Are you the driver or a passenger in your own career?
Are you the driver or a passenger in your own career?

People often think of their career as something that you develop inside a company. This is only partially true.

It is indeed true that a professional’s career growth is more often than not determined by the company they work for, and to move up, specific required goals have to be achieved along the way. Suppose you define career growth solely as the salary, bonus, and benefit brackets that a professional acquires as the job title grows in seniority. In that case, it is 100% true that your career is something that you’ll develop exclusively inside the company you work for.

Very often, though, the path that the company has charted in their plans for your career isn’t necessarily the path that you would have charted for yourself.

This can be a source of incredible frustration, and changing jobs is a risky move that may exacerbate the problem and bring unintended short, and sometimes long-term consequences to your life and career.

As an employee as well as an employer, I’ve seen this issue way too many times. As I explained in a previous post, we do feedback meetings every 30 to 45 days at Exponential Ventures. One of the reasons we do feedback meetings is to allow our team members to discuss the career path they’d like to chart for themselves.

Since the beginning, I decided not to create a company-wide framework of career paths and ladders. At first, it seems like a great idea to keep employees incentivized and looking forward to the next step in their career. It felt funny, though, to attempt to determine the exact time these career progressions should happen. Professional development occurs in a continuous rather than discrete manner, meaning that it is hard to distinguish the precise threshold that the average team member would have to cross to take on a new title and a salary bump.

The other issue is that these plans are based on a gut feel for the average employee. As a Data Scientist, I’ve learned to love and hate averages. Averages are a handy aggregation when you’re looking to understand a group’s behavior of overall characteristic, but they can be lousy when used to represent an individual inside the group. According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the median wage for workers in the United States, in the fourth quarter of 2020, was approximately $51,000 per year. If you take an individual at random in San Francisco, the odds are that individual makes at least double that amount. If you pick another individual at random from Gadsden Alabama, the odds are that individual earns less than $35,000 per year. Averages are grand when looking at how the US compares to other countries, but an average is misleading when looking into individuals inside the country.

When you design a career framework for your company, you’re creating a system to treat every individual in the company as an average team member, with little room to appropriately recognize extraordinary contributions and performance. This can lead to exceptional individuals behaving like average team members. Instead of taking charge of their careers, they learn to take a more passive approach, checking all the boxes along the way and taking the most appealing available career path.

Our solution is to allow (and encourage) our team members to drive their careers. By doing this, we hope that nobody will become a passive passenger who will eventually step out of the company bus to figure out they were not left at the bus stop they were hoping to be.

That is not to say that following the career path defined by your company is an inherently flawed strategy. It isn’t at all as long as you’re intentionally pursuing it. In that case, your career goals match the company-defined plans, and you’re driving in the right direction. The problem arises when you decide to be a passive actor relenting your career path over to the company. And when you take that route, the company will almost always oblige.

Becoming the driver in your career means taking charge of your career choices and actively designing the path you’ll be trodding inside and outside your company. Delivering great work, being a great team member, and checking all the boxes are important ways of intentionally developing your career inside your company. But equally important are the decisions you make outside of your job. The books you read, the courses you take, the certifications you pass, the volunteer work you do, the side projects you participate, and the projects you contribute to are all small milestones towards a bigger lifelong career path that you’ll look back years from now and be proud of, recognizing that you got yourself there because you’ve been the driver all along.