In a bygone era, employment was more or less a lifetime proposition. Now, it's not unheard of to change employers every year or two, and one's career might consist of everything from solo ventures, to stints at the world's largest companies, to everything in between. For some people, this is a natural activity, sometimes even to a fault. For others, they stick by their employer even if it's handicapping their long-term career growth.
Consider yourself as a product
While it might seem uncomfortable to consider yourself in the same vein as a dishwasher, automobile, or expensive dinner, at the end of the day your services are a product that's compared to other, similar products on an open market.
Ideally, you want to provide the latest and greatest "features" in terms of what you bring to an employer, but your investigation should not focus only on the technical details of the job. I remember a conversation I had at an early crossroads in my career where a trusted advisor suggested that I lacked experience managing in large organizations, and that would be a hindrance later in my career. I ultimately addressed that gap and am now better positioned based on that advice. Look for both practical skills within and outside technology, and "experiences" that you have or should acquire. Similar to the large organization example, other experiences might be working internationally, collaborating closely with the marketing function, or working in a more strategic role.
At the end of the day, the best people generally get the best opportunities, compensation, and ability to move upwards in their organization, so identifying what would put you in the upper echelons of your career niche will give you a clear perspective of where you might need to augment your skills and experiences in order to get there.
With business-oriented social networking sites like LinkedIn and Glassdoor, it's fairly easy to make these assessments. For an even more detailed analysis, consider applying for a job or two, even if you have no immediate plans to move. This forces you to update your résumé, and market test your skillset in a very real manner.
SEE: IT jobs 2018: Hiring priorities, growth areas, and strategies to fill open roles (Tech Pro Research)
Is it time to go?
With a solid understanding of where you stand in the market in terms of your skillset, and an honest assessment of any gaps within an ideal "product," you can rationally assess whether your current employer can help you address those gaps. Ultimately, if you're not able to get to the next level in your current position, it's time to consider whether you can move to another position within your organization, or whether you should seek a new employer.
Similarly, if you find yourself broadly unhappy in your current organization or role it might be time to change jobs. Companies are like people, each has a different personality that's usually described as "culture." While it may seem like HR mumbo-jumbo, I've often been amazed at how different companies can be, even when they're in the same industry and otherwise similar.
Before immediately launching into a job search, speak with a trusted colleague or someone in your leadership chain. With a well-articulated plan that shows you're making a calculated decision focused on making yourself a more talented leader, you'll often find unexpected allies. Whether you stay or go, sharing your career planning intentions may save you from burning a bridge or two on your way out, should you choose to go.
Many overlook the possibility of staying with their current employer, but seeking a different role. You'll keep your current professional network, benefits, and seniority, but ideally be presented with a new set of challenges and a new set of colleagues. This additional level of comfort has some negatives, however. You'll likely experience an extended transition where you're still regarded as operating in your former role, and won't experience the personal growth that comes with entering a new environment and quickly establishing yourself.
Big fish syndrome
If you're in a smaller organization, or one with highly autonomous teams, you may find you've become the proverbial big fish in a small pond. This can be a dangerous position, as it's often comfortable and, on paper, looks like one of the most important positions in the entire organization. However, take a look objectively at the development opportunities and the skillsets of your peers. I have a simple personal benchmark: if I'm routinely the smartest guy in the room, I need to find a better room.
Find your own road
Each of us has a different level of career aspiration, and it's perfectly legitimate to place career way down on your life's list of concerns. Even if that's the case, staying current with the market and keeping up with trends makes you a more valuable asset to your employer when the inevitable economic bumps in the road occur. Employers range from doing a passable to poor job of managing their employees' careers, so whatever your aspirations, take the time to manage your own and assess where your talents can best be deployed today, and developed for tomorrow.
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Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent over a decade providing strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com. All opinions are his and may not represent those of his employer.