Don’t Focus on Your Job at the Expense of Your Career
Summary. The gap between what we have to do today and where we see ourselves in the future can be vexing. We’d like to advance toward our goals, but we feel dragged down by responsibilities that seem banal or off-target for our eventual vision. In this piece, the author offers four strategies you can try so that you can simultaneously accomplish what’s necessary in the short-term while playing the long game for the betterment of your career.
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).
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.
But it’s also true that the vast majority of Googlers don’t make use of 20% time because they have the same problem as plenty of other professionals — the relentless demands of their existing jobs. As former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, who previously worked at Google, once joked, “I’ve got to tell you the dirty little secret of Google’s 20% time. It’s really 120% time … stuff that you’ve got to do beyond your regular job.”
It takes a cooperative manager and strict time management discipline for you to reallocate 20% of your time to speculative or developmental activities — and if you don’t have that, you’ll likely need to be willing to work more, at least for a period of time, in order to establish your bona fides and capture the attention of the people who can help you advance. You may not be able, structurally, to find an extra 20% — demands in other areas of your life may interfere. But even an extra 5%, especially if it’s coupled with a smart readjustment of your existing workload, may be enough to make demonstrable progress over time.
The gap between what we have to do today and where we see ourselves in the future can be vexing. We’d like to advance toward our goals, but we feel dragged down by responsibilities that seem banal or off-target for our eventual vision. But when you adopt these four strategies, you can simultaneously accomplish what’s necessary in the short-term while playing the long game for the betterment of your career.
Dorie Clark is a marketing strategist and keynote speaker who teaches at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and has been named one of the Top 50 business thinkers in the world by Thinkers50. Her latest book is The Long Game: How to Be a Long-Term Thinker in a Short-Term World (HBR Press, 2021) and you can receive her free Long Game strategic thinking self-assessment.