Use Your Turn Signals to Drive Your Career

Traffic Light PicYesterday I was driving my car, following behind a blue Honda, when its driver made an abrupt and unannounced left turn onto a perpendicular street. My response was to step on my brakes and move dangerously to the right. I also mumbled a few choice words under my breath directed at this crazy driver.

Had the driver put on their turn signal and given a clear indication of their impending turn, then I could have safely and calmly moved to the right or gradually slowed my speed to give them a safe buffer. Instead I had to react in stress mode, taking a risk that could have been avoided.

There were indications that something was going to happen with the vehicle ahead of me: I noted its speed was decreasing, saw the drivers hands move up the steering wheel, and head swivel quickly to the left. These were early warning signs that something was amiss. But, did I know what would happen next? No. I had to interpret the indicators and make assumptions based on what I observed and sensed – and, from what I’d experienced in the past.

Read my post on the importance of having a career plan by clicking here.

The same can be said about careers. Sometimes you have to give clear and succinct notice of what you want, and where you would like to go. Sometimes you have to use your turn signals to drive your career!

Managers are often following behind you, observing your behaviors, trying to read the signals you’re sending out. They wonder: Are you happy in your current role? What are your career aspirations? Are they challenging you enough? Are you growing professionally? Are you promotable? Are you looking to leave for something else? How can they get more out of you? It’s their job to figure you out and maximize the benefits you bring to the organization.

Unless you and your manager engage in dialogue that answers these questions, your manager is left to observe your indications, your behaviors, and make assumptions about you – some that may be faulty.

I often hear from employees that are unhappy in their current roles, but think they are in no position to communicate their feelings. They worry that voicing their feelings may be seen as whining. Some feel their managers will react negatively to this type of dialogue so they avoid it at their own peril.

I suspect that in most cases their managers know or can sense the unhappiness of an employee. It’s usually shows up in behaviors, body language, and work effort. But, without dialogue a manager cannot be sure. So, they have to decide: should they take action? If it’s not clear…they usually do nothing.

Most companies have performance review processes that should help flush-out how you view your current job and what might be next. Some companies and managers do this well. In my experience, many do it poorly.

I have written in the past that you, the employee, must take control of your own career planning (see my post: Few companies make the effort to manage your career – it’s up to you. So, as the employee what should you do? How should you approach your manager about how you feel and what you want? How do you send clear indicators? Here’s a few ideas:

Engage in dialogue. Whether or not a formal process exists, it up to you to engage in dialogue that makes clear what your needs and aspirations are. If you manager does not do this (many do not), then you have to push the issue, set the agenda, make it happen. It’s your happiness, your career, and it’s too important to wait.

Never come off as threatening. Manager’s hate to be put in a corner or threatened. They go into defensive mode and rarely does something good follow. Focus on your positive contributions to date and move into your need for growth, development, challenge, or just something different to keep you engaged.

Do it often. Regular discussions are important and should be done at least once per quarter. The more you talk the more natural it will seem.

Be prepared. Come with clear thoughts and ideas. Managers like when you do the thinking, have options, and give them choices. Make it a “win-win” for your manager.

Don’t get defensive. This is not about why something different hasn’t happened for you. You want to discuss making something happen for you in the future.

Spell it out in a document. Managers are busy and they sometimes forget what was discussed, agreed, and even promised. Make sure you document a list of agreements, actions, and follow-up items so there’s no debate about these items in the future. 

End on a positive note. It’s always good to end a meeting on a positive note. People often remember the meeting based on the tone at the end. Thank your manager for taking time for this discussion.

For some of you this will never work. There are companies and managers that just don’t care about your happiness, development or future. For these folks you should be planning your escape. But, you may be surprised to find that many managers enjoy this part of their jobs, they see the “win-win” in keeping you happy, and are often relieved to uncover the reasons that one of their employees might be unhappy. At the very least, they will see your ambition to grow and if they are smart, they will help support your efforts.

So, to all you car drivers that fail to use your turn signals, I have my eyes on you. And for the professionals that are actively working to manage their careers, remember to be clear and to communicate what you want – it will make the ride smoother and more enjoyable for everyone.

What do you think? I’d enjoy hearing from you.


About Dale Myers

A San Francisco Bay Area Project and Program Expert
This entry was posted in Career & Development, Managing People and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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