We all dream of success – of becoming better at our career, leading more fulfilling lives, both professional and personal, and honing our talents which let us excel at our strengths while excising our weaknesses. But in most cases, there is lack of a clear path to tread to get to these destinations and after a while, it becomes a hit-or-miss that keeps us focused on what we are currently doing rather than telling us what we are good at and how we should sharpen those hard-to-find talents. The most fundamental question at our career crossroads is deciding which path to take. So, read on as we explain what each path holds in store for you and how you can make the right choice at these critical crossroads.
Many of us wish to specialize in the areas we have already chosen. An engineer who is into engineering design for automotive parts further strengthens his/her appreciation, skills and expertise in designing of automotive parts. Maybe he/she wishes to become an expert in this area.
Specialization has a few approaches:
One, it means applying ourselves over and over again in the particular area. In this process, learning continuously by doing -> learning from outcome -> incorporating the learning into the next time (or simply feeding back into the loop) we become better at what we are doing. Our ability to solve problems, our ability to complete tasks and our success rate becomes better. This process leads to improving our proficiency levels in these skills. (Taking the example of Sudoku, by repeatedly solving the puzzle we observe that our ability to solve the puzzle becomes better.)
Two, acquiring new skills related to the area. We could improve our output by learning skills that are related to what we are doing. For example, an Accountant would be better of learning Excel as she would be expected to generate various kinds of reports on a regular basis. Improving her Excel skills help her improve her proficiency.
Three, acquiring new skills that emerge in the area of one’s expertise. In the case of engineering design, for example, there could be new design software that comes out in the market. The designer would be expected to quickly pick up the skills to handle the new software. This is a very important area. The sooner one comes to grip with emerging trends and acquires skills, the better their competitiveness. On the other hand, many people are not able to compete or they become irrelevant simply because they have not kept pace with the changes happening around them.
Many of us aspire to move into a different functional area at some point in our career. Maybe we realize an interest in a different function. Maybe we find that there are better opportunities in a different function. Whatever the reason, this is a choice available to all of us.
Cross-functional movement entails acquiring skills that are related to the function to which we want to move. If an HR person desires to pursue a career in finance, he would be expected to demonstrate skills in finance such as appreciation of accounting principles, financial statements, financial models and so on.
Some organizations consciously groom few of their employees in cross-functional expertise as part of their strategy to build general managers or business leaders. They send them to training courses through which they can come up to speed on the skills required in different functions. They assign them to different function or department. They assign a mentor to hold their hand and guide them as they navigate uncharted waters in the new skill areas.
Universally, there are three different roles that a person can play – individual contributor, manager and entrepreneur. These are not hierarchical in nature, meaning it is not as though a managerial role is “better” or “higher” compared to an individual contributor. The “better” and “higher” are measured instead by how much value we are able to deliver in whatever role we are playing.
One may choose to further strengthen the value one is able to deliver in the role they are playing. This can be enhanced by improving proficiency levels in behavioral or soft skills. These skills, such as communication, interpersonal skills, conflict management etc. help us better deliver our work, improve our productivity on the job, improve our efficiency and thus the value which we are able to deliver.
We are born with certain traits, many of which we cannot change. However, we can hone some of our behaviors and traits to use them more effectively.
Many of us consciously make an attempt to improve these skills on our own. For example, a saleswoman becomes aware that she needs to improve her negotiation skills. She takes a course in negotiation where she is exposed to concepts, practice sessions and exercises. She is aware this is only a starting point. By applying what she has learnt in training on the job she gradually becomes better at negotiating and can see her output improve.
From another perspective, role enhancement is aided by change in context. A delivery manager who is managing a 20-member team feels that he can and needs to handle a larger team but the current position in the organization does not provide such an opportunity. Maybe a change in job to another company might offer an opportunity to handle a larger team.
Or taking another example, a programmer feels that complexity of the problems she is solving now is not challenging enough and wants to handle much more complex problems. Maybe a change in context – a job change helps.
Organizations are conscious of this need of their employees and give opportunities to their employees who are able to play a “bigger”, yet similar role. This motivates the employee, who is able to deliver better value and the company also benefits, resulting in a win-win scenario.
Okay, we have been playing a particular role so far. But we aspire to play a different role. Maybe some of us who have been playing a managerial role want to move into an individual contributor role. Examples: A Principal of a school taking up teaching, a Business Unit head taking up a project manager’s role, a salesman moving to an area sales manager and so on.
Each role requires delivering value in a different manner. And they also require certain skills to play that role effectively. For example, someone playing a managerial role will be enabled with skills on delegating work, getting people to work in teams, project management, process improvement techniques and so on. Similarly someone playing the role of an entrepreneur will be enabled with skills in understanding finance and its management, business strategy, influencing people, organization change management and so on.
Of course, not everyone may be cut out for all roles. There are some inherent traits we possess. Some of these may or may not be conducive to the role we aspire to play. Assessing our traits for the level of fitness required will help us in playing the role well. For example, one who is not comfortable taking financial risks may not fit well into an entrepreneurial role. Of course, some of the areas or skills are something we can learn if we have the aptitude for the same. Taking training to sharpen our skills in these areas help us adapt better to the roles we want to migrate to.
Professionalizing Our Hobbies
We know some people who have quit their long-term career or profession out-of-the-blue to pursue something tangential or totally different – something that was dear to their hearts. A manager giving up his career in IT industry to pursue teaching Yoga, a doctor giving up her medical career to pursue dancing, an accountant taking up sports journalism, etc.
We all have some interests and hobbies i.e. talents not related to our profession. Some feel an association strong enough at some point that we feel energized to pursue this talent as a profession.
Such a shift is also enabled by today’s world where opportunities – its awareness, availability and delivery – is being enabled by the border less world of the Internet.
Needless to say, such a pursuit requires developing our skills to a point that we are able to generate value to others if we want to make a profession out of our interest or talent.
So we have seen five different paths that are available to us in our career development – specialization, cross-functional movement, role enhancement, role enrichment and professionalizing our hobbies.
Clearly the path we choose depends on our aspirations, our preparedness and our commitment to deliver better value in our choice.