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Broaden Your Horizons

Broaden Your Horizons

Background:

In part 1 of this series on Growth and Unhappiness, we saw how the reckless pursuit of career growth (i.e. promotions) can cause anguish. In part 2, we read about the example of Srikanth who refused to grow into leadership and management positions and still had no trouble staying happy. And, in part 3, we explored one easy method to manage our growth.

In this article, we will take a slightly different perspective of growth, and explore whether there is another dimension in which growth might be pursued.

Incubating leaders:

Once, our executive coaching group (an informal group of executive coaches and mentors) performed an informal survey of the backgrounds of several founders of startups and senior executives of medium-size companies. The survey indicated that a large number of these successful leaders had worked, earlier in their careers, at one particular large organization. This large organization – let’s call it LeaderBreeder – was apparently doing an excellent job of building leaders, and was, thus, indirectly helping the industry at large.

Upon a closer look at LeaderBreeder, this is what we found. At a certain level in the organization, say at GM’s (general manager’s) level, this company had a written policy to move people around in the organization such that they got to do totally different things every 2 years. So, a GM in Engineering would move to Finance. Or, a GM in Marketing would move to HR. And so on. This sort of horizontal movement gave these managers the sort of diverse view of the business that would be critical when they grew into executive level positions.

Lush lawns grow along the ground:

There are certain types of Creepers (a type of plant) that grow horizontally. My favorite is one that is used to create lush colorful lawns because the plant loves to grow and spread along the ground. It doesn’t even try to chase the Sun.

When you think about growth, don’t just think vertical. Consider lateral growth, i.e. moving into other groups or departments of your organization. Even within your own department (such as Engineering) there could be many other product or service groups that might be interesting to consider.

A friend of mine – let’s call him Devon – spent a number of years in Microsoft’s operating systems group. Naturally, he came to be called a “Systems Engineer”, and he was proud of being a “Kernel Developer”. One day, he said to himself: “Hey, I have no clue how this kernel and drivers stuff is actually used out there!” So, he transplanted himself into an applications group that used the Windows platform to write software that was used by real people on the street. When I met him during this time, he said he was getting used to Visual Basic – a painfully “lowly” language compared with C or C++ which are used by Systems programmers – but he had no complaints. He was meeting real customers, solving real problems. He loved his new environment and challenges.

Devon is now self-employed: he started a services company that develops Windows based software called middleware. He says, “We are the best in our category because we understand both the upper layer and the lower layer”.

Consider horizontal growth:

The morale of the story is this: professional growth is not always vertical. Depending on your ambition for the long term, a broad range of skills could be more valuable than just deep expertise in one area. If your ambition is, one day, to become a CEO, just building in-depth expertise in (say) the technology of Cloud Computing is not going to be sufficient. You will need to understand Finance because money is the bottom-line of every business. You will need to understand Marketing because that’s where the product ideas come from. You will need to master Sales because that’s where you get to know your customer.

Going a step further, I would say, you don’t even need to be possessed with the ambition to become a CEO to consider this mode of growth. For some of us, learning a variety of roles and jobs is a lot of fun. For some others, a change to a totally different type of work can provide a breath of fresh air that might be badly needed to instill some excitement in our life.

As I have said earlier, there is no one way to ensure happiness in matters related to professional growth. Your mentor or professional coach can guide you in exploring both vertical and horizontal avenues of growth available to you. Depending on where you are in your career, your goals, and your makeup, an appropriate choice of direction would ensure success and more importantly, happiness.

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Aiming for Everest One Peak at a Time

Note: This is part 3 of the series on Growth and Unhappiness. Before reading this article, please read part 1 and part 2 for the sake of continuity.

Background:

In part 1 of this series, we saw how the reckless pursuit of career growth (i.e. promotions) can cause anguish. In part 2, we read about the example of Srikanth who refused to grow and still managed to stay happy. He had realized that his true calling was in what he was already doing, and didn’t need to change roles (that accompany promotions) and endanger his peace of mind.

