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Self-Motivating Career Growth Plans
Set individual goals for individual ambitions
Numerous tech managers wing career growth plans. And by winging I don’t mean actually playing it by ear and improvising something on the spot during a semi-annual review meeting, but merely passing on a list of improvement areas and calling it a day—and feeling good about it.
They institute a framework—probably inspired by something they stumbled upon on progression.fyi (which is a great resource). They pick an area or two for individual development and tell their line reports “See you in 6 months!”.
That’s not a bad start, considering. However, you can do much better.
Stop Doing Mediocre Reviews
The most potent approach available to you when it comes to motivating a line report is to thoroughly understand what actually motivates that person.
You might go duh! but think—does it happen a lot?
Most of the time, the manager perceives an individual growth plan as a checklist:
Let’s see, you are here, the next level is there, so you need to do a better job in testing, model deployment, and cross-functional comms before the next cycle.
This sounds good on paper. Seems like the manager did several things right:
There exists a career growth framework (CGF) with levels and expectations
They have identified the current level/expertise of the line report in the CGF
They highlighted an actionable number of areas of improvement
They explicitly communicate that reasonable progress required in the aforementioned areas for getting a reward (pay raise, promo)
The reward is time-boxed (next cycle)
However, there is nothing there on the individual context of the line report. Or, only an implicit assumption that people always want to climb the career ladder that is in front of them, and that is motivation enough.
This pervades the cog-in-a-machine mentality, but with a salad dressing added on top so it’s hard to notice it for what it is. This way, you are only identifying structural weaknesses of a line report. Which is great! However, you might be shoehorning their career development. Maybe they don’t want to be just a stronger version of what they are, and instead they are interested in becoming something else. You need to find this out—individually, for all your line reports—before you give them the you-are-here-and-you-should-be-there treatment.
Doing Career Growth Right
The key to effective career development is understanding each employee's individual ambitions and motivations. As a manager, your role is to create a personalised growth plan that aligns their goals with the needs of the organisation. This is the puzzle you need to solve, over and over again.
Start by having an open conversation about where they see themselves in the next several years. Don’t be surprised if you receive a generic/vague answer—the majority of people don’t know what exactly they want. You are likely to get something along the lines of: I have 2 YoE, so in two years I want to be senior.
Let’s brush aside the weird tech paradigm of anyone being ‘senior’ with four years of work experience in their craft—that’s another post for another day—and concentrate on the aforementioned career goal. What does that even mean? That’s probably not a root cause, it’s a symptom or a nice side-effect. Do they want to be senior, or do they want the good stuff that comes with being a senior? The former is driven by:
Genuine improvement in their craft, being seasoned, veterancy.
The latter can be driven by:
Having the potentially awkward conversation to nudge your reports to introspect is an invaluable investment, so do not shy away from it. It will probably take multiple meetings as well, as they are likely to need time to go away and reflect first before they can share it with you.
Also, there is absolutely nothing wrong with doing it for money or status. In fact, you should strive to create a psychologically safe environment for your reports to be able to say work is how they fund their family/hobbies instead of, you know, living for work. If they are predominantly motivated by compensation, go ahead and tie their growth objectives to money: If you want to earn n% more, you simply need to xyz…
Over time, have special 1:1 meetings to understand each person's individual motivations and ambitions. Once a month is a good cadence for this. Ask thoughtful, open-ended questions to learn what energises them and what they hope to achieve in their career.
Some example questions for you to initiate the conversation:
What parts of your role do you find most meaningful or enjoyable?
What projects have you been most proud of? What made you feel fulfilled?
Where do you see yourself in
nyears? What are your long-term professional goals? [This can and should be extended to include their ideal next job in another company]
What skills or experiences do you want to build in order to reach your goals?
What new challenges do you want to take on? Why?
What opportunities excite you the most at our company?
Again, this presupposes that you have created a safe environment for them to speak up freely, without fearing consequences or repercussions. Make sure to actively listen without judgement—it’s not your career! Encourage them to think creatively about their ideal growth path, even if it sounds unconventional to you. Discuss possibilities such as:
Job rotations to build a well-rounded (T-shaped) experience
Leading cross-functional initiatives or task forces
Spearheading new projects or products
Getting exposure to executives and board members
Taking on strategic roles like committee memberships
Volunteering for professional organisations or non-profits
By understanding individual aspirations, you can better identify opportunities within your company that align with their passions. Make it clear that you are their partner-in-crime when it comes to their career development.
An investment in their growth is an investment in the organisation's success.
Make sure your manager and the execs see it this way, too.
To elevate ambitious individuals, collaboratively develop SMART goals that stretch them professionally while delivering value to the company. Focus on self-driven development that leverages intrinsic human motivations like mastery, purpose, autonomy, and progress. These are the core qualities that translate to the ‘good stuff’ (e.g. money, status, respect) over time.
Be flexible with career paths as much as possible. If a software engineer wants to eventually transition into product management, create projects that let them interact with PMs or even shadow them. If someone wants to gain people management experience, consider having them mentor junior employees.
Where possible, tie development goals to genuine opportunities that excite them. Check-in regularly to provide support and guidance (not judgment). Have them share progress and lessons learned with others to highlight their growth. Know that this will likely be a slow progress, with many setbacks along the way. Encourage them to continue trying by being radically candid with them.
Sometimes individual ambitions and the needs of the company won't perfectly align. That's OK—that’s life. Transparency breeds trust. Demonstrate that you are still invested in their success, even though they are going through a patch. Having regular communication about their overall goals and objectives will provide you some leeway. As soon as you are able, put them on projects that achieves alignment between the two.
You want to minimise the friction between what your reports desire and what your company needs. With the right motivation and supportive environment, your employees will actively drive their own growth—this is what you want.
There is nothing like caring about something to drive someone towards achieving a goal. The more fulfilled they feel in their work, the more value they will organically bring to the organisation as a result. Your job as a manager is to make this non-zero-sum game viable for all parties involved—self-motivated career development should be a win-win for everyone.
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