Growing up, your dream job likely consisted of a competition between a fireman and astronaut. However, as you have become older, choosing the perfect career has become a little harder than originally thought. Last month, Bill Barnett of Harvard Business Review published an article entitled “The Clearest Path to a Career That’s Right for You.” Barnett recognizes that if you are able to wake up each day excited about going to work, you will undoubtedly succeed at a higher rate.
Guide your career by consciously building on your capabilities. Here are three ways to do that:
1. Recognize your core capabilities. The first step in thinking about a capability-driven career is to understand what to build on. Begin with a self-appraisal. Look for distinctive talents, skills, and knowledge that will make you highly competitive for certain lines of work.
I’ll illustrate this idea with a computer solutions sales manager. His list might include understanding customers, meeting information needs with computer solutions, coaching junior salesmen, and communicating well verbally. These characteristics are certainly important for that field of work, but they’re too general. They’re similar to what other sales managers might say about themselves.
A more specific list would be a stronger career guide. For example, go beyond “meeting customer information needs with computer solutions” by noting your deep knowledge of how to do that in a specific industry, like retail, or your experience with a particular computer solution technology, like integrating iPhone functions with a company website. Don’t just jot down “understanding customers” but also describe your talent for imagining customer problems and needs before the customers even recognize them.
2. Build targeted capabilities over time. Once you’ve identified the talents and capabilities you already have, consider what you need for career growth. Your target capability set can be expertise in a field (like the computer example above) or in a function (like financial analysis or human resources management).
How do you build your target capability? Some steps are obvious. You might enroll in a graduate degree program in that area or achieve a qualification certificate. You certainly would work in that area. You might try to re-craft your job to shift the content of your work in your target direction.
Other steps are more complicated and can raise dilemmas. You would be cautious about accepting an otherwise attractive transfer, promotion, or a new job offer if it didn’t build capabilities in your target area. If you were proactively looking for a new position, focus your search on roles where you would grow your target skills rather than on the possibilities that seem the easiest.
In saying this, I’m certainly not arguing against broadening assignments. They can be critical parts of personal development. If an attractive broadening assignment appears, do two things: Think through how that assignment can lead back to opportunities in your target discipline, and if that’s hard to envision, ask yourself whether your fundamental strategy is still right for you.
3. Add new capabilities to shift direction. If you discover that the skills you have and the direction you’re headed isn’t your ideal path, you may wish to change fields. In this case, you’ll need a different personal value proposition, and it will require new skills and knowledge.
When making this kind of switch, people sometimes abandon their existing capability base. While that is an option, it often requires a step downward, and the ultimate result is uncertain. Unless you’re extremely dissatisfied with where you are, the simpler path is to leverage what you know to find something new. Take the perspective of an employer or investor in a new field or function and imagine what you need to add to persuade them to bet on you.
People may know exactly what new direction to pursue and what preparations would help them get there. More typically, their goal isn’t that clear, and they’re trying some things out. A good example of this was a physician who tired of his clinical practice and wanted a leadership role. He didn’t have a clear strategy in mind, but he took evening classes to get his master’s degree in public health and prepared the foundation that allowed him to transition into management.
Career development through capability growth is the most direct path to a career that’s right for you. How much is your career path building on your base of knowledge and skills?