Self-Assessment: Career Direction

In the old world of work we tended to speak about "climbing the career ladder" and to define career success as continually getting promoted to higher-level positions in the organization. This view of career success is outdated, especially as organizations become less hierarchical and more flat. A more helpful metaphor for today's world is that of the Career Lattice, in which career moves can occur in multiple directions, as this diagram shows.

Up and ahead is not the only direction to move in an organization. If your sole definition of career success is getting promoted or advancing in pay/status/job title, then you are not thinking broadly enough. In the new world of work, it is important to consider multiple directions in which your career could move and to focus on what moves help you develop your employability the most. Focus on progress, not perfection.

Looking at the Career Lattice diagram above, you'll see there are several directions you could choose.

Vertical

Upward moves still exist in organizations, even though they are in shorter supply than in the past. If you are intent on following this path, be certain your skills and career plans run parallel to the organization's overall strategic goals. If your personal career goals, skills, and values do not align very closely with the needs of the organization at this time, it may be a very frustrating exercise for you to pursue this option. You may want to consider a different organization or a different part of the organization where your chances of successfully moving in this direction are greater. However, if you believe you are in a good position to pursue this option, focus on cultivating relationships with key executives. Make sure you are complementing your technical expertise with coalition-building skills.

If you are a supervisor or manager who is interested in vertical moves, see the Pave Your Path to Senior Leadership (PDF) handout to better understand the kinds of questions you may want to think about and convey to your manager so that they can make a case for promoting you.

Lateral

These types of career changes involve changing the job, but not necessarily the pay/status/level of responsibility. These moves may be beneficial to help you broaden your experiences, move from a slow-growing part of the organization to an expanding part, or get away from an ineffective employee-boss relationship.

Enrichment

Growing the job you currently have is an option that many overlook. According to the book Love It Don't Leave It, it is important to look inside before you jump outside, meaning first get clear about what you want and try going after it before leaving your job just to escape a bad situation. There is a time and energy cost to searching for and changing jobs. Before you invest in that option, it may be useful to develop your skills at learning how to make your current job more interesting and challenging while still fulfilling your individual career goals and the organization's needs.

Some ways in which people have enriched their current job include mastering new skills, expanding their job responsibilities, or increasing their decision-making authority. Developing an "intrapreneur" mindset can help with this. Intrapreneurs bring an entrepreneurial mindset to the work they do within an organization. They are good at spotting needs and problems, coming up with creative solutions that serve the organization and their own skill development, and selling those ideas to the people who can give them an opportunity to implement their solutions. In doing so, they add value to the organization while increasing their own visibility and creating skill development opportunities for themselves.

To keep yourself engaged in your work, develop your ability to create opportunities to learn new skills or do more of the activities you enjoy, while letting go of those you don't enjoy as much. Think of ways you could make your work more engaging using the following suggestions. Write out your responses and think about how you could present your ideas to your boss by noting the benefits to your organization/unit.

  • Learning new skills – which skills?
  • Participating in some projects in your work environment – which projects?
  • Taking on more responsibilities in areas you are interested in – which areas?
  • Letting go of responsibilities in areas in which you are losing interest – which areas?
  • Proposing a way to solve a problem you've noticed – which problems?

Realignment

Moving downward in pay/status/responsibilities can occur due to layoffs, consolidation of departments, or voluntarily if an employee needs to shift gears to pursue an educational degree or take care of family responsibilities. This often is a temporary move to better position one for a better move forward. It is also an option for someone nearing retirement who wants to focus on work they enjoy and are not as focused on advancement.

Consider the following questions regarding Career Directions:

  1. In which directions on the Career Lattice could you move? Be specific in describing your possible next steps.
  2. What would you gain by moving in those directions?
  3. What would you lose by moving in those directions?