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Taking Charge of Your Career Path

In a recent post on Govloop, Mark Hensch says, “When it comes to professional development, no one can take you to the best version of your career besides yourself.”  Unfortunately, one of the biggest mistakes that employees make is depending on their boss, mentor, or teacher to tell them pathways to pursue.  And sometimes it is years down the road before we come to the realization that we have taken a path that does not fit our natural talents and tendencies.

My Story

If you are part of NexGen, the following advice may be helpful as you map out your career and discuss individual development opportunities with your manager. Let me first tell you my story.

I can’t say that I took a career path that I did not enjoy. In fact, unlike a lot of people, I chose a subject in which I had a high level of interest: chemistry. Fortunately, I was able to land a job as a practicing chemist in a laboratory.  At that point in my life, things could not have worked out any better than that.

But as I gained progressive experience, I eventually reached a point where I wanted to try something new. Opportunities emerged and I was able to shift into different roles and responsibilities  Time after time, I discussed my career aspirations with coaches, mentors, and my boss. What I forgot to do was consult with myself.

Fast forward and I eventually decided to seek an MBA.  As part of a leadership class, I had the opportunity to take the Gallup Strengthsfinder assessment.  Saying that what I learned in this assessment changed my life would not be an understatement.

I had taken many personality tests and career inventory tests up until that point.  They validated that I was in the right type of work.  Yet, something still seemed to be missing.  And up until then, I couldn’t figure out what it was.

My Strengths

The Gallup Strengsthfinder assessment proposes that there are 34 unique talents.  The assessment will rank those 34 talents with the top five talents being identified as your primary set of strengths.  For example, my top five strengths are:

  • Learner
  • Strategic
  • Achiever
  • Responsibility
  • Connectedness

At first glance, these one-word descriptions may not seem like much.  But when I reviewed the corresponding descriptions, it blew me away.  It wasn’t just about my personality; it was about the way that I view the world and approach life.  Suddenly, a lot of my tendencies and past choices began to make sense.

For example, for Learner, it says “You love to learn…The process, more than the content or the result, is especially exciting for you.”  As I reviewed my training record at work, this was evident.  I didn’t just take the required training.  I had a consistent pattern of taking all kinds of training both inside and outside of my required professional environment.

It went on to say “It (Learner strength) enables you to thrive in dynamic work environments where you are asked to take on short assignments and are expected to learn a lot about the new subject matter in a short period of time…”  It suddenly made sense that I often struggled when put on “routine” jobs.  Along the way, I also figured out that I could better leverage this strength if I could “go deep” in a single area, in other words progressively learn more about one topic rather than jumping from subject to subject.

As I went successively through each of these top five strengths, I began to see in my work experience why I enjoyed certain roles more than others and why I enjoyed certain assignments more than others.  I also learned in this same MBA leadership class the importance of getting people “in the right seat on the bus,” meaning as a leader you should ensure that each person on your team is playing in a position that leverages their competence and expertise.

Putting Myself in the “Right Seat”

Rather than waiting for someone to decide to put me in the right seat, I decided that I needed to start steering myself in the direction of the right seat.  Here are three ways that I took what I learned and started to make it work for me:

Explore work experiences where your strengths are needed.  Instead of looking at your current role within the organization, take a broader look at roles across your industry or profession that may align with your strengths.  Understanding that I was a strategic thinker opened up a new world of possibilities for me.  What jobs require strategic thinking?  What jobs or roles need someone to “connect the dots.”  For example, I began internet surfing for jobs that required “strategic thinking” or were focused strongly on outcomes (Achiever strength).  When you look at career paths through the lens of your strengths, you expand the number of pathways you might take to get you to fulfilling work.

Take on assignments where you can practice your strengths.  You may find that you are in a role that does not leverage your strengths.  Instead of allowing yourself to remain stuck, look for opportunities and assignments that will allow you to begin practicing your strengths.  You may have to take on volunteer opportunities outside of work at first.  For example, I joined Toastmasters and began taking on leadership roles and crafting speeches where I shared about my strengths.  Also, volunteering to take work assignments that will stretch you in the areas of your strengths is a great way to practice and get noticed for your natural talents.  I started volunteering to do tasks that helped me practice and showcase my strengths.

Start hobbies that leverage your strengths.  If you are not ready to take on extra assignments or the risk of failing on new assignments, you may instead try starting a hobby that will allow you to use your strengths without commitment to results.  The goal with the hobby is to put you into routine practice so that you can better understand your strength and measure your competence.  For example, I took some classes that required me to exercise strategic thinking.  This was great because I was also using my top strength (Learner) and getting immediate feedback from my instructors on my second strength (Strategic).

The last piece of advice will offer is talking with your boss about your strengths during IDP (individual development planning) sessions.  I recommend developing an elevator pitch type speech that highlights your strengths and how you have used them in your current or past roles.  Your boss may immediately see where they can better use your strengths and start working to get you in the right seat on the bus.

What tools or assessments have you used to help you sort out your career path?

Rebecca Mott is a GovLoop Featured Contributor. She is a self-proclaimed change agent and continuous improvement leader with over 20 years of utility industry experience leading technical teams to solve problems. She currently coaches leaders and teams to apply Lean Six Sigma methodologies and engage by focusing on the power of “we.”

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Avatar photo Blake Martin

I really enjoyed reading this, and I walked away feeling really motivated! I loved your idea to take on more work, whether professionally through special projects or personally through fun new hobbies, just as long as it allows you the chance to flex and leverage your strengths. Putting yourself in the “right seat” is fun and so accurate!