Take control of your career by managing it with purpose, and setting the right kinds of goals.
Listener Amy writes in: “I’ve done the best job of anyone in my office, several years in a row. Everyone says so. But instead of promoting me, they’ve promoted someone I trained. What do I do?”
Excellent question, Amy. My advice, to save ourselves from management gone wrong, is this: take your career reins in your hands and grow a pair. I’m not sure what it’s a pair of, but probably some kind of household plant. Maybe a pair of petunias? But they have to be very special petunias.
Adopt the Right Mindset
Well, we’ve all been there — forced to work under a boss who doesn’t realize how much they’re making our lives miserable. Or realize how much they’re stifling our ambitions. Or realize...wait a minute. Maybe they actually don’t realize. So the first step in taking control of your career is making sure your boss knows what you want. Your boss doesn’t necessarily care about your career; your boss cares about your boss’s career. You need to care about your career. Adopting a better mindset is the first step of growing that pair of career petunias.
Your new mindset is one of equality. Your boss is not your parent, and you are not their victim. You and your boss have decided to work together in a mutual agreement. That makes you a partner in success. Your boss will likely tell you what they need from you to make them succeed—that’s their job. But it’s on you to tell them what you need from them to help make you succeed. Make your goals clear to them, and if they’re a good boss, they’ll listen.
Now, maybe you’re in a family business, and your boss really is your parent. Or maybe you work for an 18+ Dungeon, and you really are a professional victim. If so, you need to carve out a separate role for yourself in your mind and in your boss’s mind. Check out my episode on Switching Hats for tips on how to keep your different roles from being muddled. At the very least, you need a hat that makes you your boss’s partner. Preferably, you can also agree with them to have conversations where you set aside your real-life family relationship and speak as employee and boss, mapping out your career.
Choose Your Next Career Step and Set the Right Types of Goals to Get There
Getting a promotion, getting a raise, or getting placed on your dream project are all outcome goals. These are destinations you reach over the long term, partly based on your choices, and partly based on outside forces beyond your control. They set a general direction for you to travel. An example of an outcome goal might be getting a promotion to Lesser Grand Poobah.
Process goals, on the other hand, are goals about the process you take to reach your outcome goals. If your outcome goal is a promotion, the process might be to meet every member of the Poobah nominating committee, form friendships with them, and make sure they know about your accomplishments. Your weekly process goal might be to invite one member of the committee to lunch for the first time, and to have a relationship-deepening conversation with a committee member you’ve previously met. Process goals are goals for the effort you must put in to reach your outcome goals. You can see a video here of me explaining the difference for the Harvard Business School Manage Mentor program.
In most jobs, we reward outcomes. They’re big and shiny, and it’s easy to conclude that if someone fails to reach an outcome, it’s their fault. But that's only true for one-person outcomes.
In most jobs, we reward outcomes. They’re big and shiny, and it’s easy to conclude that if someone fails to reach an outcome, it’s their fault. That may be true for one-person outcomes, like painting a picture. But when it comes to organizations, outcomes depend on too many things for outcome goals to be the only tool.
A process goal makes more sense because it’s actually under your control. If Europa, secret ruler of the Eastern Bloc, gives Minion 3845/J the goal, “double Eastern Bloc yields by the end of summer!,” that’s an outcome goal, and a bad one. Doubling crop yields depends on much that’s outside 3845/J’s control: weather, quality of the seed stock, fertilizer availability, and unexpected plagues of locusts.
But a process goal of, “try a different plant breed every month in a different farm, to find one with higher yield,” makes great sense. The process of trying new breeds will eventually lead to higher crop yields, if such yields are even possible. With good process goals, even if outcomes turn out badly, you’ve still made real progress.
“Tested 43 new plant breeds in the last year” is a process achievement, whether or not you found the breed that meets the goal. Then, you document that progress and share your efforts with your boss when you’re discussing your career plans.