By Miguel Buddle, Vice President, Implementation Services at Granicus
“I guess you’re doing fine. I think someone would have told me if you’re not.”
That was the complete answer I once got when asking a boss about my performance. After our call ended, I sat at my desk and wondered what on earth to do with that. Am I growing in my skills? Have I become increasingly more expert at my craft?
The career ladders in most organizations I’ve been in are focused on those questions. Ready for your next step up? The questions asked are all about whether you’re more expert. Expert enough to perform in the context of greater complexity and risk. Expert enough to deliver with less and less oversight. And then finally, expert enough to teach and mentor others so that they can be more expert.
Implicit in all of that is clarity of feedback. For most of us in the knowledge-worker category, there is some semi-objective set of things counted, scored or measured. Your projects are delivered on time more often, you sell more widgets or services, or other relevant key metrics improve. You’re able to solve weirder problems on your own. Others doing the same kind of work seek out your opinion or help. You even feel more expert.
Until you don’t anymore.
There’s a point on the career ladder where a lot of that just — drops away. Maybe you’re the senior-most leader for your function in your organization. Or it could be that you’re now three or four levels above the folks doing the tactical work and you’re more concerned with strategy and figuring out how to manage leaders who are managing leaders.
Suddenly your metrics and any other indicators of expertise are much less concrete with far less frequent feedback. Your focus is more on changes that take a long time to implement and even longer to see an impact from. You move from management to leadership and now you’re just not sure if you’re good at it, because how are you supposed to know?
After some consideration, I’ve landed on three key things to help you know if you’re on the right path and continuing to develop:
1. You seek feedback. As easy as it is at more senior levels to just coast along without real feedback, if you routinely check in with not just your boss, but also peers and the leaders reporting to you to make sure that you’re providing what they and your organization need, you’re more likely to be on the right path. Oh, and of course, you’re actually open to the feedback you get.
2. You’re working to develop more autonomous and empowered leaders. If you’ve put in the time to connect your leadership team with your strategy, your view of the world in your organization, and any political contexts, then they should be able to handle a lot of the messier stuff without checking in with you. Do you feel that you don’t have to swoop in to “save them” when there’s an uncomfortable email thread? Do they trust that you’ll back them up on decisions because they know what’s important to you? Good signs that you’re doing it right.
3. You’re not sure that you’re doing it right. I don’t know how universal this is, but one of the biggest signs that I’m too closed off to growth is when I’m damned sure I’m absolutely doing the right thing. When I’m not completely certain on a strategy or action, that’s when I have a door open for folks I value to suggest a different path or even a point of complexity I hadn’t considered. Not being certain means that I examine more evidence, consider the situation more completely, and watch more carefully for outcomes and the lessons they bring with them. That’s when I know I’m learning.
That’s what makes sense to me. I’d love to hear how other folks approach this question.