Of course, not everyone is like Srikanth; many of us do need the promotions and change of roles for a variety of reasons – may be to satisfy a sense of adventure, for a feeling of accomplishment, or whatever. And of course, the business world would be in grave trouble if everyone refused promotions!

So, in this article, we will assume that we do want those promotions, and explore one easy method to manage our growth and stay happy.

The Government has figured it out!

It is fashionable to criticize government jobs for many things – including the method they use for promotions. To “grow” in a government job you simply have to spend some time at every position. A classmate from my engineering college – let’s call him Krishnan – is now a Director in a defense research laboratory. He joined the lab at the lowest rung – that of a Scientist B. Even that sounded quite impressive to the rest of us who were donning titles like Trainee Engineer and Junior Engineer. Krishnan stayed at Scientist B for some five years and was then promoted to Scientist C. He kept “growing” like this at a predictable rate and after about 25 years with the lab, he became Scientist G – the equivalent of a Director.

We from the private sector, of course, made fun of this, although we had our own grievances to grind about the growth methodology used in our firms. The point is: the government’s method probably has some logic behind it, which probably got lost in the verities of bureaucracy.

The logic is simply that one must become eligible for the next position by maturing in the current position.

Acclimatize to the thin air:

There is an excellent book called “Into Thin Air”, in which the author narrates the story of a 1996 mountaineering expedition to Mount Everest. One thing that is striking in the book is the procedure they follow to get mountaineers acclimatized to heights. They go up and down frequently, spending a little extra time at the highest spot at every turn. Then they increase the challenge after a few such rounds. This way, their bodies get used to the thin air. They become ready for the next hop. (The expedition in the book unfortunately turned out to be quite disastrous.)

It is really the same with corporate growth expeditions. One needs to stay at each level long enough to get acclimatized to the challenges at that level before attempting the next one.

Pause to smell the daisies:

Of course, just acclimatizing is not enough. Building a career should be viewed as a journey by train – a special train that takes extended stops at every station! You must spend time at every position in your organization until you become a master of your role. Work until you see your peers coming to you for help and aid. Become indispensable to your superiors. When this happens, you will become so valuable that your company would not be able to afford to keep you from the promotion you deserve.

The time you spend at every position is immensely valuable – not just from a growth point of view. You will build solid bonds with teammates and create happy memories of the challenging moments. These bonds will be helpful when you will grow into a leadership position and your success will depend on their cooperation and support. The happy memories will come handy when you grow old and write an autobiography of a successful and happy career!

When you’re ready, get ready some more!

Even if you think you are ready for the next position, you are not really ready until you take the trouble to understand the role envisaged by the new position. Observe people playing these roles successfully; try to figure out the additional challenges. Get a sense of how interesting that new position would be for you. In some cases, this role-playing might make you even decide that you are not psychologically ready for the new position. The psychological comfort is extremely important for you to succeed in any role.

Unlike train stations – which are pretty much all alike – corporate positions are each quite different. A junior engineer becoming a senior engineer may not see a dramatic difference, aside from more technical complexity and expectation of higher efficiency. But, there are position transitions that can potentially be nothing less than traumatic. A most common example is the promotion of an individual contributor to a leadership role – like an engineer becoming a Team Leader. The famous management guru Ram Charan calls these transition points as U-turns, because you almost have to unlearn some of your existing skills. Most failures result from underestimating these inflection points and from being too cavalier about the magnitude of change.

Be sure you recognize these inflection points and understand the required aptitude, skills, and responsibilities involved in the new positions. Figure out how you will go about acquiring those additional skills. Determine whether you are really cut out for that new responsibility.

Putting it all together:

Staying at each position long enough not only gives us a mastery of that role and makes us ready for the next level, but it also enables us to truly enjoy our career. Even while staying focused on our goals, we learn how to enjoy the journey. That is, in a nutshell, the secret of happiness at work.

