Building Career Resilience
Saturday, July 30, 2022
Several weeks ago, I was having a coaching conversation about career choices with someone. The question was whether to choose the individual contributor or the manager career path. That particular individual tried both and was contemplating what was next.
Our conversation centered around a few related questions:
- What types of work or roles energize you? What kinds of work or roles drain you?
- Should you favor roles that minimize the energy drain? For example, if some managerial work drains you, should you go back to designing software and writing code?
- How to build career resilience?
Aside from letting that individual solidify their choice, that conversation allowed me to answer a few questions that I was facing myself about (a) building a long career with opportunities for personal growth and the growth of others around me and (b) letting my leadership beliefs, behaviors, contributions and impact define my working identity, as opposed to the logos of the companies I work for defining me.
My recently-ended sabbatical also allowed me to think long and hard about these questions, though I could not formulate these questions clearly until that coaching conversation. That’s why I love coaching conversations. In addition to letting the other person explore their career and leadership journey, they help me learn and improve.
From that conversation, we drew a few conclusions.
First, one must know where their energy comes from and what drains them.
Each of us learns to get energy from certain activities. These are usually the activities we become skilled at early in our careers and build some success. Positive reinforcement from such success makes us enjoy and do more of those activities. It’s like a deer always going back to certain ponds for drinking water. Water is there, it is fresh, and you enjoy it. Nothing wrong with it.
But making career choices solely based on where you get energy from can be a mistake, particularly if you want to remain useful and want to grow in your career. Here is why.
Eventually, you mistake such activities as things you are innately good at and continue the positive reinforcement loop. Others then identify you with those activities and may want you to continue those, thus perpetuating that loop. It might feel good when others pull you into conversations because you’re good at problems they want to see solved.
But you may eventually get bored and upset that you’re not getting opportunities to do other activities. I have had this happen to me in my career and have seen it happen to others.
A recent episode of Muriel Wilkins’ Coaching Real Leaders podcast also reminded me of this point. In this episode, the participant, Krish, gets pulled back into a role/function that he is good at. He feels he would be good at other things and is upset that he is not being called to do those other things. Though this episode does not delve into where Krish gets his energy from, the conversation in this podcast makes it clear that he gets energy from diving deep into certain kinds of problems. As a result, those problems keep drawing him back even though he wants to be called to tackle other types of issues.
You may find that what made you strong and gave you energy in the first place can get you stuck. So, pay attention to where you get your energy from.
This brings me to the second conclusion. Learn to draw energy from activities that drain you. This may sound counter-intuitive at first. Why bother learning to draw energy from things that you don’t enjoy? Here is why.
Think of where you are and where you want to be in your career a few years from now. Can you embark on a journey from here to there by continuing to do the same activities that energize you? In most cases, the answer is no. People operating at that future level most likely draw energy from a different set of activities from what you currently do, and those activities may look draining to you now.
Consider, for example, the process of negotiating, influencing, and coercing others to get something done. If those activities are draining to you, and you prefer to avoid them, for most people, their careers get stuck. Hate spreadsheets? Guess what? Most leadership roles at tech companies deal with spreadsheets. Don’t like conflict? To progress in your career, you’ll have to learn to deal with conflict to get things done. Not comfortable speaking in front of large groups? Most senior roles need you to address groups of people to influence, inspire, and create movement. Don’t like working with people? Inter-personal skills are essential for career success and growth.
Third, the ability to draw energy from diverse sources can help you build a long and fruitful career. Look at the nature around us. Organisms that can survive in diverse conditions can survive change while others perish. This is true for true when investing. You invest in a diverse portfolio to minimize risk. The same is true for our careers too.
Looking at the example of Krish above, how do you prevent what used to be your strength from getting you stuck? You diversify. You learn to draw energy from other kinds of activities early and often in your career. Diversity builds resilience and creates options. As you diversify, you will discover opportunities you didn’t know existed.
For instance, if you are a software developer good at coding certain problems, consider developing related technical or non-technical skills. Consider learning to influence others. Write. Speak at conferences, or teach others. Run a project. If you are a manager managing a particular problem domain, diversify into other disciplines involving different people, organizational, and technical complexity. Learn about finance. Develop product management skills. Run cross-functional programs. Support customers.
In the beginning, your attempts to diversify may drain you. You may question your decision to diversify and want to return to what you were doing before or your prior energy source. You might miss your prior energy sources as you’ve not yet figured out how to draw energy from the newer sources. But eventually, you evolve.
How did that conversation help my questions (a) about building a long career and (b) owning my work identity? The answer is to (a) get uncomfortable and learn to do things that may be draining at the moment and (b) do a variety of things at work and outside work.