In open organizations, we like to say that you own your career. Each one of us is encouraged to find a gap and fill it.
In settings like these—and when there's more work to be done than there are hands to do it—it's important to understand your strengths so you can identify where you can be most effective in the organization and which problems you're passionate about solving. That means everyone—associates, managers, and executives alike—shares responsibility for proactively nurturing an open dialogue about ways they can engage with challenging, meaningful, and interesting work.
Not long ago, my colleague Sam Knuth began making this point in his advice to people who feel underutilized at work:
My challenge to those who feel like they aren't being fully utilized, or that they aren't being given meaningful work, or that they don't understand how their work contributes to the bigger picture, is this: Make it your job to get more challenging, meaningful, and interesting work.
Sam goes on to say that managers with associates who feel underutilized have a job to do, too: Both the associate and the boss need "to be willing to talk openly and share their perspectives and ideas," and the boss should think of ways "to keep them engaged and get the benefit of that engagement."
That's sound advice. And here's another critical factor in the "own your own career" equation: One of the primary responsibilities of an open leader is to provide the context, tools, and training associates need to feel empowered to do their best work.
That includes helping associates recognize their value and see precisely how their work contributes to the success of the company. While associates and their managers absolutely should maintain an open dialogue about these issues, associates will often struggle to identify strategic gaps and muster the confidence they need to define their own careers until they're empowered with the proper understanding of context and enough training and practical experience to do so. So I would argue that if an associate feels like she's underutilized or thinks her contributions aren't meaningful, then her manager bears primary responsibility for helping her understand the meaning of her work and giving her opportunities to stretch and learn new skills that might help her discover the gap she is best suited to fill.
Having the right support and advocacy from leadership is a prerequisite to being able to own your own career. To demonstrate, let's look at some ways a manager can make a difference to an associate who feels underutilized or who is struggling to define the next step for her career.
Set the context
Managers and their teams can have difficulty seeing beyond their immediate ecosystems. When all you do every day is contribute code to the same application and work with the same groups of people, you don't necessarily see lots of opportunities to engage with what's happening elsewhere in the organization or to understand how the work you do helps other teams succeed.
So when an associate feels underutilized, it's important for her manager to start by making sure she understands the full context and importance of her work (as well as the related business problems that still need to be addressed). Sometimes that knowledge is enough to reignite passion and help that associate identify a new problem she's excited to solve. One engaging way to do this is to invite guests from other areas in the organization to speak to your team—you might be surprised how much you all learn from how others perceive and use what your team develops.
Invest in skill building
One of the most important things a manager can do is provide an associate with chances to learn and improve in areas of relative weakness. Associates should be defining their strengths and discussing opportunities for growth with their managers during ongoing development conversations, but improving a skill you never have an opportunity to practice isn't easy.
So if, for example, an associate wanted to improve her influence-related skills, her manager could offer a project where she runs meetings and manages stakeholders. By going through the practice and then working through any arising obstacles with her manager, the associate adds a new tool to her toolbox. And with each new tool, she's more and more likely to have the experience and confidence needed to define the next step for her career.
Pull up a seat at the table
By this point, then, our example associate should understand the context of her work and some related business problems. She has gained experience while adding new tools to her toolbox. Finally, she's able to identify the gap she's uniquely suited to fill and tells her manager what she wants to do.
Her manager's job isn't done yet. Her manager must now advocate for her on a leadership level. Without her manager's recommendation and support, our associate will likely struggle to find a seat at the leadership table where she can make her business case, draft her new job description, and start the transition to a new area of responsibility.
Open some doors
As a manager, whose needs should you prioritize: the team's, the company's, or an associate's?
Hopefully you answered that they should all be aligned. Sometimes the best thing you can do for your team, company, and associate is to expose that associate to opportunities in other areas of the organization.
If an associate is interested in exploring a role that doesn't exist on your team and you can't carve it out, then connect her with outside teams so she can do some informational interviewing and job shadowing. She wins by learning more about the business and potentially taking a growth opportunity, the company wins by retaining a high-performing employee, and your team wins by having an instant connection within another area of the organization.
It takes two
To be successful, associates and managers alike "need to be willing to talk openly and share their perspectives and ideas" (as Sam puts it), and associates should be comfortable initiating development conversations with their managers.
However, I would also encourage managers to embrace the part they play in helping each associate own her own career. Instead of waiting to be surprised by an associate who says she feels underutilized, managers should be proactive during ongoing development conversations and intentional about setting the proper context and providing opportunities to practice new skills. That way, each associate will be prepared to define her next step when the time is right.
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The nature of work is changing. So the way we lead must change with it.