When I was still in the corporate world (a million years ago) working as a civil engineer, I would often ask the question: is there career growth potential in this role? when interviewing for a new role. It’s a very common interview question, and it’s an excellent one to ask – if you give context to YOUR definition of career growth.
In my case, I always just asked the blanket question because I knew I wanted to “grow.” But, I hadn’t even determined my own definition of career growth yet back then. Let alone conveyed that to the interviewer to make sure we were on the same page.
The working world seems to define career growth as “upward movement” from the perspective of a corporate structure.
When not specified, “career growth” to an employer typically means making more money. Translation: moving “up the ladder” – likely into management. You will start in a technical (or “worker bee” role) and move “up” into an oversight function, over time. By oversight, this usually means you’re managing both projects and people. This is how I would traditionally define professional “growth.”
Career Growth Definition
The definition of growth on Merriam-Webster says that growth is a stage or condition of increasing, developing, and maturing. If that’s the case then, increasing, developing, and maturing your career then defines career growth as maximum professional satisfaction.
Here’s the thing.
Not everyone should (or wants!) be a manager. I know, it’s shocking, right?
Because corporate success and career growth have traditionally, and largely, been defined in this way, management becomes a singular track to “moving up.” What’s worse is that it often puts those who are more naturally drawn to technical work or deep knowledge of a subject matter into a tough position, often being made to feel inferior because their career desires don’t line up with what society tells us they should.
What if there were more options to grow in your career? What if we took a step back and thought about our own needs for professional fulfillment and defined career growth on our terms? What if we then challenged our employers to support and match those desires?
In addition to money and management, here are some other ways in which I know people want to grow and expand in their professions:
— Knowledge. To some people, continual learning and gaining of knowledge are growing. Becoming an expert in your field is the goal, regardless of your title or the number of people you manage.
— Salary. If the only reason you want to grow or “advance” is to make more money, perhaps there could be an alternative. What if there were ways to move up the ranks in a technical capacity without being (potentially inappropriately) forced into an oversight role while also being offered an opportunity to increase your pay.
— Title. Perhaps you want the validation of a fancy important-sounding title, regardless of the responsibility that comes with it.
— Responsibility. On the flip side of wanting a validating title, perhaps it IS that responsibility and leadership you crave. You want to be in a position of authority – the title just happens to come with the territory…
— People. You like the dance of managing human capital, supporting their growth, and leaving your mark on the world through them. Whether it’s managing more of them or managing fewer at a higher level, it’s the mentorship that you truly love.
— Projects. Perhaps you love seeing the fruits of your labor come to life, and are therefore more wired to put your love of leadership and oversight to work in a project or program management role.
— Service. Do you desire to give back or leave your impact through the support of those less fortunate? Does improving more peoples’ lives through aid fulfill you and make you feel as if you’re growing as a person?
— Ownership. If you aspire to be your own boss and want to call all the shots, then I have some entrepreneurial friends you should talk to!
— You’re Content. Blasphemy! Since when is the status quo acceptable? Some people are perfectly happy staying right where they are. (News flash: I won’t think less of you if this is your answer!).
How do you define success? It can be one, all, or a combination of the above. Think about it and learn how to articulate it in an interview or in an internal meeting with those in your company who have the ability to put you in your sweet spot.
— — — — — The Anecdote — — — — —
When I was still in the engineering world, I saw all too many Project Managers and VP’s who should have just stayed at the drafting table. That was their passion – and their strength! They didn’t feel at home in a management role, which caused dysfunction and dissatisfaction, on their part and the part of those whom they (poorly) managed.
Some people are just wired to be technical experts and that is (translate: should be) OK!
When you allow people to advance through their careers in ways that align with their definition of career growth and their goals, they’re also likely best leveraging their strengths and gifts. Translation: happy, productive employees who flourish instead of floundering.
I wish corporate America would agree. And adapt.
A little help from these friends.
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