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Category: Careers

Looking for the positives

We’re all skilled in many different ways; when it comes to our careers; why do we apologies for our weaknesses, rather than celebrate our strengths?

Another slightly introspective blog from me today, but one I think worth writing, as I know I’m not the only one guilty of this.

As we move through our careers, there are always opportunities to grow and learn new skills and take on new challenges; sometimes those opportunities can open us up to new strengths we never knew we had; sometimes those opportunities can help us realise something is definitely not for us. Both of those are valid outcomes, but we often fail to acknowledge that it’s as important to recognise what skills you don’t have, and what doesn’t spark joy for you; as much as it it’s important to recognise what skills you do have.

As managers and leaders we should be encouraging our staff and teams to be transparent about both. By helping our staff recognise their own strengths, and their weaknesses, we can then help them to have fluffing careers that focus on those strengths, rather than constantly highlight the things they’re not as strong on.

None of us like being ‘bad’ at things; and there’s nothing more demoralising that slogging away at a role and always feeling like you’re the weakest link; so why do so many of us stick at jobs or roles where we’re doing just that? Sometimes all it takes is one meeting to make you recognise what your skills are and where you can add real value; and as organisations we should be making space for people to pursue those skills, or we risk losing them, and the value they can add to our business.

Orange coloured rocket rising on the top between the hot air balloons.
Everyone deserves to soar high.

I’ve been lucky throughout my career to have had some great line managers who have supported me in having those conversations and enabling me to focus on my skills and choosing roles where I can utilise my strengths best; and I similarly now try to be that person for those I manage.

One of the things I always advise my mentee’s and staff to do, is spend some time thinking about what their skills are, what are their strengths, what do they bring to the party (as it were) that others might not? I then try to work with them to think about how their skills and strengths can benefit their role; the organisation and how they could build a career based on those skills. Sometimes this just means a small change to their role, sometimes it means supporting them in moving to a new role where they can better utilise their skills, and sometimes it means a change in their career path.

Wooden singpost with "help, support, advice, guidance" arrows against blue sky.
Signposting

When I have had this conversations with staff or mentee’s in the past, one fear many voice is the fear that they will come across as ‘ungrateful’, or ‘self-important’ and like they think ‘they’re better than they are’ or that by acknowledging the areas that are not their strengths they would be jeopardise their career. Obviously, I can’t speak for every organisation, or every manager; as a senior leader I have always believed we get the best out of people when we support them to be their best. We can only do that by recognising not everyone is the same, nor do they have the same skills or strengths. Jobs descriptions are a generic label that covers what we expect the person doing that role to be doing; but three people doing the same job will all have slightly different strengths and skills, and as long as we do so in a fair and transparent way, recognising peoples strengths and how those can impact how they do their role, means they’re more likely to add real value to the team.

One thing I’ve really appreciated since joining Kainos is that we differentiate between individuals goals, and role responsibilities/targets. Staff are given opportunities to set individial goals that they feel best match their skills and strengths, as well as having targets for their roles. We have people managers who we work with to understand how we can be supported to meet our personal goals as well as project/line managers with whom we work to meet our role targets etc. People managers and line managers work together when staff members feel their roles/skills/strengths don’t quite align to identify to understand how we can support them either into new roles or to suggest wider opportunities they could get involved in (or lead) where those skills could be best utilised. The benefit of this can be seen when looking at Kainos’ staff retention, and the number of staff who joined the company as a graduate developer (as an example) and are still here over 10 years later having moved into Product or Business Growth as they have developed their skills and identified areas their personal strengths align too where they can add more value.

I think as we come round to End of Year Appraisal time again, it’s important for all us to reflect on what our own skills are, what are strengths are, and are we getting the opportunity to add real value to our organisations using those skills; or is there something else we could be doing that would better utilise those skills and add more value? And as managers we need to be enabling that self reflection and supporting those conversations to happen.

