It’s YOUR career. Lead it!


Microsoft’s review model is an odd beast. Some things about it I adore, some things about it I abhor, and some things that just don’t make sense to me. Why *do* we go through our “midyear” discussion in March and then write up our Annual reviews in June (3 mos later), then get our reviews back 3 months later? On which review are we supposed to take credit for the awesome things we did from that June to September? Shouldn’t next year’s goals be written right after we submit our reviews (tweaked when we find out our reviews)?

This post is not about complaining about the review system. No review system is perfect and it turns out the Peter Principle (“people get promoted to the point of incompetency”) is true. It was proven in 2010 by the Nobel Peace prize winners of Management Science (here). Microsoft follows a general “Up or Out” strategy, which is considered a typical “defense” to Peter Principle happening in your org.

But wanna hear something really neat?

These same guys proved that promoting the most competent people from the lower levels up is not as successful of a strategy as alternating between the Best and Worst when promoting. Why? Because being good at working at one level, does not mean you have the skills needed to do what is required at the new higher level.  Some of the “incompetent” folks *actually* have the skills to outperform their peers at the higher levels. If you are a teacher and/or a strategist, you aren’t going to be valued as much as an individual, but if you can land a leadership role where you have to coach folks, you can nail it.

Let that soak in. Alternating between best and least competent people is a *more* successful strategy to improve the overall corporate efficiency.

That tweaks my noodle a bit, but I’ve seen situations like this. Years ago, I told an employee (who had zero passion for testing) that I would give him 30 days to find a new job in Microsoft or I would accept his resignation. I also told him if he applied for a test role that I would not give his new manager my recommendation, but a PM role, he would have it 100%! With that motivation in hand, he did land a PM job… The next several reviews he received were stellar.

He was now competent in the position he was in.

This time of year is typically where all employees are done hearing their reviews (I hope so!!!) and have written up their goals for next year. People should now be looking ahead figuring out how to maximize their career growth and build solid value into the products their team is producing. It is common for me to get my opinion asked for by employees or mentees about how to get a better review score or get promoted.

My answer is personalized for each individual, but in general, I let people know first and foremost, they need to own their own career. I can help them understand how the game is played, but ultimately, they are the ones who must do the work.

Usually, people who ask me this question is because they have one of the following facets of their career out of whack:

  • A product that drives their passion
  • A team that highly values the application of their strengths
  • A job that keeps them challenged

Passion

You need to find a product that will capture your heart. Sometimes mentees will come to me saying “I am thinking of joining that team, because I can learn [some important skill]”… Probing deeper, I will find that’s the only thing they value in the team. I usually respond by asking “Do you know what you will do next year once you have learned it and are bored and/or unhappy?” If they don’t, I recommend they look for a different team and work with them to try to find another means for them to acquire that skill. Passion is what keeps you engaged. If the product doesn’t do it for you, your value to the team will be constrained. Happy people are productive people.

Strength

I will write an article on this more deeply in the future, but I highly recommend some quality introspection around your strengths and how they are utilized in the organization. My favorite framework to use is StrengthFinders. Their tagline is “Do you have the opportunity to do what you do best every day?”.   Studies have shown (available off of the strengthfinders site) that a strategy around heavily self-investing in what you are good at naturally will yield a nearly 10x productivity rate. In this blog’s context though, your strengths catalog your *youness*… In a business context, this means the value you naturally bring to the workplace. It’s important to know this so you can help identify those roles in your workplace that will value what you bring,

My strengths (as example):

  1. Ideation
  2. Restorative
  3. Individualization
  4. Relator
  5. Analytical

At a rudimentary level, it shows that I have talents in Innovating, Team Building, and Problem Solving. I love being a manager on teams that are on the cutting edge and trying to find that breakthrough that will take them to the next level.

As a corollary, I do not enjoy, nor thrive, in Individual Contributor roles that are purely execution in nature. These are very important roles, no doubt, but not something I am best suited for.

Other frameworks exist to help you identify your strengths, if you decide that strengthfinders is a “cross between good advice and a horoscope”.  The point is to find and use what will help you thrive. Both you and the team you are on should value your strengths and invest in them. If you find yourself in a position of feeling like square peg being forced into a round hole on a daily basis, talk with your manager and find a new role. If none exists, find a new team.

Challenge

In order to grow, you need to be challenged. The following diagram highlights Csikszentmihalyi’s Theory of Flow (not be confused with Kanban’s usage of the same term).

The chart above shows that the secret to happiness is to grow your skills and challenges at the same time. Growing your impact on your organization is quite similar to this process. Investing in your strengths is equivalent to investing in your skills (above). Being constantly in the flow will make you happier.

At Microsoft, there is a concept of a Business Justification for each role. What this means, in essence, is there is a business need for someone with a mastery of certain skills to be in the role. So what do you do when you have grown your strengths to the point that exceeds the business justification for your role? (or you have “automated” your role, so that it now has a lower level business justification?)

