One of the biggest challenges I hear from business analysts is that they want to get better at what they do and take on more advanced roles, but they are not quite sure what direction to take. In fact, in a recently poll run here, 78% of you answered “no” to the question “Do you have a clear next step for your career?” Unlike a road trip, there’s no clear end in site. Mapping a career is not as simple as finding the quickest route from point A to point B.
Finding a direction has been a challenge for me throughout much of my career. In the early part of my career, I would consider myself opportunistic. I took advantage of job opportunities as they came up and made the most of them. In retrospect, each experience helped get me where I am today. But overall, my career lacked a coherent direction. I never really knew “What’s next?” Although I consistently took on new challenges, I took on new challenges more because they needed to be taken and they seemed interesting than because they fit into a career plan.
And then I got stuck. Actually I got stuck in multiple small ways along this path. But then I got stuck in a big way. You get stuck in a big way when you find yourself in the wrong place with no way forward. Where each small step you might take is somehow the wrong one. I was stuck in charge of a 15-person team that I respected dearly and had a passion for leading. But the role I had was not right. Each day I worked at my job I felt like a bit of me was being siphoned away into the abyss. When I realized the steps I needed to take to advance my job (and those of the employees relying on my leadership) were inconsistent with who I was, it was an easy decision to leave. (A hard decision to act on, but an easy decision to make.)
Realizing my job is not my career
I got unstuck by focusing on me and what I wanted. Then I got further unstuck by learning what services other people would actually pay me for. In the intersection of these two sets of activities was a path for me — my career direction. Something I am living and breathing today.
The key principle behind getting myself unstuck was realizing that my job was not my career. All of my opportunistic efforts to this point had been focused on becoming better at my job and increasing my value to my employer. While this is an important attribute of the career-minded business analyst, it’s not enough to create a fulfilling career. My direction was focused solely within my organization and what was needed to make it succeed. I didn’t really spend much time looking outward towards what others were doing. And I did not have a big picture plan that centered around me and my career.
Job success is a good thing, it’s just not enough
I imagine a lot of you are in this situation as well. And it’s not a horrible situation to be in. If you can manage to make your job a success, then you are much more likely to make your career a success. You might even consider job success a precursor or dependency for career success. But stuckness happens when we can’t see the forest of our careers for the trees of our jobs and day-to-day tasks. That’s where I was stuck. And that’s where I’m hearing a lot of you are stuck too. You are a successful business analyst, or really darn close, but are looking to plan what’s next in your career.
It took me awhile to figure all of this out. And it took me longer to learn how to actually apply these principles in a proactive way to decisions I make about work. I’m sure I still have a lot of learning to do. But now that I am finally in a place where I have a direction and am working toward something. It feels good. It feels so good to say “yes” with confidence when a new opportunity presents itself and to say “no” with equal confidence when the wrong or not-quite-right opportunity is sitting in front of me with a ready paycheck.
Career directions create unexpected opportunities
Since finding a direction, I have had so many opportunities. It’s only been 2 years, but I feel about 10 years smarter. It’s amazing what can happen when you open your mind and listen. When you establish a vision for yourself and then set out taking steps in a concrete direction. Things have a way of falling into place. Opportunities come up where you least expect them. Each small step forward builds positive momentum. I see it happen to participants in my Fast Track course all the time.
I want business analysts everywhere to find this reality for themselves. You see, while my career direction includes being a business analyst, it also involves helping other business analysts. This is something I believe in and am passionate about. As I wrote in the Business Analyst Manifesto, I believe we build our profession one BA at a time. I’m doing my best to make a contribution to our profession by sharing what I’ve learned thus far on my career journey as a business analyst.
If you have a minute, I’d be interested to hear a bit about your vision for the future. And, if you are not sure what it looks like, you can share that too. There are no right or wrong answers. And you never know if your comment might inspire another business analyst to take action in their career.