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Don’t Focus on Your Job at the Expense of Your Career


Aug. 12, 2022 Harvard Business Review

You have a vision for your career and where you’d like to end up. You may even know what to do to get there. But there’s an obstacle in the way: your current job.

For some lucky professionals, simply executing well is the path to recognition and eventual promotion to the position you want. But for many others — especially if the job you covet involves a different skillset or requires building connections with new colleagues – the intense time requirements (and brand positioning) of your current role may actually inhibit your ability to advance. Over time, this can become a serious handicap, in what Marshall Goldsmith and Sally Helgesen term“focusing on your job at the expense of your career.”

In my book The Long Game: How to Be a Long-Term Thinker in a Short-Term World, I write about how to simultaneously navigate two realities: meeting the short-term needs of the moment (i.e., doing your job to pay the bills) while positioning yourself for long-term success. Here are four principles you can follow to make progress, even if you’re feeling overburdened by current expectations.

Analyze the strategic value of your activities.

In order to understand which parts of your job are most — or least — aligned with your future vision, create a Venn Diagram, with one circle representing your existing responsibilities, and another the job description you aspire to. Odds are, at least some areas will overlap.

You can use this diagram to help you identify the tasks you’d like to maintain (current tasks that will carry over and be relevant in your new role), stretch toward (ones you don’t perform now but will need to in the future), and hopefully jettison (ones that have no relevance for your desired position).

Enlist allies.

It’s rare that we have total discretion over our workload and responsibilities, so you’ll need to enlist allies — especially your manager — to help you achieve your vision. Assuming you have a good relationship, you can go to them and explain the career path you’d ultimately like to take. “I’m committed to doing a great job in this role,” you could say, “and I’d also like to position myself for success in the future. If you’re willing, I’d love your help in strategizing around how to make that work.”

Then, you can share your analysis with them and ask for their help in identifying and recommending you for stretch assignments or opportunities to help you develop new skills and contacts (for instance, sending you to an industry conference or nominating you for a cross-departmental committee so you’ll have the opportunity to make new connections). You can also raise the prospect of shifting unwanted tasks off your plate, though it may need to be done over time (and with your commitment to train others in the necessary protocols). It can also be useful to reach out to other supportive colleagues — in your department and elsewhere — as they may be aware of opportunities that your boss isn’t.

Manage your brand.

One of the biggest challenges when it comes to career advancement is having to reinvent your personal brand. It’s not (in most cases) that you’re perceived negatively. It’s simply that people can’t imagine you in a more senior role, or in a new context, because they’re used to thinking of you in a certain way and fail to question those assumptions. That’s why it’s essential – even as you’re still performing your current role — for you to start shifting the narrative.

Just as the classic advice is to “dress for the job you want,” you should also raise your level of conversation, as though you’re already in your desired position. If you want to be promoted, start asking higher-level strategic questions in team meetings. If you’re planning to shift functional areas, read up on your new domain and begin posting about it on social media, or mentioning it in conversations with colleagues.

In particular, think about shoring up perceived weaknesses that you fear may disqualify you. If you’re never worked overseas but that’s commonly required for your ideal next position, think about other ways to demonstrate aptitude, like taking language classes or taking an executive education program in the region you’ll be dealing with. You want to “prepare the terrain” so that when the idea is raised about you getting promoted or landing the position you want, the goal is for those around you to say, “Oh yeah, I could see that.”

Be willing to experiment with “120% time.”

Google (now Alphabet) famously encourages its employees to use 20% of their time on experimental activities outside the scope of their current job requirements — and that creativity has born fruit for the company, such as the creation of Google News. It’s also led to major career advancements for the employees who utilize it. In The Long Game, I profile one marketer who landed a coveted job at X, Alphabet’s “moonshot factory,” as the result of a volunteer project he undertook using 20% time.

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