A hand holding a growing seedling
The best things grow when we nurture them.

Reflecting on Career Pathways

This week I’ve been thinking a lot about careers; what does a good career look like? What are my next steps? How do organisations retain their staff and over them career growth? Are career’s even a big thing anymore?

Growing up it was always drummed into me how important it was to have a career. Conversations at home and at school all focused on “what did I want in terms of my career?” Picking a university course was all about picking the best one to help my career aspirations. The problem in when we’re young, for most of us at least; our career aspirations change almost as much as our favourite TV show.

Given my family have a strong public sector background; when I was younger those were the career options I automatically gravitated towards. When I was younger I wanted to be an anthropologist, but once I realised there were very limited career options for anthropologists I decided I wanted to be a teacher; I stumbled into the Civil Service as a summer job while I was considering my PGCE options; and then realised the Civil Service could give me a good career and why not stay?

My focus was then on having the best career I could within the Civil Service, I joined the Fast Stream, I got my promotions, I did the Crossing Thresholds programme and reaching the Senior Civil Service by the time I was 35; everyone kept congratulating me on how well I was doing within my career given my age. But then I struggled to know what to do next; keep progressing within the Civil Service, try and become a Director by the time I’m 40? My mentor recommended taking time outside of the Civil Service, to work supplier side for a year or two; before going for a Director role within the Civil Service, just to balance my career. This seemed like a good idea, and so I did it (and enjoying it!) But it was all with a view with progressing my career.

Last year as I sat considering my next career steps, and whether I should move back into the Public Sector; I became aware that there was all these other areas I’ve never really explored fully as I’d been focussing on my upwards trajectory. There have always been roles and opportunities I’ve been interested in that I’ve never explored because, while they wouldn’t have hampered my career, they’ve come at the same time as opportunities to progress, and surely the best thing for my career is to keep progressing right? But that constant feeling that you should be progressing upwards brings with it a constant feeling of pressure. It’s no wonder so many career folks burn out, as they try to keep meeting that societal expectation of success. As such I made the decision to take a role that wasn’t ‘a promotion’, in fact it could be seen as a downwards move in terms of my responsibilities; but what it was, was a role that I’d enjoy in a company where I could explore my options and take the time to decide what it was I wanted to do next without that constant weight of expectations and demand.

One of the things I’m enjoying most about working in Kainos is all the conversations I’m having about what do I ‘want to do?’ Yes of course there are the conversations about progression etc; but there’s much more consideration of the fact that you might want to move sideways, or that you could want to get involved in something new. What you bring to the table is more than the narrow ‘career pathway’ you might have travelled on so far; and much more about your skills and what you’re passionate about. There’s the view that what excites you and drives you, could be things that could help the company grow; and as such there’s the time and opportunity for you to explore those opportunities, as long as they benefit the wider business.

This opportunity to focus on the bits of my career I enjoy most, whilst also growing my skills in other areas has reminded me why I do what I do in the first place; and why I’m good at what I do. But it’s also made me recognise how close to burn out I was getting; and made me realise that sometimes we need to take a step back and reconfirm what we is that we enjoy doing, find our passion for our careers and what drove us towards that career in the first place, before we can continue on.

For some people, because of societal pressure and how we were taught as children to ‘get a career’ (any career) they never have had that sense of joy in their career. For others, whom sadly burn out, they realise they don’t know what other skills they have; or what other careers or roles they could pursue; as we were never taught as children to consider those options. We need to change our approach and teach students to identify their strengths and their skills, give them a wider foundation to build their careers off of.

All of this has made me reflect on how we view our careers; and the constant focus on promotions and progression. Now that I’m involved more in educational outreach activities and mentoring; I try to focus less on specific career aspirations; and more on what matters to people, what skills they have, what are they passionate about; I recommend courses and job moves that play into their strengths and can help them grow; helping them have a fulfilling career, rather than necessarily being the next stepping stone on their set career path.