Understanding Career Growth: Promotion and Sideways Career Changes

Mike Bassett

Senior Director of Engineering at Electronic Arts (EA)


Challenges Developing Through Senior Roles

As I progressed in my career towards more senior positions, the needs of each role pushed me to learn and adapt to carry out new functions and solve different problems. Instead of focusing on a single product, I began managing multiple projects and the managers that managed them. My career moved further and further away from technical engineering and concentrated on people management and soft skills.

I enjoyed my career path and wanted to continue to be successful. At regular intervals, I have reviewed if the direction and content of my role remain something that is interesting and gives me the chance to grow and make an increasingly larger impact on the business. Most companies and leaders assume that an upward progression, consisting of promotions and recognition, is the path to success and what every person wants to pursue. I feel that we need to take time to reflect and explore sideways opportunities in addition to the obvious route. This approach is one I recommend to those I work with.

Self-Evaluation and Professional Development Tools

Accessing Tools:

Within many companies, there are existing tools to help employees to explore themselves, their role, and the ideal role for the future. One tool that is used in my company is a professional development plan, if this is missing you are effectively delegating this function to your manager. Interestingly, I found that many of my colleagues did not have a professional development plan. I decided that I would invest time in building a plan to facilitate a more focused career discussion with my manager, this effort was partly motivated by the desire to help others carry out this process.

Another tool that really helped was looking at Peter Druckers’ “Managing yourself” article from the Harvard Business Review. He explored how to find out what your key strengths are, in a methodical way, many times we are wrong. This article also helped me explore how I get things done, how I best fit into an organization, and to what extent I am best suited to set the vision for a team vs supporting and executing on a vision.

Personal Growth Exercises:

I started down my development journey deciding what motivates and drives me. These later became the values that I feel were most important. I narrowed it down to the five most essential ones, which was a difficult process since I felt many things were important. Reducing my options to five values meant each one was core to who I was and helped explain career decisions I made in the past when I was less conscious of these values.

Another helpful exercise I used was exploring how my current role’s characteristics compared to my ideal position. I asked myself questions such as:

  • Did I have the autonomy I desired?
  • Did I get to express my creativity effectively?
  • Is the level of risk the right balance between engaging myself without frequently being overloaded?
  • Was I expected to make decisions alone or collaboratively?

These questions will differ for different individuals. Once I had established how I best worked, the fit of my current role, I felt in a strong position to both explore sideways moves in my company as well as explore ways to adapt my current role to be a better fit; this helped check if I was accurate about the outcomes I was seeking!

Drawing Conclusions:

Inspired by this process, I realized that there was an element of my current role that emphasized the need to be a visionary leader, rather than an implementer and manager. Despite obtaining great results, this reflection exercise enabled me to better establish expectations with stakeholders and mold my role and organizational structure to empower the visionary people in the org to complement my strengths effectively.

Succeeding Through Career Trajectory

  • If your current trajectory at the company starts to look like a poor fit for the long term, the most challenging step is to decide what to do about it! If you love the company you work at and the people you work with, maybe a sideways career change could work. Look at what roles are missing or would both significantly impact the company and better match your strengths and passion. Work with your manager to ensure that opportunities to contribute more widely help you move in the right direction for the future. Possible options might be training, helping with projects outside your immediate responsibility, working groups, ERGs, and even special interest groups outside the company time.

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Mike Bassett

Senior Director of Engineering at Electronic Arts (EA)

Leadership DevelopmentCommunicationOrganizational StrategyDecision MakingCulture DevelopmentEngineering ManagementMentorship ProgramsCareer GrowthCareer Progression

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