Career return on investment
Engineers know life is about effort, and six best practices can engineer a faster return on career investment (ROI).
Control engineers are familiar with Isaac Newton’s third law that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Programming a programmable logic controller (PLC) is like that, right? If this condition is met, then another event will occur. However, this doesn’t appear to play out for your career as we’ve learned in decades of interviewing professionals.
Some of the outcomes are digital like money. You do the work and you get paid. Some paid fairly, others not so much. You also could be seeking or enjoying the work itself, status, responsibility, contribution, job security, or work-life balance. Aren’t these things the most difficult to measure even though they are sometimes the most valuable?
Whatever the intent, the outcomes, and the measurables, they are uniquely yours. It’s your time and your investment of effort. That investment can be modest-hoping for a small, safe return like a savings account or certificate of deposit. It can be all-out aggressive like a venture capital-backed start up with potential for big gains coupled with a high risk of failure.
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote an essay on compensation in 1841 that can be summarized as: Over the course of your life, you are going to be compensated about equal to your contribution.
Emerson doesn’t say it will be an exact reward, but pretty much equitable. We frequently hear from professionals that they feel undervalued. Some try to place blame, others accept responsibility and take action.
A favorite quote on the subject is an old Persian proverb, "Not all who gained toiled, but all those that earned did." Maybe Emerson read that. Some people catch breaks and ride the wave. Others toil and don’t have as much to show for it, but who’s to say they didn’t grow from the experience? Who’s to say it won’t turn for the better in the near future. There is plenty of evidence spending time on the plan increases odds of a better outcome. Six suggestions and ideas follow for engineering a career for maximum ROI.
1. Start a career direction with a vision
Andrew Carnegie, the great steel magnate of early Industrial America, once hired a consultant to observe him for a week and make recommendations for how he could improve his performance. At the end of the week, the consultant gave Carnegie one piece of advice. Every night, before leaving the office, write down the six most important things to accomplish tomorrow.
Carnegie claimed this simple tactic helped him grow his enterprise more than any other behavior. If that’s true, and in fact, if a simple habit of making a "to do" list for a day is a career (and industry) game changer, why couldn’t one benefit from making a "to do" list for life?
Who has responsibility for painting the picture of what you want to be when you grow up? If not you, then who? If not now, then when? Finding the answer doesn’t need to be any more complicated than sitting down with a yellow tablet or new computer document and brainstorming.
In 15 to 30 minutes, perhaps early with coffee or late with a glass of wine, write down everything you can possibly imagine you’d ever want to be, do, or have. Quickly, they start falling into categories like, career, financial, physical, recreation, family, spiritual, philanthropic, etc. If one or two categories seem popular, then make separate lists.
For this exercise, focus on career goals. What do you want to accomplish? Do you want to lead? Do you want to invent? Do you want to help build a company? Do you want to use your leadership to advance in a big corporation? What’s the grandest vision you’ve ever had for yourself?
This is the place to stretch, be crazy, and go for it. Heck, it’s only a piece of paper. You can throw it out if you want and start over, but the point is to end up with that piece of paper that talks about career possibilities. The bigger the stretch, the bigger the possibility. If you never think of it, it’s not likely to happen. If you do think of it, it might happen, especially if you write it down. Remember, it’s your paper, and the career paper is likely to affect every other list you make for financial, recreation, house, family, and other areas. It’s that important.
2. Invest in yourself
Jim Rohn, the renowned motivational speaker, said, "Work harder on yourself than you do on your job." What steps can you take to obtain higher returns? The first is to develop a curious mindset about the known world.
If you’re an engineer, how much do you think about influence, leadership, selling, and economics? How many books on these subjects do you read? What do the leaders of great companies read? What do you listen to in your car during a commute? You can get the equivalent of an MBA by listening to books on these subjects while driving to work.
Keep asking yourself questions like: Have you attended seminars in your field? Taken an outside class? Have you considered continuing your education? Would you join Toastmasters to improve public speaking skills? At the very least, read Daniel Pink’s book, "To Sell is Human." He makes the case all people are in sales, and a good salesperson always looks for opportunity and to increase in value.
If you don’t place a high value on yourself and work on increasing it, the world will not rush to do it for you. If you want to be a most valuable engineer (MVE), you’ll have to do the work. Consider asking your manager, or even an outside mentor, about how to make a larger contribution.
3. Develop subject matter expertise
It’s wonderful to be passionate and fascinated by a subject at the same time. A common interview question is: "Tell me something you’re passionate about." I don’t care too much about the topic; I’m looking to see if the passion muscle is even there.
The same passion and thirst for knowledge I apply to my golf obsession is also applied to the dynamic of interviewing and learning how the best matches are made. Any subject about communication, behavioral psychology and economics, leadership, hiring, selection, and personality profiling are all areas of interest for me. Those—layered with a strong interest in automation and technology advancements—have created a calling card for me with some notoriety.
What’s your area of expertise? If nothing grabs you, then keep searching, reading, and investigating. Soon, a topic will reach out and grab you. Relate back to the initial concept of your vision and write it down to improve the odds it will happen so you can say, "In five years, I’ll be known for my expertise in (fill in the blank)."
4. Customer, team, you
In business, there are two things: marketing and politics. Marketing is any topic that involves serving a customer. Engineering, marketing, and even accounting all relate back to the customer in one way or another.
Politics is anything not focused on the customer and is usually self-centered or turf-related.
Where will I sit? Whose cube is in a better place? Will I get promoted? Will I ever get a parking space? Is our team shining in eyes of management? What will our bonuses be?
There’s nothing wrong with these questions popping up and getting answered. It’s not, however, the place you want to dwell or spend one minute more than required. Venting to peers about political problems is a developmental ball and chain.
When considering your path, keep asking, "How can my areas of focus or learning help a customer solve problems?" or, "Am I helping my team get better, so we can help more customers solve more problems?" Be known as that person in the marketing camp. Zig Ziglar, another famous inspirational speaker, said, "You can get everything in life you want, if you just help enough other people get what they want."
5. Practice self-promotion
There are books about self-promotion, and while this topic isn’t the key to success, it is nonetheless important. If you had a world-changing invention, it would be a good idea to let someone know. You may get lucky and tell the right person who could spread the word for you. But you did have to tell at least one other person. It would be better to tell quite a few more and increase your odds. The same holds true for your career.
There’s a chance you may do all you can do to elevate your value but not be in the right organization to capitalize. If you’re visible, perhaps someone else will find you and give you that chance. Without any egotistical self-aggrandizement, it’s totally acceptable, and even expected, you complete and update a professional LinkedIn profile. Speaking at conferences, writing articles, blogging about your passionate topics all help build your personal brand.
Public speaking may not be for everyone and writing can be a big step, but don’t ignore the LinkedIn calling card. If you are ecstatic with your work environment, you’ll be telling the world, and that helps your team and company. It’s a no-lose proposition.
6. Own it
Great leaders take responsibility for everything and never place blame. The same applies with you. You’re the CEO of your career. You’re responsible for the vision. You start there and then ensure you have the capacity, capability, resources, and energy to make it happen.
As soon as you decide where you’re going and take that first step, you’re a leader and fully in charge of your destiny. It’s likely that getting on a new path will involve change, discomfort, trial, error, and learning. Congratulations. You’re on your way!
KEYWORDS: Engineers, career tips
Engineering career advice
Develop skills needed to reach your career vision
Remain in charge of your career destiny.
What steps have you taken to engineer your career goals… this week, this month, or this year?
This article was part of the Career Update section in May 2018 Control Engineering that included information and graphics from the 2018 Control Engineering Career and Salary Report.