Mentorship and sponsorship are important factors in growing your career, but they aren’t a substitute for setting and measuring your own goals.
Personal growth is key for satisfaction in your job. As a hiring manager, when I ask a candidate why they’re considering leaving their current role, I’d estimate that nine times out of ten, the answer is along the lines of ‘I don’t feel like I’m growing in my current job’.
Your career growth depends a lot on the opportunities available to you and the people around you, but it is also too important to leave in the hands of others. By setting and sharing your own goals, and honestly measuring your success at meeting them, you can take charge of your growth, drive more impact, and level up your career.
Picking a path
Before you can start to set your growth goals, it’s important to choose the direction in which you want to grow. I tend to think of growth for engineers on a 3D space where the axes are:
- Technical depth. Going deeper into the foundations of technology you already work with. If you’re an iOS engineer, this could look like building strong understandings of the core frameworks. For a machine-learning engineer, perhaps you want to read papers around advancements in the field.
- Technical breadth. Moving up, down, or across the stack from where you regularly work so you can build a broader picture of systems. A mobile engineer could learn about the constraints of the back-end system their app interfaces with, or a server-side engineer could learn more about the network configuration and deployment systems their team relies on.
- Leadership skills. The non-technical growth direction. If you want to move into a tech lead or engineering manager role, you’ll need to be able to demonstrate your ability to motivate and direct a group of engineers.
Picture that 3D space where each axis goes from zero to expert, and then where you currently sit upon it. Now think about what direction you want to be moving in. A prompt I like to give people to help guide discussion about direction is: is there somebody you look at now, on our team, in the company, or in our industry, where you think you’d like to be doing their job in five years time? Having someone to compare yourself to, and identify the differences, can give you a sense of direction.
Focus on your personal growth
If you work at a company with well-defined career level descriptions, it’s tempting to look to them as the map for your growth. Occasionally I’d ask someone about their growth goals, and hear ‘I’d like to lead a project with a 3–6 month scope’, which, not coincidentally, was a direct quote of an expectation of engineers at the next level!
Try to focus on growing your skills in the way you want to grow them, not in the way a rubric dictates. Yes, we all want the recognition and compensation that comes with a promotion, but myopically focusing on promotion as the sole signal of successful growth carries risk.
Firstly, promotions are tied up in many things out of your control – opportunities, budgets, review cycles, and managerial biases can all get in your way. If you do the work “for the promo” but fail to receive it, you can be left frustrated. Secondly, job ladders are often incredibly broad, vague, and open to interpretation. They shouldn’t be used as checklists for the skills you need to grow.
Finally, if you view growth goals as 'eating your vegetables' i.e. doing things you don’t want to do, but you feel you need to work on to get the promotion, then you are less likely to invest the time in actually becoming good at those things.
Instead of trying to set growth goals to fill the valleys in your skill-set, focus on what you’re already good at – the spikes! Unless you’ve been told there’s something you’re so bad at that it’s harming your career, spend your energy on taking the things you’re good at and make them great! You will be more intrinsically motivated to spend the energy to make these things happen. (And, speaking as a manager, if I have folks with a variety of great skills, I can aim to balance at the team level to make sure all troughs and valleys are canceled out!)
If your strengths allow you to deliver more value and impact for your team and company, recognition and compensation should follow, and your acquired skills will be transferable to future employers.
Setting your growth goals
Once you have your direction, you can start to set goals. Much like when setting product or system goals, it’s good to keep the SMART mnemonic (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Timely) in mind.
I like to use the OKR (Objectives and Key Results) model for defining goals. Objectives are the long-term (possibly multi-quarter) goals you’re hoping to achieve, while the key results are the objectively measurable milestones along the way that tell you you’re making progress. By way of illustration, if my objective was to become fluent in Spanish, my key results for the next three months could be something like ‘be able to conjugate the 50 most common verbs’ or ‘complete my Duolingo training on at least 5 days every week'.
I personally have always used three months as the cycle length for career goals. It’s enough time to make meaningful progress on a variety of goals, but short enough for you to adjust and reflect before setting the next batch. This leads to my rule of thumb that having any more than three goals in a quarter is pushing it.
Focus on things you have control over
One more tip for setting goals you can achieve: make sure you are in control of the success of them.
If your goal is structured around working on a specific project on the roadmap, you might suffer if the roadmap changes. If you plan to take a particular role, someone else might be assigned to it before you.
Look for goals that are at the edges or outside of your job, not the day-to-day work that is expected of you. They can be extra credit projects for your team (taking ownership and improving a process that needs some love, or automating a gnarly time-sink task to help your team be more productive); or extra-curricular activities (such as online courses, open source side projects, or blog post writing).
Sharing is caring
Finally, an important part of setting personal goals is sharing them with others: your manager, your teammates, even your friends! Sharing them gives you these advantages:
- Feedback. People can advise you if they think the goals are too ambitious or too easy.
- Sponsorship. They can suggest different approaches to reaching your goals, and offer advice and help in achieving them.
- Accountability. Ask them to check in with you after three months to see how you did.
Don’t be shy about asking for support from others in your growth. Often they will have ideas and advice that can really aid you in reaching a new level.
And finally, the all-important part of evaluating how you did against your goals. If your key results are objectively measurable, you should be able to say with confidence if you achieved them or not. But it is equally important to take a step back and look at your objective. Do you feel you’ve made progress in the direction you chose? Are you satisfied that this is a path you want to continue going down?
This is now the time to think about your goals for the following quarter. With what you learn about your ability to learn and grow, how does it change your objectives, or how you set your key results for the next step of your growth? Were you overly ambitious? Too cautious? Did you discover that this path isn’t as interesting as you expected? Write some notes for yourself about how you felt the quarter went, and use them as the basis for setting more goals.
This advice comes to you both from my experience guiding the growth of engineers and managers who have reported to me, as well as from following it for my own career. Indeed, ‘help my team grow’ has been an objective on my personal growth plan for several years.
My key results for this goal have looked different across the quarters. They’ve included:
- Read Radical Candor, No Hard Feelings, and Resilient Management;
- Everyone reporting to me will have spent some of their learning and development budget by the end of the quarter;
- In total, my reports will achieve at least 50% of their growth goals this quarter.
These key results have pushed me to adapt my approaches and become an all-around better manager. And I take satisfaction in knowing that these are skills that will serve me well for the rest of my career. I hope they are skills that will serve you too.