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Guiding Your Direct Reports Onto Their Own Career Paths

Jully Kim

Director of Engineering Programs at Zendesk

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Problem

Early on in my management career, when I was coaching my direct reports, I thought that everyone wanted to follow in the same trajectory I had and take the same career path that I had chosen. I figured everyone who reported to me wanted to become a manager, then a project manager, and after a senior project manager. It was an 'Aha!' moment for me when I realized that the career trajectory of my direct reports didn't have to be exactly like mine. At that point and time I understood that it wasn't my job to lead people on my career path but for me to coach others through their own personal career growth. I needed a way to figure out what skills to hone in on and which direction they actually wanted to move towards. And if they didn't know the answer to that question then it was my duty to help them figure that out.

Actions taken

I would, of course, have the typical career discussions with my direct reports. But, usually when I asked them what they wanted to do most of them didn't have a response. I concluded that they best way to come up with an answer was through experience. An important part of my job as a manager, in any case, is to give my direct reports an abundance of professional development opportunities. And so I needed to give them the experience necessary to excel in their current position and for future roles.

Thus, I presented occasions and encouraged direct reports to go to meetups and conferences. I wanted folks to speak internally at tech talks and meetups, or give talks externally at conferences. This generated a chance for them to understand their particular industry both from inside the company as well as outside of the company. So if their industry happened to be sales or project management, I wanted them to explore supplementary opportunities in that realm.

I was able to do this because of our budget. I am well connected in terms of our meetup community and conference community. Therefore, I am up-to-date on events that are happening locally, in other states, and internationally. Given enough notice, I insisted that one of my direct reports apply and go to the event instead of me. We would then work together to get them to understand their passions or what they were interested in talking about with the potentiality of speaking on that topic. Even if they weren't accepted to speak, the exercise of building a topic together forces the person to boil down what they really believe is important and relevant. It gives them a chance to explore various arenas and hopefully formulate a passion around one of them.

Lessons learned

As a manager, I discovered that encouraging someone to speak at a conference can actually help them figure out what they want their career trajectory to look like. They discover what they are passionate about while doing the exercise. Or just the opposite and we are able to eliminate an area that is less desirable to them.

"Encouraging someone to speak at a conference can actually help them figure out what they want their career trajectory to look like."

Be open-minded about the career growth of your direct reports. Support them in the next step of whatever career trajectory they choose. It doesn't have to be the same path that you took nor does it even have to be inside the function that they were hired into. It could be something completely different and it is your job as a manager to foster that passion and guide them in the right direction. For example, I had an engineer who was interested in how I contributed to project management. She discovered she was that she liked this arena and began giving talks about it internally to her team and department. Later on, she did a full career change from front-end engineer to product manager. I helped her get a job at a different company and she works there now as a design product manager.


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Jully Kim

Director of Engineering Programs at Zendesk


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