How to Forge Your Own Career Path

Discovering your career path is no small feat. Unfortunately, your career won't stretch out before you with a shining beacon and neon signs showing you the way. If you work in a startup, there's likely to be even less clarity. Your company may not have clear divisions of labor, let alone mapped out career paths. It's questionable if they'll even have a solid idea of what roles they need to fill. For the good of the team, you’ll take on work and responsibilities that don't contribute to your future goals. And, there’s a good chance that your manager has a thousand priorities ahead of your professional development. When you work at a startup, finding a career path is your responsibility. But, this means that it is also yours to own. An alumni workshop at Startup Institute Boston this week helped make sense of the endless possibilities and obscurities involved in "career pathing," as director Allan Telio coached us in defining goals, recognizing opportunities, finding advisors, and talking to supervisors about career growth. Here are Allan’s tips on taking control of your startup career path:

Make a Career Roadmap:

You have to have at least a vague direction of where you’re shooting in order to hit your mark. Think about what job you want to have two to three roles from now. Most importantly, understand why you want to do that job, and how it will bring you fulfillment.

For example, if you are a developer who loves being one with the keyboard-- if you really just want to build your skills and awesome products-- think twice before taking on a managerial role. Sure, this may seem like a natural next step, but will you be happy when you’re focused on growing the members of your team, rather than on your code? On the flip side, if you love to work collaboratively and to help others develop, a path toward management makes sense for you. Neither situation is better. Whether you prefer to be an individual contributor or team-oriented worker, there will be opportunities to grow in your career. Be honest with yourself. Figure out which will bring you the most joy, and explore the career options that align with this.

Talk to People:

Talk to people who are doing that job that you’d like to have two to three roles from now. Don’t talk to the CEO. Without a doubt, C-level executives will have incredibly insightful career advice, but for the most specific and relevant career pathing, you need to connect with the people who are in the trenches, doing what you think you want to be doing each day. This is especially important in the tech space where tools, strategies, and best practices are ever in-flux.[bctt tweet="Want to be a director of mktg? Talk to a director of mktg-- not a CEO. @gallonofallan"]

Ask these people questions. What does a day/ week in the life look like? How did they get to where they are? Why did they choose this path? Talk to many people to check the lay of the landscape, and see how the same role changes across different company sizes, products, and business models. Listen for patterns and for actionable advice.

Make a WIG/WIN Chart:

Draw a T-chart, and head the left and right columns with "What I got" and "What I need," respectively. Take stock of where you’re at and how you need to develop in order to get that job you aspire to. Maybe it is a technical skill set you need, or maybe you need to develop soft skills. As you make an action plan, be sure to account purposefully for each of the items identified as areas for growth.

Talk to Your Boss:

Get organized-

Before you talk to your boss, get organized and make sure that you have a realistic handle on your strengths, skills, and development needs (your WIG/WIN should help with this!). Gut-check with a trusted colleague or advisor to be sure. Know what your objective is before you go into the meeting, and be ready to propose a plan of how they can support you in your goals.

Maintain the upper-hand-

Don’t divulge your intentions or plans before your face-to-face meeting-- this gives your supervisor time to prepare a response and perhaps overthink. They’re less likely to say “no” or discourage you in that moment and to your face.[bctt tweet="Be organized about goals + plans to have the power in career advancement convos @gallonofallan"]

Make a plan-

If possible, develop milestones with your boss to track your progress. If you’re looking to work toward a promotion or shift in your role, suggest a timetable. But, understand that startup time can be unpredictable. Be lenient and a team-player while still making sure your supervisor keeps your goals on their radar.[bctt tweet="Set timing for reaching goals, but know timetables can be unrealistic at startups @gallonofallan"]

Build a Board of Advisors:

Curate a group of people you trust and respect who are more advanced in their careers (i.e. not your peers). These may be more senior coworkers, but you should also pursue people beyond your company through industry-specific events and working groups. Don’t expect a new connection to become your advisor overnight, and don’t force the relationship. Nurture your relationships to see how they develop.[bctt tweet="Curate a board of advisors to consult on career growth, says @gallonofallan"]

Reach out too these people for advice during key challenges and crossroads, but don’t ping these people too frequently-- you’ll risk burning them out. Above all, be sure to close the feedback loop. Say thank you, and follow up with the people who helped you to let them know how things turned out/ what decision you made. These people will only continue to share advice if they are also get value from the relationship, and knowing that their insights haven’t disappeared into the inbox abyss is a huge part of that value. For more awesomely tactical and relevant advice on attracting great mentorship, read New York instructor Sam Hysell's post on attracting great mentorship.

Being a part of the startup ecosystem allows you the unique opportunity to forge a career path all your own. Of course, this requires a lot more work on your part, including serious introspection, research, strategy, and advocating for yourself and your goals. But, if you’re willing to do the work, you have the power to go in any direction you choose.

Photo credit: Simon Blackley via Flickr cc