Resisting growth is sometimes better

Growth can lead to unhappiness:

In an earlier article titled “Growth can lead to Unhappiness” we saw an example of a person who had sacrificed happiness for aggressive growth in his career. He had sought promotions every couple of years or so, unmindful of his readiness for the new positions. After getting into leadership/managerial positions, he had only too eagerly given up technical work – deeming it lowly, hands-on work, meant for juniors – without bothering to master leadership and management skills. As a result, he had eventually reached a ceiling – a level of incompetence, so to speak – that he was unable to cross. His job had become frustrating because he had lost respect of his team members.

How should we handle growth then? Should we simply refuse to grow? Should engineers remain engineers all their life? Should we leave our careers entirely to our bosses?

Growth as a success factor

Careers and professions are closely linked with the word “success”. All of us want to be successful in our careers. And we consider professional growth to be an important factor of success. Well, many times in life, we have to question our fundamental assumptions, and the above assumption could be one to be questioned! But, let’s do the questioning later. For now, we will stay with the stated assumption and explore ways to reconcile growth aspirations with happiness.

We have an excellent context to check whether growth (as a success factor) does always include or imply happiness. One could follow the path of Sam (in the other article), be successful in the short term (by collecting accolades and money), but end up with dissatisfaction and unhappiness.

Srikanth, the indefatigable programmer

Srikanth joined a large product company as an entry-level programmer. He loved programming and got plenty of it at his new workplace. With time, he got better at it, and his product group came to depend on him for reliable and efficient code. Testers started calling upon him whenever there were intricate issues that they could not analyze. Senior managers started going after ambitious product release calendars trusting that people like Srikanth would help them meet the deadlines.

Srikanth became a mentor for other new programmers. Occasionally, he participated in formal training, but mostly, he coached budding programmers through the company’s special interest groups, and through informal interactions. He was approachable and kind. He was diligent in the code review process and gave verbose feedback. Those who took it seriously benefited immensely. Company executives started sending Srikanth to industry expos to baby-sit their product booths as a “technical expert”.

Resistance to “growth”

They also encouraged Srikanth to take on team/product leadership responsibilities. But, he refused to take on any official “lead” duties. He did not know whether it was good or bad to become a “lead”, but he knew with certainty that coding was fun. He also knew that he would get to do less coding if he took on management responsibilities. So, for 10 long years he remained a programmer while people who had joined at the same time as he had, became product managers and even directors in the fast-growing organization.

The company claimed that it did have a separate growth track for the so-called “techies” like Srikanth: he got plenty of pay raises and bonuses. But, his title did not go beyond “senior programmer”. He probably also missed out on lucrative incentives like stock options and grants which were doled out liberally to the manager types. In social gatherings, he did not attract the same respect or attention like the “managers” and “directors” did. In conventional terms, he wasn’t successful; people thought he was still a “struggling” programmer.

Growth is a matter of perception

Fortunately for Srikanth, he couldn’t care less about what the world thought about his career growth. He knew he was happy and it was all that mattered to him. He knew he was comfortable with the money he was earning, and that’s what counted. The girls loved his 2-seater coupe and didn’t care about his title!

This story might seem to contrast growth and happiness. Srikanth was happy in his professional career although the worldview was that he was not successful. Right there, you will find an insight about happiness and success. Happiness is what you feel inside yourself, and success is (typically) how others measure you against some conventional standard (which most of us believe in by default, unfortunately!).

Success and happiness are very tricky ideas when it comes to professional growth. Remember, we are not even talking about work-life balance here. We are simply discussing how to be happy when we are at work day after day and year after year.

The key to tasting an optimal blend of success and happiness in matters related to professional growth is to become self-aware – you must try to understand yourself, your nature, your true passions and calling, what sort of activities make you happy. A professional coach or a mentor can help immensely in this process of creating self-awareness and charting a course through the jungle of corporate ladders, career options, and potentially insidious concepts like “living in the fast lane”.