Really you have two choices:

  • Find new challenges to add to your role (and continue the flow)
  • Find a new role

Your manager should always be willing to partner with you on the first bullet above. If they are not, then you really need to find that new role elsewhere.

One last point here: If you are someone in upper levels (senior, principal, partner), then think about the business justification for your role in comparison to your peer group. If it implies a lower level justification by comparison (for example: a Senior can do your job and you are a Principal, and the rest of your peer group has Principal scoped jobs), then you *also* need to do one of the above choices if you want to have a chance to level the playing field for the review process. Now is the time to do this thinking, not 6 mos from now.

Alone in the Dark

By definition, you can’t know what you don’t know you don’t know (Armour’s 2nd order of ignorance), but you can help defeat it by constructing a process which will enable you to learn those things that matter. Yes, *you* need to be the one that leads your career, but you don’t have to do it alone, nor without a clue. Surround yourself with those things and people that will enable you to learn. No matter where you are, I view getting a mentor as crucial. I, myself, have several mentors and value their honest assessments highly. I am lucky in that I don’t get offended easily and surround myself with “say it like it is” folks.

Visibility?

If your manager is telling you “You need to grow your visibility”, then shame on them. Your manager is optimizing for a dysfunctional loophole in how the process works. Yes, this tactic will work. It can and will get you promoted, but it elevates Peter’s Principle. I believe Visibility is a 4 letter word… It’s offensive. Unfortunately, this advice encourages folks to do what it takes to be visible. By making visibility a goal, you are not learning the skills to maintain and sustain yourself at the new level.

You are helping to ensure the Peter Principle comes true for *you*.

There’s a reason why it usually takes 2-3 years to get promoted. You are mastering a new set of skills to help you scale to the higher positions and win there. Don’t make visibility the goal; instead, making adding solid business value and growing your impact to that business the priority… Nail this and visibility will come with it, but as a result of your success not as the goal. Plus you will be more prepared to handle your next promotion.

Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.
Confucius

Need more to read?

Some other great blog posts on Microsoft Review and career advice from their authors:

Anita George:

How Important is the “How”?

If You Want It, Then You Aren’t Ready For It

Up, Up, and Away!

Eric Brechner:

Level Up

Permanently High Plateau

It’s not going to be okay

Alan Page:

Three Surprises

Dead Man’s Curve

Stack Overflow

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10 thoughts on “It’s YOUR career. Lead it!

  1. Right on! Hope you don’t mind if I quote you in my exit interview. Two things in this intrigued me – 1) your triad of “product that drives passion”, “team that values application of their strengths”, and “job that challenges” reminded me of Daniel Pink’s Purpose / Autonomy / Growth as the three things that make people happy in their jobs. 2) the Theory of Flow chart doesn’t make sense to me – how can someone be learning if they’re not being challenged?

    • They could be learning something that is not relevant to their current job. Like learning Ruby on a team that uses C#. What I’ve seen lately though, is folks who already have the high skill, but have been reorged into lesser scoped positions. They aren’t utilizing the skills (strengths) that they value.

  2. Testacular post, Brent! Passion, strengths, and challenges is a good way to summarize at a high-level the basis for the right team and position. Good way to think about it! I think your statement around your team valuing the strengths you bring to the table is KEY. You may find a product your are passionate about with some great challenges, but if you are held back in leveraging your strengths, particularly via a values mismatch, then you are in for a rough haul.

    I also agree with you on visibility, but anyone that thinks that “you need to grow your visibility” is not a common message from managers at a larger company like Microsoft is naive, particularly at the more senior levels. Although I always like to think that results and growing the business in an effective way (the “how”) will promote visibility on its own, the honest truth is that it rarely happens that way.

  3. I wish more managers at Microsoft followed this… I was very unhappy in test, and only a little happier in lab operations. I got told by one of my last managers that I wasn’t meeting the expectations he had of me, so I asked him what those expectations were – his answer was a classic example of what’s wrong with Microsoft – “I don’t know yet, I’m still trying to figure that out”. I took it to my skip-level manager and got the same answer, so I went to the GM, who I found out wanted me to move to his pet project, one that I had zero interest in, and thought was doomed to fail. I have to wonder if the GM was stirring things up so that I couldn’t stay in my current role and wouldn’t be able to leave the team because of the lower review scores. I left the company instead, and have received a lot of recognition and rewards from my new employer in the 1.5 years I’ve been gone.

    • In my experience there are more good managers than bad, thankfully. But there are still a lot of bad managers. While bad managers can definitely leave a bad taste in your mouth, hopefully, I’ve delivered some successful strategies to help folks deal with it and control their own destiny. I’m very glad you found a job that values you highly!

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