This is a guest post by Sarah Chana Mocke. She is an influential leader in the software architect space and a leader of world-wide communities at Microsoft.
Sara has grown her career over the years by owning her choices, diving deep, and exploring and expanding what she’s capable of. She is a life-long learner, and she uses her strengths and skills to help lift others up and amplify their impact.
Without further ado, here’s Sara with some things that have worked for her in shaping her career while pursuing her passions …
We often hear from others that we own our own careers.
That means different things to different people, but I think it’s translates to taking ownership for my choices. I can do research, mitigate potential consequences, surround myself with people who can give me advice about what they’ve learned from the proverbial school of hard knocks, but ultimately it’s just me standing alone in the universe deciding with to go ahead with a decision or not.
An HR Recruiter I admire once told me that she has a Ph.D in Life, and I took it to heart. That really the essence of it. There is no substitute for experience. In the past 10 months, as opportunity has knocked I’ve found myself having to look inward just as much as I’ve looked outward to the opportunities themselves. As I’ve been reminded about what drives me and what I aspire to, I thought I’d write down some of the do’s and don’ts that work for me as I’ve grown my own career.
Some of these will seem downright crazy, and others may contain a subtly different spin than you’re used to, but I can assure you that I do all of these things continually. Others around me can probably attest to that too.
Have a Forced Focus
Anyone who knows me also knows that I’m very easily distracted and that I always want to do a gazillion things. All of this means that I should be a Jill of all trades and have mastered none, yet somehow I’ve managed to excel in every single role I’ve taken on in my career. Sure I’ve had one or two not so great reviews in a 25 year career, but they’re rare and they’ve never come about as a result of being easily distracted or taking on too much. So how do I do it?
I recognize that there is simply too much in our industry that I love, and I remind myself continually that I have to be good at something. I literally force myself to focus on a few things, even as I’m distracted and engaged by many things. I set mini-goals for myself, whether its work I need to complete or subject matter I want to learn, and I set deadlines too. I know I’m deadline driven, and will generally procrastinate without them. It might seem a little overboard, but in reality it’s pretty simple in practice. I’ll do something like say to myself I want to learn the basics of Python by the end of next week, and then I do that.
Never Stop Learning
Set yourself short-term and long-term learning goals. Learning goals must include experiential learning, including assessing what you’ve learned from experimentation and from failure. In your longer-term career experience will actually trump theory.
Part of this is simply knowing yourself. Do what is necessary to become good at something. You never want to be perceived as having knowledge and expertise that is too academic, disconnected from reality, lightweight, or too abstract to be useful. Know what works for you, set limits and be disciplined in maintaining them!
Don’t Be Scared to Expand Your Horizons
Expand your horizons. Think about the learning that you can undertake to help to diversify your skills. I’ve taken on a number of diverse roles in my career, most of them with the intent of gaining skills that I wanted to incorporate into my arsenal. I wanted to become a better architect and my intuition told me that it didn’t only mean exercising my architectural muscles. I wanted raw, hardcore experience in other disciplines too. I was also always mindful that there was a finite amount of time that I could step out of the world of architecture before my skills became defunct, and so I’d set myself term limits on other jobs and ensure I returned to my architect role to practice that for a while. On occasion I’ve been fortunate to take on new roles and still be allowed to do architect work too. I’ve been a top performer as a business owner, people manager, sales executive, partner manager, and program manager in addition to all the technical roles that have formed the backbone of my career!
Expanding your horizons can be scary. It involves taking calculated risks. On the one hand you’ll have an opportunity to learn new skills, but on the other it means stepping out of your comfort zone and deriving your income from roles you may have little to no experience in.
There are No Safety Nets. Get Over It!
The jobs worth pursuing don’t come with safety nets. At some point you’ll need to make a leap of faith through an open door that presents itself for a short amount of time. One of my execs talks about these moving doors more eloquently than I can, but I’ll simply say that they come into view and move in and out of reach fairly quickly. Picking the right door to leap through is hard, and the more senior the position you’re working towards the harder it will be to know if it’s safe to leap before you actually do so. Sometimes you’ve simply got to jump, and adapt to the circumstances that you find yourself in as you land. Learn to adapt! Mitigate what you can, and have contingencies for the rest.
