A Simple Way to Map Out Your Career Ambitions

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It’s easy to be confused about how to grow in your career. My experience with even the most successful global companies is that they’re between average and poor at developing future talent. They’re often not transparent about your real needs and vague about the most effective development options.

The challenge is that you’re competing against every individual in your industry who wants to be a high performer. If you grow more capabilities more quickly than they do, you’ll perform better today, earn opportunities to perform better in the future, and a virtuous cycle will take hold. Development matters. So how can you chart the shortest, surest path to success?

Grow Yourself Faster
The research is clear about how we grow most successfully: it’s a combination of on-the-job, social, and formal learning, also known as the 70-20-10 model. This research-derived mantra says that roughly 70% of your professional growth will come from the work experiences you have, 20% will come from your interactions with others, and 10% will come from formal education.

Think of growth as a cycle — successfully perform, get feedback, and perform again even better. Experiences power that growth cycle, so you’ll want to understand which experiences matter most and gain as many of them as quickly as possible. To begin, you want to be very clear about your starting point and desired destination on that development journey — an obvious item that’s often missing from a development plan.

Two key steps to grow faster are:

Determine your from/to. Get the experiences and create a personal experience map.

Determine Your From/To
If you want driving directions from Google Maps, your app asks you for two pieces of information: your current location and your desired location. The more precisely you enter each coordinate, the more likely you’ll get where you want to go using the fastest possible route. Your growth process should follow the exact same path, clearly specifying where you are today and your preferred destination.

Further Reading

The challenge for many of us is that we’re delusional about our actual origin and destination. We often think we’re starting far ahead of where we objectively are and that we’ve arrived when we’re still hundreds of miles from our goal. You can get to a more accurate assessment with a framework that my colleague Jim Shanley calls the “from/to.” The from/to is two brief statements — one describing where you are today and one describing your next big (not your ultimate) destination.

Examples of great from/to statements include:

From an individual contributor who adds value through technical expertise and closely follows others’ directions, to a people leader who creates a clear strategy and delivers results through a small team. From a business strategist who can appear aloof and dismissive of those with less intellectual horsepower, to a general manager who aligns and inspires her region through personal connections and demonstrates genuine care for people.

The directness of those statements may surprise you. These from/to statements are real examples from successful executives who made tremendous progress once their needs were made this clear. Both of those leaders are now CEOs — one of a $10 billion retail chain and another of a specialty eyewear company.

To get an accurate from/to, you’ll need to check your ego at the door and ask some trusted superiors and colleagues for their extremely candid view of your origin and destination. Introduce the from/to concept to them, send them the from/to examples I gave earlier, and ask them to think about your from/to. Tell them to be brutally honest because their transparency will allow you to grow faster.

Use their input to create your final from/to. Which of their statements seem most direct and make you most uncomfortable? Is the “to” far enough away so that it will be a meaningful challenge to achieve? Whose opinion do you trust the most? With a clear from/to, you can now focus on accelerating your growth.

Create Your Personal Experience Map
Since the 70-20-10 ratio says that experiences best accelerate your development, you’ll want to understand which experiences will build your career and, more importantly, the few, most powerful experiences that can close your from/to gap. A regularly updated personal experience map will help you chart your path.

A personal experience map shows which experiences you want to acquire in the next two to five years to grow your career. It’s a practical planning document that describes how you will produce the highest-performing you.

There are two types of experiences that will accelerate your development — functional experiences and management experiences. Functional experiences help make you great at something, i.e. marketing, supply chain, R&D. They allow you to prove that you’re highly competent at what you do. Management experiences will help you prove that you can perform or manage in a variety of challenging situations. You’ve not only been a great marketer in one region, but proven that you can lead marketing when you have a new team, in a turnaround situation and in a different geography.

When you successfully achieve these challenging experiences, you prove to your company that you’re a versatile leader who deserves a chance for larger, more important roles. You can create your personal experience map after you:

Interview experts in your field.
The best and brightest in your field can help you understand which experiences will get you into the top 10% and become an expert. Interview those leaders to learn which experiences will build your functional excellence. The interviews will provide you with the raw material to create your personal experience map.

Identify experts inside and outside your company. Interview the best in your field, not just the best in your company. If you want to be a chief financial officer (CFO), identify five CFOs who you admire or who are well regarded in your industry. If your goal is to be great at early-stage pharma R&D, it’s the same process. Find the leaders on the industry “best” lists (best chief marketing officer, chief information officer, etc.), from their articles in trade magazines, on lists of speakers at relevant conferences, or from referrals of leaders in your company. Request an interview. Email each leader, asking for an informal conversation in which they can help someone in their field develop. Ask for insights. During your call, ask them, “What are the key functional experiences [not necessarily jobs] that you believe will produce the highest-quality [general manager, IT architect, finance director]? Or, “Describe what you would see on the résumé of someone who is outstanding at _______.” If you’re having trouble getting quality information, ask them about the most valuable experiences they’ve had in their own careers.

Build your map.
Review your interview notes and list the experiences that your interviewees described. Not everything you heard will be useful; some information will overlap or contradict what another interviewee said. Your goal is to sort through this information to find the few experiences that will most accelerate your career.

An experience should describe a meaningful business outcome — open a new production facility, lead a large team through a business turnaround, or close books for a business unit. It should be a significant building block of your functional or leadership capability; your accomplishment of it should mean something to others in your field.

The functional experiences you need to be a high performer will be unique to your profession, but the management experiences will be very similar across professions. Management experiences grow generic capabilities that are valuable to all managers, no matter their function. For simplicity, you can use these experiences when you create your map:

Life-cycle experiences: Lead in different parts of your company or product evolution: a turnaround situation, a startup, a steady-state environment, a developing market or a fully mature one. Managing experiences: Upgrade a poor-quality team, lead a large team, manage a team where you have influence but not authority, lead in a matrixed environment, lead in a highly political environment. Geographic experiences: Have experiences outside your home geography where the local language is not your native language.

Select four to seven functional experiences and three to four management experiences you believe will benefit you most and list them on your personal experience map. The map should be focused and realistic — a reference sheet that you’ll use regularly to plan your growth and assess your progress.

The personal experience map is now your guide to continuously grow your high-performing self. Creating it will be one of your best investments of time. Review the content of your map any time you switch jobs or companies and at least every six months to ensure that it remains a current, helpful guide.

Growing yourself faster isn’t easy but it’s made far simpler when you’re clear about your origin, your destination, and the fastest, experience-driven route between the two.

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