This past week I was having a great discussion with an individual who was sharing how she was growing in her career. She was developing the right skills. She had received great performance and career feedback. She was networking with the right individuals by leveraging her personal and professional networks. As she told me, she was positioning herself for her next big career opportunity within her organization. I was extremely happy to hear about her success and agreed with her that she was clearly on her way.
But I had one burning question to ask her that had been asked of me by a former mentor. At that particular time in my career I had an answer, but it wasn’t the right answer. Or put it this way, it wasn’t the answer that was going to position me for the next opportunity in my professional career. However at the time, I thought it was going to position me for that next big assignment and above all things, thought it counted the most. How naïve I was. Fast forward, I had now learned. So, I thought I would ask the same question that had been asked of me, a question that caused me to think. I was now able to share a key lesson that I had learned. So, I asked,
“If I went through out your organization today and asked people to describe you (at various levels), what would they say?” “What is your professional signage?”
She jumped right in and the first descriptor that came out of her mouth was,
She obviously went onto to share others, but they paled in comparison to her stating that the organization viewed her as a hard worker. More importantly it told me that her sharing this as the first descriptor of herself was probably not only top of mind for the organization but how she probably thought of herself as well.
In my professional experience and being in countless career conversations, succession reviews and leadership discussions, when an employee is described as a “hard worker” it always sets the tone for a slightly different dialog about the individual. The conversation becomes one that centers on questioning if that person can really perform at the next level or assume a bigger role. In other words, can they truly be viewed as a leader in the company? This type of descriptor often leads to the asking of more questions than available answers.
The dialog often goes something like this, “Great they work hard, but can they blah, blah, blah…” which ultimately leads to more questions. Then there’s hesitation by all in the room. The best chance that the person that was being discussed has of recovering is that there is a supporter in the room that can hopefully provide the right descriptors. But more than likely there isn’t, especially someone that is willing to put their reputation on the line (like a sponsor) for that person. So the conversation ends about that individual and the next person in the cue is up.
Don’t get me wrong working hard is good. It is admirable and for those of us that are proud hard workers, it would be hard to change who we are and we shouldn’t. But if we work in an environment in which people are assessing us and making decisions about our career or next steps, then we need to be mindful about how this type of descriptor shows up. Why? Because once you are professionally type casted, it can be hard to turn it around. More than often, it doesn’t change.
So, what should you be doing to find out how the organization views you? How can you avoid being labeled or at least be aware of it to manage it?
1. Look beyond the performance evaluation and career feedback. What they put on paper and what is say about you are two totally different things. This is where your listening and interpreting skills become super valuable. Listen first, read second.
2. Don’t let your career discussion only occur with your manager. I am always amazed that individuals only think that it is their manager who has control over their career. There are many. Do you know who they are?
3. Leverage human resources. Many of us often run from them. You’d be surprised as to how they can help you. Oftentimes they are in the room when you are being talked about and often lead the discussion. Make sure they know who you are.
4. Obtain feedback from the key stakeholders in your professional network. Find out what is being said about you. If you like what is being said, then great! If not, use it as an opportunity to understand why and what they think that you should be doing to change the perception.
5. Work on the right assignments. Ensure that you are working on the assignments or tasks that will demonstrate that you are not just an individual who will get the job done. Speaking of the demonstration of skills, ensure you know what the organization truly values. Look around in your company and observe others what they are known for.
Hard work is not to be minimized. If you are a hard worker or have been described as one, don’t shy away from it. Just make sure that it isn’t the first thing that your organization says about you or you say about yourself unless it is truly valued by both parties.
In this case, the word or words that describe you as you continue along in your career really do matter.
I am Francine Parham. I focus on professional and leadership development. I help individuals develop the critical skills they need in their careers to be successful and achieve their professional goals. I have an expertise in professional networks and networking. I am the creator of a program named Maximizing Your Network™, which instructs you on how to build, interact with and maintain your professional network. My online instructor led series of Maximizing Your Network™ is being launched February, 2015. Please connect with me on francineparham.com