Do What You Love. Follow Your Heart. Dare to Dream.
This one is so catchy it almost sounds like common sense. What they’re actually pushing you to do is to become a cliché. Fortunately it is partly true. Of course you should choose a career that has some connection to the things that interest you, but don’t expect that to excuse you from persevering and putting in some very hard work. Sometimes work will seem like a chore (for example, admin tasks). Sometimes it will feel mundane (you might be doing another project that you don’t think challenges you). As long as some percentage of it is rewarding to you or helping you achieve your own personal growth objectives it’s good.
Choose Your Manager
This one is puzzling to most people that I talk to, but most people that I’ve mentored have heard me say this on more than one occasion. You might be wondering if that’s even possible. If I had to choose between a dream job with a bad manager, and a less attractive job with a good manager, I’d probably choose the less attractive job. Many of us know that people don’t usually leave companies, they leave managers. The dream job may be the end of you simply because you’ll find it unsustainable. Sometimes taking the less attractive job with a good manager will give you the opportunity to shape the job to be something that you love doing and you might just gather a set of experiences that help you later.
I have a simple bar for assessing these things. I simply ask myself the following:
- Can I entrust my career to the person I may be working for?
- Will I have an opportunity to learn from that person? Yes, really! Sometimes it’s just an attribute of their character that I’d like to experience and learn from. It’s not always IT-related learning.
There is no higher bar for growing your career. Generally if I find myself agonizing over a career choice it’s because I’m battling to answer these questions. Perhaps you should too!
I’ve taken on some seemingly disjointed and discontiguous jobs in my career and on more than one occasion it was simply because I made a hard decision to let something go for a while to work for a great manager that I felt I could learn from! Happily the knowledge and experiences I’ve gained even in those jobs that weren’t a natural fit for me have been invaluable. I’ve also performed well in those jobs partly because the managers have been great, and also because I’ve forced myself to focus.
Figure Out What Makes You Unique
Consider that we all have access to the same information. What sets you apart? Stop doing the same old thing everybody else is doing!
Either you’ll get tired, or others will get bored. In case you haven’t guessed it, both are bad outcomes! You’ll risk getting called a dinosaur or a poor performer. Even if you’re stuck doing the same things try to take the time to learn new things and synthesize that knowledge and expertise into your work. Very often you’ll find yourself doing these things naturally.
Sometimes you will not know where something will take you until you’ve done it for a while. I find that if I persevere opportunities often present themselves; sometimes very unexpectedly!
In my case, I learned just over a decade ago that I’m a teacher. I’d always been one, but it came into my awareness as I began to explore what was important to me as a result of attending some personal development workshops that some of my colleagues at work were attending in their personal time. I wasn’t particularly enamored about going but I was curious about what they were experiencing. As it turned out teaching entered my awareness. It should have been obvious considering I’m from a family of teachers, but it simply wasn’t until that point. From that moment on I worked to synthesize teaching into my work life.
In my case I don’t manifest teaching in the typical sense, but rather in a way that is most important to me. I magnify genius. I’m a magnifier of geniuses. I constantly seek opportunities to do that at greater and greater scale and rarely choose to do work which doesn’t include some component that allows me to do that. If you’ve ever wondered why I’m a Community Director, this is it. Magnifying genius includes many things, some of which are, identifying potential in others, shining the spotlight on them, gently shoving them into the lime light, connecting, enabling and empowering them, providing learning opportunities, mentoring, and sometimes teaching in the classical sense of the word too. The ability to magnify genius, and do it well, is what makes me unique.
You Can’t Be Someone Else
That rarely works out. Allow me to appeal to your narcissistic side for a moment. Be you. It’s the one and only way you can be unique, and it almost always translates to you being able to manifest the passion you have for what you’re doing. Think back to some of the best presenters you might have seen. Those that come across as authentic usually also have great passion for the work that they do, and everyone spots that. The best thing about it is that it’s infectious. If you ever wanted opportunity to knock on your door, being yourself, doing what interests you is a wonderfully fulfilling way to accomplish that.
