Insights Blog

Are you observing or owning your career?

By Martha Vogler

Today’s business leader has to contend with greater levels of uncertainty than ever before – fluctuating commodity prices, contracted markets, variable exchange rates, social and political change.

Not surprisingly this has led to increased uncertainty around people’s careers. When faced with such uncertain times, even the most seasoned executives can get hooked into operating in survival mode.

When we’re dealing with uncertainty in our careers, a useful distinction that can help lift us out of survival mode and make the shift from being in a reaction to operating more powerfully, is the difference between observing and owning our careers.

I’m not saying that owning your career is better than observing it, but it does provide you with more access to being empowered. At the end of the day, it’s a choice. As leaders, we’re more effective when we’re choosing where we want to operate from, versus being stuck.

So what does it look like to own your career versus observing it? For most people the distinction of ‘observing my career’ becomes very apparent after an abrupt job disruption. Whether it’s an anticipated change or restructuring right through to your position being terminated, observing your career means being at the effect of something. That sensation when it feels like the future is out of our hands, that we have no influence or control over the outcome.

I was recently coaching an executive who told me: “I am just going with the flow right now – there’s nothing I can do about any of these changes. The writing is on the wall, there will likely be no place for me or my team after this acquisition is complete. My people are worried and I have no answers for them.” The experience he described was one of observing his career. He talked about being disempowered, not being clear about what to do next.

Within our conversations, we distinguished a couple things. First, that he was in a reaction and upset about a recent acquisition announcement and all the associated uncertainty. Second, we started to get grounded in the reality of today: What are the facts? What did he know? What was he unclear about?  This is the first step towards owning your career rather than being at the effect of career circumstances – getting clear about the facts of the situation you’re dealing with. Inside this conversation he distinguished a clear timeline for the acquisition and specifically identified what he knew and didn’t know. Then he generated a list of questions, actions and conversations he would have.

He put his plan into action, and had a few straight conversations with people to understand more about the changes. Although there is still a lot of uncertainty regarding the acquisition, he said: “I’m clear about the facts as they stand right now and I’m committed to seeing this project through for as long as I am in my role.” A few days ago he shared with me that no matter what happens, he views his current role as an opportunity to grow as a leader and even support others on his team to develop themselves.

Another executive I’m working with described her career situation: “I’m just waiting right now, the job is ok but not great. I think after the next round of layoffs I might get a package and I will look at what is next for me after that.”

We talked about what she noticed about her current situation and after some looking, she said: “I’m just idle right now.” She described being unfulfilled in her current position, just doing the basics day-to-day requirements, not wanting to rock-the-boat. She experienced being stuck between not wanting to be out of a job yet, and not being certain about exactly what she wants to do. Over a few conversations, we started to look at what is important to her at work and what she wanted to contribute. Inside these conversations she saw that there were a lot of aspects of her current position that she enjoyed, and a number that she did not. She also distinguished a possible 3 year career path that she wanted to develop herself inside of. She created a high-level plan that included asking to take on more responsibility in her current role. “This is actually exciting. I have never really ‘owned’ my career before, it was always easy for me to just take what came next without a lot of thought or consideration.”

In both of these examples, the executive started to get rooted in the current reality and dealt with where they might have been reacting or stuck; this requires the willingness to look authentically. Once you distinguish where you might be observing your career, you can begin to get related to the facts, start creating a different future for yourself and start bridging the gap.

Being the owner of your career requires a powerful relationship between you and the facts. The first step is recognizing when you are operating from a conclusion or opinion derived from a reaction. Just noticing the reaction can be enough to interrupt it, and provide more space for you to deal powerfully with what happened.

So to help get started, here are a few questions that can support you in owning your career:

  • What are the facts about your current circumstances?
  • What do you want to achieve?
  • What conversations would help you get more clarity?
  • Do you have a plan?
  • What is important to you at work?
  • What contribution do you want to make?

Whenever you experience being disempowered regarding your career, whether that’s a little or a lot, it’s a signal that you might be observing rather than owning your career. In this moment, the choice is yours. Only you have the power to say if you will observe or own your career.