note.)
1. Decide to have your career on purpose
You don't have to take a promotion just because someone offered it to you. You don't have to accept a new assignment just because that's where you've been put. And if you're stuck you don't have to stay put. You can search for something better, or you can look for a new place to work.
People outgrow organizations, and organizations outgrow people. You may change in a way that creates a mismatch between your and your organization, at which point you need to find a new home more in line with who you want to become.
Likewise with a promotion; just because someone else thinks you'd be right for a job doesn't mean that job is right for you. Assess new opportunities in terms of who you want to be and what is important to you. If family is important then that promotion that's going to put you on a plane three out of every four weeks probably isn't such a good deal.
The point is that when it comes to your career make decisions on purpose that are in line with goals and values important to you.
2. Decide to take responsibility
If you make decisions you will make mistakes. Recognize when you've made a mistake, avoid making the same mistake twice, and admit your faults.
3. Decide to give back some of what you take
If you're reading this you have probably have regular access to electrical power, a computer, advanced communications networks, dependable food, shelter, and water. We have a lot. Decide to give some back.
There is not much that's more rewarding than helping someone else. Look for opportunities to pass on what you've learned at work or at home, lighten someone else's load, or just be a pal.
4. Decide that it's OK not to know everything
You don't anyway, so why torment everyone around you by making decisions and taking actions based upon an incomplete or inaccurate understanding? Ask questions and listen to the answers.
5. Decide what mistakes are OK for people to make
When you are leading a group of people you'll have to pass assignments off to others. Because you'll want them to do a great job you'll want them to own the task and really feel responsible for it. This means that they'll be largely on their own and that they will occasionally make mistakes.
Breathe deeply, this really is OK.
The key to resisting the temptation to pull a project back under your own wing when this happens is to have decided ahead of time what mistakes are good learning experiences that you'll let your staff recover from on their own, and what mistakes are catastrophic if not addressed by you.
6. Decide to give information, not data
When my 3 year old son asks if it's cold outside I can tell him that its 65 degrees, or I can tell him that it's long pants weather. Both answers address his question. The data (65 degrees) isn't immediately useful to him, but the information is.
Things are the same at work. When you have an opportunity to add value, take it. There may be cases where "just the facts" are required, but in most cases people want you to use whatever talents they glimpsed in you during the interview.
6.5 Decide to act on information, not data
This is a lesson I learned the hard way when dealing with people, but it applies across the board. As you pursue the many decisions you make each day countless opportunities arise to get data and act on it. The temptation is to act quickly, sometimes before verifying the data, seeking other supporting data, or critically assessing what you've been told.
Don't give in to this temptation, and when you find people who reliably provide you with information in addition to data, stick to them like glue.
West is the director of a Top 20 supercomputing center and author of The Only Trait of a Leader (www.onlytraitofaleader.com), a book and blog about leadership and career skills for technology professionals. Contact him at email@example.com.
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