I wrote some career advice a few weeks ago now, those few points are largely distilled from talks I’ve given here at Microsoft over the years and those are in turn distilled from the various mentoring sessions I’ve given over the course of my career.
There are two memes in particular that I like to impart to every mentee on their very first session with me, both of which I acquired rather than invented. I find them to be very useful for starting discussions. If you read the previous article you’ll readily see how they are infused into the short list of points. Both are very simple as you’ll see below.
I learned the first one from a close friend who learned it from Prof. Seviora of U of Waterloo. Prof. Seviora had (has?) a habit of injecting some of his real world experience into his classes at the end of a lecture if there was time and this is one of those little tidbits.
“VIP” stands for Visibility, Image, and Performance. So if you like the rule is Success = VIP. I have yet to figure out if it’s S=V*I*P or S = V*(I+P) or something else entirely but it doesn’t seem to matter in application. I explain it something like this:
I have never met anyone who thought they could be a great success whilst performing poorly. So pretty much everybody gets the P. Likewise, most people who think about their career at all discover that visibility is important. This basically leaves one letter left to discuss and that’s the “I” – Image.
Thankfully for me Image does not refer to the clothing you wear (though dress for success isn’t without its place) it’s more like your “brand.” When people think about you, what do they think of? Reliability? Integrity? Productivity? Determination? Motivation? Leadership? Do they think you work on hard and important problems? That’s the crux of it. The problems may be management problems, technical problems, recruiting problems, or any other domain that is valuable.
If people know who you are (V), know that you work on hard and important problems (I) and that you it well (P) it’s pretty darn hard to be a failure.
Cultivating your brand is super helpful for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that when your brand is well known then many people are able to represent you and your interests when you are not there. Some of my favorite work stories involve people correctly channeling me at important meetings which I could not attend. Sometimes several at the same time. This is not bad for your career 🙂
I learned this one from a dear friend (Tara Prakriya) who learned it from a mentor during her time at Merck. I explain this one pretty much the way it was taught to me with a few extra bits.
The essence of it is that you do not want your career to look like a tower (at this point I draw a long skinny rectangle) – you want it to look more like a pyramid (at this point I draw an equilateral triangle). Why? Well, consider that tower looking career – you’ve advanced along nice and fast but do you think your management really wants to put another metaphorical brick on the tippy top? Looks like the thing might fall over. And getting bricks down near the bottom is now a lot harder because “you’re too important.” This is not a good place to be.
On the other hand that triangle takes a lot longer to build up but it’s nice and sturdy and provides a great base of knowledge upon which to build future success.
Now is your career going to look like a perfect triangle? I doubt it. You’re more likely to have something rougher with maybe a main peak and a side peak and some bumps here and there but that’s ok. All of those gaps and mini-peaks represent growth opportunities. People will see those and think “here’s a chance to flesh out that area” and they will give you those jobs with confidence. Even going wider is easier because management knows you enjoy the breadth play as well.
In this model when you have choices to make you consider what “brick” the opportunity will allow you to acquire and where it will land. Do you want a brick on top? Or do you want to fill in a gap? Or start something new?
But wait… I started with pyramid and I drew a triangle. At this point I fix the picture to show the 3rd dimension.
A triangle falls right over, you need a nice solid base. That third dimension, the other faces of the pyramid if you will, is everything else you bring to your life. Success with your family, your church, your theater, whatever it is that makes you a well-rounded person. Maybe you have so many faces your pyramid is actually a cone 🙂
It is the overall combination of life experience you bring every day to your job and your other endeavors that will allow you to succeed. You may think that working exclusively on the career face is the path to success but that’s an illusion – all these things build on each other. That’s why it’s so important to not compromise – you need to be working on all the things that are important to you in some unified plan to achieve the best result for yourself. And you need to bring all your assets to bear in all your endeavors.
When you find that balance, then you’ll be the best you can be.
And this inevitably leads me to start quoting Kung Fu Panda, at which point all seriousness is lost, but hopefully, retention is enhanced.