There are more-or-less “hidden” rules on how to actively progress one’s career in a large-ish corporation. Let’s look at them here.
A role on the workplace contains a combination of behavior, skill and responsibility.
- Behavior is what you actually do.
- Skill is what you can do (and what others can rely on you being able to do).
- Responsibility is about being held accountable for the consequence of choices and decisions.
Each of these dimensions has a learning process.
Behavior and skill are typically learned hand-in-hand: one will be led by circumstances into a new behavior (eg solving bugs in a new technical area), that’s a new behavior. This will, in time, yield the acquisition of new intuition, new ability to reproduce the behavior without guidance. That’s a new skill. Rinse, repeat.
Developing skill and behavior can occur in at least three different ways:
- natural growth, driven by organizational circumstances more often than individual initiatives.
- emulation of role models, where a learner actively mimics behavior of a more senior individual and skill acquisition occurs as a side effect (also called “fake it until you make it”).
- training by more senior co-workers, where the senior co-worker invites the learner to new behaviors and new skills.
Either of these strategies is acceptable and there is no “one true way” to develop new behaviors and skills. Some individuals learn better in certain ways than others.
One of the organization’s responsibilities is to create ample and sufficient organization circumstances that facilitate natural growth. You are encouraged to approach your peers and manager to identify circumstances which will facilitate your natural growth.
Moreover, training can be initiated and organized by the organization, in particular for new hires or when transferring to a new team.
However, training can also be initiated / requested by the individual. This is acceptable and usually encouraged. Most organizations will allocate senior co-workers to train a learner who wants to develop behavior and skill in a new area.
The word “responsibility” carries many definitions depending on context. In this context, we use it specifically to refer to the social force (see below for definition) that binds the individual to certain obligations and courses of action.
To simplify, this social force tells the individual they “must” do certain things in certain circumstances, “or else”. Of course, the “else” at most corporations is not binary—folk do not get fired for the slightest deviation!—but there is a general sense of personal cost associated with failing one’s responsibilities.
Here are examples of responsibilities:
- for junior engineers, to ask for help when they are stuck,
- for all engineers, to be reasonably available to answer questions by their co-workers, and do so respectfully,
- for technical leads, to be available to help solve technical challenges in their team,
- for managers, to answer questions about career development from their reports,
- for a startup CEO, to seek and secure a stream of funding.
This social force is anchored in multiple places.
To me personally, it is anchored as follows, from most to least strongly:
- trust and expectations by co-workers,
- the standards and ethics of professionalism in the industry sector,
- the employee handbook,
- the agreement between employer and employee, where the scope of the trade of labor for money is outlined,
- the relevant legal framework,
- individual culture and morals.
Responsibility implies a certain form of personal liability; therefore, one cannot be “given” responsibility:
- it is either offered by the organization, and then you can accept it, or
- you can take the responsibility on your own, and be explicit about it so others know you are accountable.
It is not OK for a manager to tell you “I have seen you perform in this capacity for a while, so now you’re going to carry the responsibilities that go with it”. You should expect instead “you appear to be trustworthy with these situations, would you like to take the responsibility for those things too”. It is the individual’s choice to accept or assume responsibilities.
To accept a responsibility is to accept the obligation to do certain things in certain circumstances.
A responsibility is not all cost and liability though, there are certain benefits associated with it:
- job satisfaction, sense of “ownership” over the role,
- access to the decision-making process in higher levels of the organization, sense of “ownership” over the organization,
- often, additional employment compensation. (Note: if you take responsibility one-sided, you cannot expect immediate compensation as a result. See below.)
Generally, you can expect from your leadership that they will not expect a co-worker to be accountable for their actions (i.e. carry responsibility) before they know how to act.
Learning responsibility follows learning behavior and skill, not the other way around.
The typical learning path for responsibility goes as follows:
- one identifies a role in the organization they have interest for,
- one finds a path (natural growth, emulation, training) to develop behavior and skills in that direction,
- during that path, one asks questions about the associated responsibilities, to get a sense of the liability burdens,
- one approaches the current individuals responsible in a role to support them in that responsibility,
- after one feels confident in their ability to carry a responsibility, they either accept it (if offered) or take it.
It is acceptable (and perfectly OK) to iterate on points 1-3 for a long time without engaging with points 4 and 5.
For example, it is common to see senior engineers accumulate a large wealth of skills, without agreeing to carry certain organizational responsibilities more typically attached to the roles of manager or director.
This is called the “Individual Contributor career path” and is highly respected in our industry.
You have developed new behaviors, skills, and supported your team with certain responsibilities. Now what?
Usually, the organization will notice: your manager or a co-worker will refer/defer to you increasingly in that role, and the management team eventually acknowledges the change and approach you to re-label your job with your approval.
However, this may not happen on its own!
It is possible, even common, for the organization to not notice your investment into a new role, for example:
- because you have identified an organizational blind spot,
- because your manager is over-worked and/or hasn’t identified the signals of your investment,
- because your co-workers continue to see you through the lenses they learned to know you with.
When this occurs, do not take this as a signal that the organization is unwilling to acknowledge your development. Instead, take action: approach your manager and your co-workers and be explicit:
“as you may have noticed, I have been doing more of this and that lately. I’d like to be recognized in that role.”
From then on, the following can/should happen:
- you may be asked to provide example situations that demonstrate your development,
- your manager may seek additional confirmations that you indeed have developed into the new role,
- there may be an organization process to confirm the acknowledgement,
especially if you are expecting monetary compensation for the
- you may be told there is no “space” currently for that role, which means “we haven’t decided to allocate a budget for this yet.” In that case you may wish to continue acting the role and reap the non-monetary rewards, demonstrate the worth of your role to the organization so that a budget gets allocated, or consider alternatives.
- be patient! all this takes time. It is common/reasonable to see recognition take effect over the course of months, up to half a year.
So what do you think? Did I miss something? Is any part unclear? Leave your comments below.