Every once in a while, it's a good idea to stop and ask yourself if your engineering career is serving you. Career success is an individual thing. Your career success is largely defined by you. But you likely want to reach a certain level of your potential and make an impact in your career. So, in that case, you want to be intentional about career care.
Here I've put together some basic concepts on career care for engineers, along with insights to help you optimize your approach and steer your career in the right direction.
Career care begins with the premise that your career is more important than your job. Second, it includes the imperative that you devote time to career care. Third, it involves asking people to help you with your career, and allowing them to do so. And fourth, it incorporates the concept of taking charge and owning your career.
Your Career is More Important than Your Job
Your career is a journey. You define where you want to go on that journey. You plan it out. You set goals. Your job, on the other hand, is a step along the way. It's one short trip in that long journey. You can plan some of those steps and short trips. But you don't have total control of what happens.
Jobs can be cancelled or defunded or downsized at any time. Each job is a stepping stone along your path. And there's an optimal amount of time to stay in each one. If your job no longer serves your career, it's time to move on.
In short, you want to avoid losing sight of your career by focusing too much on your job. Here are some ways to help you do that:
1. Don't view your job as the goal
Regard your job as a stepping stone, or a means to an end, not as an end in itself. If you're treating your job like the destination, then you're forgetting to take the long-term view.
2. Beware of job loitering or attachment
Job loitering means getting overly comfortable in your current job and hanging out there too long. Job attachment means becoming tied to or even possessive of your job and not wanting to let it go. When you make this mistake, you tend to ignore other opportunities. You get stuck and stop growing and learning.
3. Escape the pull of perfectionism
You probably have more room to grow where you are, but at some point, you've grown enough in your job and should be looking for better opportunities. Don't strive for perfection in your current role at the expense of stretching into higher-level, more impactful ones.
4. Lead with authenticity, not ego
When you lose sight of your authenticity, you can fall into the trap of focusing on the money or the prestige that results from the job rather than what's meaningful in your career, like the talent you can apply, the impact you can have, or all you can learn.
While money and prestige aren't always bad, you'll want to avoid trading temporary satisfaction for the long-term investment in yourself as a person, an engineer, and a leader.
5. Keep loyalty in check
Loyalty is generally a good trait, but extreme loyalty to the organization or mission may cause you to stay in the same job for too long.
It may have you believing that you must "serve your time" before you can leave, or that leaving your job looks bad, neither of which is true.
6. Let go of the notion that you own your job
Let go of the idea that you have total control over your job. that nothing can interfere with it and no one can take it away. If you're too personally invested in your job—the people, the goals or the work itself—you won't be able to pivot when the environment changes.
When the mission, technology or customer requirements shift, you need to be flexible. You need to evolve. Take a career perspective and decide what changes you need to make.
Do well in your job and make your contribution, but recognize when to move on. Your skills and strengths are portable, always. Take them along when it's time for your next challenge.
Devote Time to Your Career
Consistently investing the time to care for your career will result in a significant return on that investment. Observing your progress and taking intentional action helps you stay on track, reach your goals sooner, and be more likely to reach your career potential.
No one else can do this for you.
Have a career vision to keep you on the right trajectory. And, by the way, you don't have to know your definitive vision instantly. Most people have to work at creating one. And it gets refined and revised over time.
For example, you can work on creating your vision by:
- Noticing what work you like and don't like to do.
- Noticing the development of your skills and strengths and where that takes you.
- Considering where you want to be and who you want to become.
- Clarifying your values and passion.
- Asking people you admire about their work and asking for their advice.
- Formulating all of this into a vision and documenting it.
Ask and Allow Mentors to Help You
There's no question that mentors are valuable. Everyone needs mentorship at some point. You just won't get as far in your career without them. You'll need people to help you. And you should allow them to.
More than helping you build skills, a good mentor shows you how to make your way in this profession. Your mentor can inspire you and open doors for you. You'll benefit from their wisdom, feedback, validation, support, and advocacy.
To get the most out of your mentor relationship, be an impeccable mentee. Strive to be coachable. Be purposeful, direct and honest. And don't forget to say thank you.
Dos and don'ts of being coachable:
- Do take responsibility for your progress.
- Don't blame others or give excuses for your mistakes or lack of effort.
- Do practice respect and active listening.
- Don't be closed to advice or assume you know better.
- Do follow through with meaningful action.
- Don't expect others to do your legwork or rely on their power to get you ahead.
Not only will this result in better mentoring outcomes, but it will facilitate a strong mentor relationship that is more likely to last your entire career.
Own Your Career
Owning your career means you are in charge. You're making the decisions. You're setting your career trajectory and keeping yourself on it. You're leading your career. It is not leading you.
If you feel like you're not in charge, start by owning your vision, your workload, and your calendar.
It's not too difficult to own your vision because you created it, and it's all about you, but you do need to be the keeper of that vision. If your career is straying from your vision, you're the one who has to do something about it. If you're headed down the wrong pathway, you're the one who has to stop and change directions.
Owning your workload is a little more difficult. Especially early in your career, people give you tasks to do, and you have to do them. However, you have more power than you think. If you are overwhelmed with work or have too much on your plate, speak up. You must speak up because no one else will do that for you. And you must speak up because otherwise people assume everything's fine and just keep giving you more work.
You also can delegate. Even if you don't have direct reports, you can get people to help you with tasks. You can choose to spend more time on tasks that are important to you and less time on those that aren't. And you can say no. Say no to work that doesn't fall in line with your goals.
Owning your calendar might seem obvious. But not everyone takes on that responsibility. Give yourself permission to cancel, rearrange and delegate events. And block off time on your calendar for all important commitments – even personal ones – so that no one schedules on top of them.
As you get more practiced at owning your vision, workload and calendar, you'll be well on your way to owning your career.
As your engineering career progresses, you'll clarify your career vision, gain more autonomy, and improve your skills and experience. If you include some regular, intentional career care approaches, you'll be more likely to reach your goals sooner, realize your vision, and optimize your impact as an engineer and leader.
Mary E. Kinsella is a Career Strategist, helping women engineers confidently command greater influence and impact. Find more about her signature coaching program and her podcast at HerEngineeringCareer.com.