How A Single Question Started A 3-Year Journey Of Intentional Career Focus

 “When I show up there is no ambivalence in my mind…”

A conversation with Helen Stewart, Senior Executive @Google (Cloud)

“What do you want to do?” - a view on your personal development plan

This was the question posed to Helen by her line manager over 7 years ago that started a journey that Helen generously shares with others. The mumbled response she gave, and lack of clarity set Helen on a course of reflections and actions that changed how she chose to take charge and manage her career. In this article we cover 4 of the many practical tips Helen shared with our Alumni network about how to become more intentional with career goals. Simple tips that can help anyone wanting to do the same. 

Repurpose Career Directions and Set Goals

Helen had worked in the same organisation for over 20 years when she started to think about answering the “what do you want to do?” question. Helen valued her time with the organisation, but she was replaying a story in her head that maybe her tenure was working against her, maybe she would be viewed in the market as institutionalised, and not considered for internal promotion due to her lack of external experience. These questions became the catalyst for change in her professional life with respect to managing her career – a journey that would be 3 years in the making.

An example when personal growth takes you in a different direction

TIP 1: “I want THAT (leadership) role”

The first step in taking charge of her career aspirations was to provide a clear answer to her Executive line manager by setting clear goals and nominating a specific role with more responsibility and a diverse set of accountabilities. Helen didn’t initially think she would be considered, but within 6 months of having the conversation, Helen was promoted to the role!  

The promotion was not a product of luck but a culmination of experience and a clear idea of what she wanted to do as her ‘next role’ that was shared with several other Execs that knew Helen and the role she played in the growth of the business.

Abundance of knowledge and drive to stay constantly learning

Looking back and reflecting on her career, Helen knew she had the experience, the soft and hard skills, the capacity to develop new skills, all the attributes of strong leadership and the capacity to do more. It was her reluctance to share career aspirations with clarity that resulted in fewer opportunities materialising.  This simple act of choosing to share the valuable information about her future aspirations, succintly and clearly led to significant increases in job satisfaction and overall life goals.

Develop technical skills and soft skills that make sense to your future leadership focus

Self-Reflection Question:

Have you told your line manager, leader or someone of influence in your organisation what your personal development goals are, and the next role that you want?

Do you assume they already have the knowledge of your ideal future? 

TIP 2: Create a personal ‘Request For Proposal’(RFP)

Outline the specific job description including requirements for your next role or for your career (include smart goals, and how your will measure progress). Are you serving yourself (don't forget your personal life) or your organisation?

Some of the best practical advice Helen received as she started talking about her career was to draft a set of clear and mandatory requirements for her next role (no more than 5). Having clarity on whether your next role is global or local, leading people, in a specific industry, building, creating or maintaining, and let’s not forget the financial remuneration, are all a function of making sure it helps with finding the right role and working for the right organisation. The specificity of Helen’s RFP for herself pointed her in the direction of her current employer, and when the opportunity came up, she knew what she valued to make an informed decision. This approach of thinking forms a great framework for any personal development plans (and could even be applied in your personal life too for decision making). This along with the added advice to “negotiate your way to success” were tools that shaped how she navigated her next role. With the benefit of experience, strong guidance, and a clear understanding of what she valued most, Helen spent over 6-months working through her decision before she agreed to change employers.  If you are focusing your effort in the right direction, it will be more important to set milestones and lead with a positive attitude towards a successful outcome than to be too time bound on when you will achieve the goal. Trust the process.

Variations of a personal development plan examples in the form of a RFP

Back in the driver seat

When Helen found the confidence to back herself and the courage to seek out the role that she felt was suited to her background, her career decisions became very deliberate. Like many other successful people in highly influential roles.

“I wanted to be in control this time about where I was going and what I was doing, and it had to be valuable to me and my development. I had spent my career serving my organisation, lacking confidence and courage and neglected to invest in my career with purpose. I now needed my career choices to be more ambitious and purposeful to my growth as well as the organisation”.

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Self-Reflection Questions

Do you have clarity on the requirements of your personal RFP (what are the elements that will determine key differences in the outcome of your decision)?

Can you articulate what you want for your career to enable you to negotiate your way to success (communication = key)? What do you consider as potential opportunities?

Are you serving yourself or only your organisation? What might you need to change if it is the latter?

TIP 3: Ask for feedback

From listening to Helen recount her story, her bravery shines when she shares how she seeks out feedback to help her grow. This is where the rubber hits the road on self-leadership and self-awareness. Sharing your career aspirations and then asking others, maybe even the person in the role – “where am I on this, do you think I can do it? What do I need to learn or change”? is truly brave. As a leader, I have always praised team members who showed that they spend time on self- evaluation, self improvement and care around personal improvement.

Helen shares that choosing to seek out feedback and then act on feedback was a pivotal moment in the management of her career. Viewing the feedback as a data point that can help you improve or make better decisions is key. The ability to take feedback, lay it out in front of you and ask unemotively “what is this telling me I need to work on” then putting an action plan in place to build capability (behavioural, skill, leadership) will accelerate your progress (nothing better then outperforming your short term goals and even better completing your annual goals faster). 

Don't fill the gaps, or assume!

For so many of us, lack of feedback means we fill in the gaps ourselves (and make up stories often to our detriment) or miss opportunities to become truly self-aware. If we wait for feedback, it might not come, but if you ask for feedback as difficult or vulnerable as it may make us feel, like Helen does proactively, you are more likely to receive it and even more likely to benefit from it with the goal of helping you further your career. 

Self-Reflection Questions

Do you receive regular feedback from your line manager, mentor or sponsor? If so, is this a valuable source of data for you? If not, what would make it more valuable?

Have you sought out feedback proactively? Was this useful? Have you put the feedback into action?

TIP 4: Establish a Board of Directors who help you personally or professionally

People love to help if asked. People also need permission to help. Helen shared that she has created her own “Board of Directors”. People whom she sought out with purpose to assist with both personal support and career guidance. 

Each member of her Self- Board has a different role, and she knows and understands the role each plays in her life. In Helen’s own words she is very purposeful in who she chooses “people that are not biased in any way but know me really well, who understand and challenge me...people I really trust and know will give me good advice”.

A group of trusted advisors can act as terrific sounding boards, give you support in the areas needed, and guide you on when to say no. They can become strong advocates for you (because they know your goals and desires), and help expand your networks. Your role is to be accountable to them as individuals, listen, include them and then make up your own mind!

It seems simple, but so many of us have not put a Self-Board in place. 

Self-Reflection Questions

Have you established your own “Board of Directors”? If yes, how do they help you? Can you identify with the advice they share? Have you put any of it in place?

If you don’t have a “Board of Directors” who do you know that you could ask to be a trusted advisor? Can you be clear about what you want/ need from them?

Rounding out Helen’s journey she shares that whilst turning her mind to being intentional in changing up her career management (and she will continue to do so) she never took her eye off the job at hand, she was purposeful and is proud that she navigated these really tough questions, whilst delivering strong outcomes, and transitioned successfully to a new organisation. 

Women set clear goals for her personal development

Helen is clear the success of the transition came from doing the hard work, self-reflection, relying on her ‘board members’ for guidance and making the brave decisions.“I got here because I worked very hard and have the confidence to say, I know what I'm doing. I've got the experience. I may not know everything moving forward but I have the capacity to learn what I don't know, but I've earned the right to be here. When I show up and I have this conversation, there is no ambivalence in my mind.

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