Career growth and advancement. Even people who profess not to care about their career admit that they are curious about where they and the organization are going. Why did person X get a promotion or recognition, when person Y is consistently passed over? What does this mean for me?
As you advance in your career, it feels like people are constantly changing the rules of the game. How are you evaluated? What matters? Am I doing something wrong? You may be sabotaging your own career advancement without even knowing it.
As I spend more time evaluating senior talent and promotions, I’ve learned lessons that I wish I knew at the beginning of my career. Last time, we talked about the importance of perception. This time, we will cover the three most common mistakes that people make.
Lesson 2: The Three Most Common Types of Self-Sabotage
Many people frustrated by their career path are sabotaging themselves. Most of the issues trace to the flawed assumption that senior promotions are tied to ability vs. perception of leadership.
Issue1: Needing Credit for Everything
Sometimes, we damage our reputation in trying to get credit for our work. In my first job as a technical lead, a new college graduate on the project struggled to complete his code. I stepped in and helped meet the deadline. Then, as our manager praised him publicly in a meeting for completing such a complex task, I interjected – “Well, I did part X.” The room fell silent. The engineer’s face, which had been beaming, crumbled. My manager never said a word to me, but it was a devastating mistake.
The fallout from claiming credit? That engineer never worked with me again. It was two years before anybody else on the team would work with me. When my next promotion discussion came up, the Sr. Director specifically brought up that incident as a reason to wait while I “matured”. As my older brother observed, “You got credit for shipping a completely new product. You must be awfully insecure to need credit for a few hundred lines of college grad level code, too.”
Not everybody’s self-sabotage is as gruesome as mine, but…
Are you always “claiming credit” at the expense of others?
Issue 2: Having to “Be Right” (And Someone Else Be Wrong)
Some people see another person’s mistake as an excuse to go in for the kill, without being aware of the damage they do to themselves.
A couple of years ago, I over-oversimplified (NetApp Co-Founder Dave Hitz once said his job was to oversimplify technology without over-oversimplifying it; I’ve always loved that line) a product direction at a customer briefing. A very bright field engineer started an email chain, including me, about the danger in that too-broad statement. It was clear that I was wrong, and I didn’t try to defend the error. Over the next hour, he sent 5 increasingly hysterical emails about weeding that error out of the organization (as if anybody other than I had ever said it). He stopped only when I publicly apologized for my error and promised to reform. By that point, I believed that he wasn’t focused on solving the problem, but on being right in as public a forum as possible.
He lost a potential career sponsor that day. I’ve never talked to his management about removing him from an opportunity, never said anything negative about him, etc. But I’m human. Thus, I’ve never talked to his management about giving him a special opportunity, never said anything about him at all, etc. It helps to have people sponsor your career. It’s unlikely I’ll be that supporter.
(Yes, I’m being over-sensitive. Maybe he just wanted to be sure I got the point. Regardless of the intent, I should be a better person and get over it. And maybe someday I will. But the question for you is – are you willing to bet your career on your senior management being filled with more magnanimous people than I am?)
Was it worth it for him to be right? Especially when we know that perception matters so much.
Do you want to be right… or do you want to be happy?
Issue #3 – Not Sharing and Not Letting Go
In these days of Open Source, I’m stunned at people’s anger about their work being re-used or extended by others. This is a variant of “Issue #1 – Needing Credit for Everything”, but is far more damaging.
You want your work to be expanded by others. First, as it grows, people will remember where everything started. Second, if nobody takes over what you’re working on, you never get the chance to do anything else and get promoted. Instead your management will see you as indispensible in your current role.
More importantly, you do not want to be seen as somebody who cannot work with others. People want to work with colleagues whom they both respect and enjoy collaborating with. As you move to more senior roles, that perception becomes more important. If you are seen as somebody who refuses to share with others, nobody will want you as part of their team.
Sharing, working as a team, and helping others – they are among the most basic of skills. Unfortunately, I have countless examples of exceptionally bright people who couldn’t share.
Almost a decade ago, a QA engineer turned a huge achievement into a career limiting move. We wanted to run nightly test automation suites on any idle hardware. Unfortunately, our tests ran only if the system already had the OS we wanted to test installed and booted. Since most idle systems were either offline or installed with a different OS version, we couldn’t achieve the goal. This engineer wrote the code that installed the OS and cleanly booted systems from any conceivable state (crashed, offline, online with the wrong version, etc.). For about a month he used it to run his tests, but didn’t tell anybody. One of his colleagues found the code in the source code repository, made a copy for her tests and told everybody else about it. She took no credit for it, since she didn’t write it, but she didn’t know who wrote it, so didn’t say anything about the author. Unfortunately, when the author of the code found out, that night, he deleted everybody’s copy of the code. He then sent an email to me and the Sr. Director of Test Automation demanding that if anybody used his code, they should give him written attribution for it. The other engineers were enraged when they found out. In response, they created a separate approach to solve the problem and completely froze him out of every discussion after that. Not only did his career stall but he became a pariah and left the company within six months. His work was exemplary, but he wouldn’t share.
Was the team’s response fair? I’m not sure. But would you or your colleagues be any more understanding?
Are you willing to share with others, or would you rather be alone?
There are many ways to sabotage your career. I detailed these three because they seem to trip up extremely smart, motivated engineers more than any others. Most of the time, the cause seems to come from insecurity and the need to be recognized for the work you’re doing. Unfortunately, approaching that problem in the wrong way can be devastating to your career growth.
In the next post, we’ll talk about how best to ensure that executives do see what impact you’re making.
Because perception matters so much at more senior levels, be very careful about how your actions will be perceived by others.
Stephen Manley @makitadremel