Growth can lead to Unhappiness

The Stage:

I was interviewing a candidate for a senior position in my software services firm. The position required project management experience, team management experience, and a technical background. When we advertised for the position, we thought it was a standard position, since most people in the IT industry start out as engineers, pick up leadership skills on the way, and then even some project management experience. So, we thought we would have no problem attracting a pool of qualified candidates to choose from.

The Meeting:

The person (let’s call him Sam) who entered the interview room showed his age – he was probably in his early 40s. He looked confident, but at the same time a little anxious, as if he was keen to get this job. He had a broad forehead – probably an indication of the recent economic recession causing a hair recession. There were dark wrinkles around his eyes peering from behind a thick pair of glasses. A slight onset of a paunch was clearly visible just above his belt.

Nowhere man:

When we started talking, I soon realized that Sam was a “nowhere man”. He had close to 12 years of experience on paper; his resume indicated a meteoric rise from ‘junior engineer’ to ‘module lead’, to ‘project lead’, and then to ‘project manager’ – all rises coming at regular intervals. He said he was now ready to be a ‘senior project manager’ – someone who could manage multiple projects concurrently. But it was obvious, from his answers to my questions, that he had risen through the ranks simply because he had demanded of his bosses that he be promoted based on the number of years he had been at each position. And now, he had nowhere to go. He had long forgotten his technical skills. Nor was he even a proper team manager.

Confusion:

To make matters even more difficult, Sam himself was unaware of his true capabilities and was confused about what he wanted to do next. One moment, he said he liked to be “hands-on” and missed “writing code”. Another moment, he said he loved quality management and process auditing. When probed about what he was learning on his own, he first said “not much”. And then upon realizing he was in an interview room and not in a “confession booth”, he quickly corrected himself. He said, “Oh, I often look up websites to read about CMMi.” So, it was clear he didn’t even remember what “hands-on” meant in the software services business.

A Bit of Counseling:

So, instead of interviewing, we ended up doing a bit of career counseling, for which Sam appeared grateful. But at the same time, he was disappointed at the sudden turn of events. Just before parting he said, “I feel I have hit a glass ceiling in my current organization, and I was really hoping I could snare this job opportunity.” So, I asked, “How did you sense that you had hit the ceiling?” Sam replied, “Oh, it’s clear from the way people treat me. My bosses don’t consult me in strategic discussions, nor involve me in customer meetings. My juniors make fun of my technical knowledge on my back.”

How it hurts:

Sam is a classic example of people feeling obsolescence as a result of ‘unnatural growth’. Unnatural (which implies untimely too) growth is one of the common causes of unhappiness in the IT industry. People carry the obsolete belief in their minds that growth – change in title and role – must happen at specific time intervals. That might be true in Government bureaucracy, but it is certainly a dangerous expectation in the knowledge industry. One must grow based on potential and capability to really enjoy the new role and do justice to it.

Where it all begins:

So, why do companies promote employees even if they (the employees) are not ready for promotion? Some of the reasons are obvious:

In the demand-driven IT industry, people are a precious resource, and so, to retain talent, HR is happy to concoct nice-sounding titles and bestow them upon their employees. In most cases, the actual duties of the person change only slightly, if at all. One easy litmus test of this phenomenon is to compare your duties with the duties performed at similar positions in other well-known firms in the industry. I know of a company (that indulged in such unscrupulous promotions) in which a ‘tech manager’ would have had no chance of becoming even a ‘tech lead’ in another competitive firm.

Secondly, there is a mistaken belief that, the so-promoted employee will pick up the required skills in a week-long training workshop. So, the HR efficiently arranges such workshops and assumes the employee is promoted and is ready to play the new role. Training alone is rarely able to make a dent.

And finally, most IT companies are vast armies of project teams performing routine work requiring routine skills. It is easy for incompetent employees to hide in such environment, because there are always some superstars who manage to carry the burden in spite of such low performers.

Stay tuned because in our next article we will discuss what we should do to effectively manage our own career growth and stay happy!