Ongoing Development

Q&A: How to own your career and unleash your professional potential

Posted on: June 28, 2023Updated on: May 14, 2024By: Maliyah Bernard

To stay or go? To focus on your passions or invest in developing your skills? 

There’s a lot of pressure when it comes to making the “right” career moves. But in today’s workforce, there are more forks in the road than ever on the way to successful employment.

JD Dillon spoke with Al Dea, Leadership Development Consultant and host of The Edge of Work podcast, on ITK to learn from his extensive experience in career development. During their 30-minute conversation, they shared actionable advice to help individuals take control of their careers and unlock their full professional potential.

Here are some of the highlights.

Frontline employee career development professional potential

Dillon: How do you suggest people think about the concept of a career nowadays? And should different factors like age, experience or industry should influence that perspective?

Dea: First, I would say that a career is something that, instead of trying to ‘figure it out,’ is meant to be explored. What I think is such a unique thing about the world of work today—and what careers are today—is that many of us are constantly reframing what we think about a career and what it could be for us. And I think that differs from the past, where people were traditionally locked into a job right from the get-go.

What else is different about a career today is that there’s this idea of more options than ever to define what a job really looks like. Although the career ladder is very much alive in industries like professional services and investment banking, other organizations might be more like a jungle gym or lattice where there’s space for movement. 

A career is so unique and personal, and because of the choices that we have now, you could say that all career advice [is inherently going to get it] wrong in some ways. But some of it can still be [individually] useful and applicable. But as I think about what a career is today, we can be much more expansive and much more creative about what [our options are] and then translate that into what we want it to be for us now.

Dillon: One of the mistakes I was making early on was allowing the company I worked for to predefine my career in many ways. Instead of going into explore mode alone, I let them establish a path for me. It goes back to that quote: ‘Employees need to own their own careers.’ How do you react to that sentiment?

Dea: I have a visceral reaction to that sentiment. Two things: if an employee says, ‘I want to own my career,’ I’m totally fine with that and applaud that. But when companies say ‘Our employees should own their careers,’ I’m challenged. It challenges me because none of us are bigger than the systems we’re part of. 

Employers are incredibly responsible for the systems that they construct within their organizations. In my opinion, telling someone that they own their career or destiny, but then not giving them the resources, support or ability to navigate the system, is like telling someone that your product or service will do something but never actually delivering on it.

If an organization wants to say that they let employees own their careers, they also need to support it with programs to put in place to help them come to life and to back up the decision through the ways that they train, promote and engage their employees. Put systems, scaffolding, processes, rewards, et cetera in place to construct and enable that system. Because if not, what you’re doing can possibly increase inequity in your workplace. The reality is that while some people will have the wherewithal to own their careers, not everyone will understand what that means or have access to the resources to do so. That’s when that phrase becomes problematic when uttered by employers.

Dillon: Some people say to follow your passions. Others say to do what you’re good at. What path or what motivation should people follow when it comes to building a career?

Dea: It’s hard to do something you clearly don’t like for a long time. That said, everyone probably has a passion that they’ll never get paid to do. There’s some nuance in this, but one of the best ways to do what you enjoy is to find ways to be excellent at something, which will help you build the capital and credibility to start doing those things.

Realistically, just because you are passionate about something, doesn’t mean it will always be amazing. There will be hard work because that’s just sometimes what it takes. Markets speak—if you have a passion you can’t monetize, you might end up in [trouble]. But investing in something you excel at can buy you time to start experimenting and exploring the things that light you up.

Dillon: How do you view the role that managers play when it comes to fostering career development? And how can employees think about proactively engaging in career development conversations if they have a manager who doesn’t quite understand what they should be doing?

Dea: One of the responsibilities of a manager is to be able to unleash the performance and potential of each employee. That’s where their role in career development comes into play. Managers can practice that by recognizing the vantage point they’re in to empower their employees to grow in their careers and knowing that when they do grow, it will only be more helpful to their teams and the greater organization. Show up and have those career conversations. Give consistent feedback that helps your employees grow. If you see an opportunity for them to take a new role or a promotion, come to the table and acknowledge that, share that and then guide the employee with it. Managers can be people connectors to help their employees build relationships with others and increase the social capital that helps them be better at their job or connects them to other opportunities.

Managers can also be role designers. Take the principles of job design and motivation to consider what employees are good at and what they want to learn and grow in so you can re-architect what they do each day. Great managers act as mirrors that shine a light onto an employee’s strengths to help them find what they’re good at and what lights them up so they can learn and grow. They also need to be able to be that supporter, even if sometimes the employee needs to move on or find another role. 

Always remember that regardless of the position that your manager is taking with you, your career and what you do with it will last beyond that individual. So don’t get discouraged. Continue to take time to explore on your own and consider how you can find other people that’ll be on your team. Your career is a team sport, and so even if your direct manager isn’t helping you, you can find other peers to give you feedback or a mentor who can guide you to build relationships that can fuel opportunities for you. Do what you can to strengthen these relationships and be proactively engaged with your manager.

Dillon: When do you know it’s the right time to start thinking about another opportunity, especially when employees try to balance the risk in this economic and workplace environment?

Dea: It starts with you. Only the individual can know that answer; coming to a decision is a practice of self-reflection and self-awareness. 

I’d define what a great job or workplace would look like first. Once you have a sense of what that is, you can start to evaluate: ‘Is where I am today satisfying?’ If your answer is no, think about what’s missing. Or consider the current circumstances that might be taking away from your positive experience at this particular moment. 

When things might not be where we want them to be, it’s easy to assume that we need to move in a direction immediately or start searching for another job or another company. While that can be true, I also want to encourage you to think more expansively about that because there are so many other tweaks and things that you could try make to potentially make your job better every day. 

Career development happens like that: every day. It’s the habits you put into practice every day that help you grow into the person that you want to become.

It’s time to take your career into your own hands

Nobody is going to be more dedicated to your career success than you. And while job journeys are no longer as linear as they once were, if you’re able to identify your professional superpowers, the winding road to building something unique will be especially meaningful. Watch the full episode of ITK with Al Dea on-demand now for more career development insights on how to propel your journey forward.

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Maliyah Bernard

Maliyah Bernard is an academic writer turned content writer. As a former frontline worker, she loves writing about all the ways organizations can support these essential workers smarter.

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