Work Out Loud
I also work extremely openly. You’ll often find me asking the large groups of questions openly and broadly as I shape my thinking about a particular subject, simply because it creates opportunities for everyone to learn from each other, and sometimes has the added benefit of providing me useful input too. If anyone thinks that doing this is easy allow me to provide some insight into my own feelings about it. It can be nerve-wracking in the extreme at times to work openly. Sometimes I wonder if it wouldn’t just be simpler to go with what I know rather than ask. I literally have an internal war going on in my head sometimes because how I’ve been instructed to work in the past seems so contrary to the ways that I work now. It turns out that working openly actually breeds even greater success. Instead of depending on a few people and delivering decent results, I’m now dependent on literally thousands of people and I get called a thought-leader. Thought-leader doesn’t necessarily mean I’m the smartest, wisest person on a subject. In this case it might mean leading others to think and share their thoughts openly so that they can be assembled, or even more colloquially as I often put it in one-to-one conversations, “I get the smart stuff out of smart people’s heads into other smart people’s heads”.
It’s useful to realize that it doesn’t work every time. You might be working with people who see it as an opportunity to take, rather than partner or give. That’s okay. In time those behaviors become more and more obvious. It shouldn’t prevent you from pushing yourself to work differently.
Learn to share your work early, even before your thoughts and execution strategies are fully developed. Stop hiding it like it’s your personal, confidential, secret recipe for success. There is an epidemic of people who feel they need to perfect their ideas and put in place perfect strategies before they share them just so that they will be recognized for them. It’s a short-term strategy with a short-term reward. When you don’t open up your ideas and plans from the outset you don’t give people an opportunity to engage in them. You never get all the best ideas. Ultimately your golden goose becomes an albatross around your neck. You become a one-trick pony with an albatross around you neck! It’s an albatross that you have to feed and nurture, and as it gets fatter and older it creates inertia that slows your career to a grinding halt.
It’s liberating to see your ideas flourish and develop lives of their own and it’s a delight to see them taken further than you ever imagined possible; even if they seem to take a course that you might not have preferred. Let them go, it gives you the opportunity to do even more exciting things. Trust other people to do amazing things, and free yourself up to kick-off the next round of thoughts and strategies.
Sometimes your ideas will not resonate with others. Let them go. Try not to get so emotionally attached to them that you find yourself trying to force them down other people’s throats. Rather keep them somewhere just in case they’re ahead of their time, and move onto the next things. I keep my ideas in a diary. It may sound quaint, but you have no idea how many times I’ve revisited them and landed them just because I stored them and was able to present them at an opportune moment. Who knows, if this blog doesn’t resonate this time, but I’ll resurrect it in the future if need be!
It’s amazing how much fortitude it takes to be vulnerable. Taking a chance. Sharing your thoughts and ideas. Writing a blog. The act of doing something before someone that you think makes sense before others even dare to takes courage. People who are comfortable in their surrounding will often stand idly buy for an opportunity to say, “I told you so.” Others may work to undermine you. It’s part of life. It’s not just endemic to the company you work within. Get used to it. Do the right things regardless, and learn to live with them. Not everything you do will be a success, by the successes you have in this vein will obliterate any past memories of minor failures you may have had. In some books this pattern is spoken about as fail fast. I apply a principle I call, “fail quietly, and succeed loudly”. However all of these a preceded by one far greater thing.
Vulnerability. It takes great courage to be vulnerable. It takes intent to be vulnerable. It’s very different than being a victim, and you’ll be surprised how many people rally to support you and paint you as the North Star. Allowing yourself to be vulnerable is the single most powerful thing you can to do avoid being stuck in a rut!
Am I Doing Enough?
Last but not least, never stop asking yourself the question, “am I doing enough?” It’s the #1 way to keep engaged and to keep moving forward. Never become complacent. Never rest on your laurels. Everyone is hungry to take on greater and greater challenges. If you’re doing your work correctly then other people are already building on top of what you’ve done even before you’ve completed it. That should be incentive enough for you to want to build on top of their work. It’s sort of like a virtuous cycle, but it’s more of a virtuous continuum with an infinite extent.
I hope that some of these thoughts resonated with you and have given you some ideas for things that you can do to grow in your own careers. If you have some of your own thoughts, ideas, and career pointers please do share them in the comments section below this blog. I’d love to continue this conversation.
You can follow Sara on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SaraMocke.