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A tool for helping you (and your team) grow: the career growth compass

When I first became a manager, a mentor told me that if I only read one management book, it should be "First, Break All the Rules". It appealed to me because it was deeply data driven, grounded in data from over 80,000 manager interviews conducted by Gallup over a 25-year period, and it avoided drawing overly broad lessons from pop psychology or anecdata. 

It rejects much conventional wisdom about management, and I really recommend you read it. One theme it hammers home over and over is that the best managers “treat each employee as an individual. Focus[ing] on each person's strengths rather than their weaknesses.” 

I thought this was powerful and useful, but I wasn’t sure how to put it into practice. After much trial and error, I started using a simple framework that has proven incredibly useful to me in the years since both for me personally and as a manager. I’ve used and refined this in dozens of management relationships and with hundreds of staff. I call it the “Career Growth Compass” and it has been my answer to the question: “how do you design roles for people that allows them to flourish, grow and have lots of impact”. I hope it can be useful for you.


The Career Growth Compass

I was inspired by the Hedgehog Concept (from the book Good to Great) which aims to help companies figure out what they can be uniquely good at, and the Japanese concept of Ikigai which aims to help people identify their life purpose. The Career Growth Compass takes similar ideas and remixes them with some of the lessons from First Break All The Rules.

It is super simple and consists of a venn diagram with three circles:

You start with personal reflection, and then each circle should be filled out with specific talents, responsibilities, tasks, skills, problems or projects. Don’t overthink what counts, but try to be specific (i.e. “coaching people”), and avoid overly high level and sweeping catch all concepts (i.e. “management”). 

Our objective with the Career Growth Compass is to craft something unique that represents a win/win for the individual and for the team. Most roles (like “Product Manager” or “Engineer” or “Finance Manager”) are collections of skills or responsibilities that are generic and not tailored to an individual and their strengths or growth goals. The process of filling this out helps break out of that.


Understanding the results

Sometimes someone will fill out the Career Growth Compass and find that in their current role, they’re largely inhabiting only one of the three circles. If this doesn’t change, In my experience this is a huge problem. It’s very likely unsustainable, and unless something changes, this person will be either very unhappy or will leave.

People at the intersection of two circles can be happy and fulfilled for a reasonably long time. Doing something really important (Need) that plays to your strengths? That’s pretty good, and a good role for many people! But eventually the desire for growth will lead to wanting something more. The same is true at all of the other intersections - you can sit there for a while, but eventually will likely be driven to make a change.

The magic really happens when you’re able to craft roles that sit at the intersection of all three circles. That's where you find roles and responsibilities that leverage an individual's strengths, fuel their personal growth, and drive the organization forward. It works because it aligns personal fulfillment with organizational success. When employees are working in areas they excel in and are passionate about, they're naturally more engaged and productive. By incorporating their growth aspirations, we ensure they're continuously developing and staying challenged. And by tying it all to team or organizational needs, we ensure that individual growth translates into organizational impact.


Common challenges

For people already in a role and looking to grow, there are two extremely common barriers that hold them back from finding work that sits at the intersection of all three circles. The Career Growth Compass helps address both directly.

The first is not having a clear understanding of ‘Need’. 

If someone you were managing came to you and said “I see this problem that I know is very important to the organization right now, here’s how I can contribute to solving it in a way that leverages my strengths while also allowing me to grow in an area I’m interested in” your likely reaction is “omg thank you hell yes let’s goooo”. Unfortunately it’s reasonably common to hear “I’d like to get experience managing people”. A great manager will still have a conversation with you about how to help you do that, but I’m confident that it’s at least 10x more likely to actually happen if you tie that desire to grow with a specific problem your manager is trying to solve right now.

If you’re doing this exercise by yourself, or if you're doing this with a member of your team, it’s fairly normal to have the hardest time filling out this circle. This is a wonderful opportunity to grow your/their strategic understanding of the organization.

Have a conversation (or encourage your employee to have this conversation) with their manager and interview other senior leaders and ask questions like: 

  • What are the biggest challenges facing our team or organization? 

  • What are the top team goals right now? What’s holding us back from smashing them? 

  • What’s keeping you up at night? 

  • What problems are mission critical and don’t have good solutions right now? 

Having a clear understanding of this that’s consistent with your manager and other senior leaders, is a huge unlock, and the Career Growth Compass can provide a way to get aligned on that.

The second is not having an accurate understanding of ‘Strengths’. 

The second common barrier is not accurately understanding your 'Strengths'. We often undervalue what comes naturally to us, assuming it's easy for everyone. Additionally, your perception of your strengths might not align with your manager's view. If they have a different perception than you, it’s a recipe for frustration and missed opportunities. It doesn’t matter who’s ‘right’... you’re trying to find roles, projects or responsibilities where the win/win is so blindingly obvious that no one can say no, and that simply won’t happen if you and your manager are on different pages about what your strengths are.

To gain a more accurate picture of your strengths:

  • Seek specific feedback from colleagues, managers, and mentors.

  • Have an open, honest conversation with your manager about how they perceive your strengths.

  • Reflect on tasks where you've excelled effortlessly.

  • Consider taking strength-finding assessments like CliftonStrengths.

  • Notice which activities energize rather than drain you.

Remember, true strengths are not just what you're good at, but what fulfills you when you do it. And having high self-awareness about your own strengths and how they’re perceived by others will set up this process for success.


Putting it all together

I’ve found the Career Growth Compass super useful for aligning personal growth with organizational success. By understanding your strengths, identifying growth areas, and clearly grasping organizational needs, you can craft roles that are fulfilling, impactful, and sustainable.

It’s definitely not a one time or static process. The first time someone does it they might need to go through a few iterations. And what goes in each circle will change over time.

Whether you're a manager looking to develop your team or an individual seeking to navigate your career path, this framework can provide valuable insights and direction. It encourages ongoing dialogue, promotes self-reflection, and fosters a culture of continuous growth and alignment.

I've used this tool countless times over the years, both for myself and with team members, and it's consistently led to more engaging roles, improved performance, and greater job satisfaction. So if you feel like it might be useful for you, I’d encourage you to use it!

  1. Take some time to reflect and fill out each circle.

  2. If you're a manager, introduce this concept to your team and use it in your next career development conversation.

  3. If you're an individual contributor, use this as a framework for your next discussion with your manager about your role and growth opportunities.

The goal isn't to find a perfect alignment overnight, but to start a productive dialogue and create a roadmap for growth that benefits both you and your organization.


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