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The importance of the "job journey"
Helping your employees to attain mastery is the hallmark of a healthy culture
All employees starting a new role begin the “job journey” hoping to find success
People can be more or less prepared to succeed, but all must follow a path
Past success at previous stops is no guarantee of future success at your firm
Top organizations focus on helping people attain mastery as fast as possible
A healthy corporate culture is critical to achieve job success and satisfaction
The single most important training session ever
In my 30+years of work I have attended many, many hours of corporate training sessions. A few were good; most were forgettable. Some items have stuck with me but I can’t recall the context or broader meaning. (Finding out what someone’s “big red boat” is important but I’m fuzzy on the details here.) Out of all of the training sessions I’ve attended over the years, only one has made a lasting impact. The course is one that USAA offered in the mid-2000s called Situational Leadership. My boss at the time and I were having a lot of friction and difficult conversations. He attended the class first, shared his learnings, and recommended that I take a non-manager version called Situational Self-Leadership. It literally changed my life forever.
To be honest, there was much more to the course than I will share here, but the core concept is one that I internalized and have modified to make my own: the job journey, which has stuck in my mind for the past two decades. I’ve shared the chart above with literally hundreds of people over the years, particularly students and young professionals just beginning their careers. The basic idea is that each of us follows a path when we start any new job, regardless of our education or previous experience. This path consists of four stages which are outlined below. The key insight is that when we are all beginners, we have a lot to learn and a lot of growing pains before we get really good at our roles. Being good at our jobs is defined as mastery.
The chart above plots the relationship between two variables: competence is shown on the horizontal or X-axis and confidence is shown on the vertical or Y-axis. Competence indicates how knowledgable and effective an employee is in their role: it is observable and generally measurable. Confidence indicates an employee’s belief in their abilities in a given role: it is generally internal to that person and difficult to assess from the outside. The objective is to make the journey from newbie to mastery as smooth as possible. Organizations that recognize the job journey embrace their employees and demonstrate care and concern: signs of a healthy corporate culture. When organizations ignore the need to offer different levels of support for employees at each stage in their journey and leave them to fend for themselves, problems ensue.
Let’s dive deeper into each of the four stages.
Stage 1: Uninformed optimism (S1)
Stage 1 can be summarized as “I have no idea what I’m doing but I’m really excited about my new job!” In this new role, an employee does not know much - they have low competence - but have just gotten hired or promoted or selected for a new position and are excited about the opportunity. Their confidence is sky high. This stage is called uninformed optimism. No matter how much previous education, skills, work experience, and other forms of expertise an employee brings to the role, they have not previously done this job. Each role consists of a unique set of tasks and responsibilities for a given set of duties in a particular organization - and the job description cannot adequately capture all that is expected or needed to be successful. New employees may feel like their role is clear and that they are adequately prepared, but they have yet to face all of the unexpected obstacles, roadblocks, and challenges they will soon encounter. Through no fault of their own, they have naïveté about what lies ahead, no matter how much they believe they are prepared for this new role. This blissful stage marks the “honeymoon” period and tends to end relatively quickly, within 1-3 months. At this stage, it is important for leaders to introduce the job journey framework and encourage employees to ask for assistance along the way.
Stage 2: Informed pessimism (S2)
After the first few weeks in a new role, most of us quickly feel overwhelmed. There are generally a lot of new people, systems, and processes to take in and absorb at once. Each interaction is new and most are unfamiliar: few routines have yet to be established. Each day feels like drinking from a firehose and feels exhausting. The size of the challenge will depend on the personality of each individual and other factors such as whether this is a new department, new organization, and/or new work location. Getting promoted within the same area of your current employer is quite different than moving to a new city to work for a new organization. Depending on the circumstances, the depth of feeling will vary but the general sentiment is summarized as “what have I gotten myself into?” Confidence plunges as employees recognize how little they know and have to ask for help all the time, even for seemingly minor things such as “what is the WiFi password?” and “how do I map to a printer?”. This is true no matter whether the role is an entry level position or a senior executive role. Employees may be in touch with their feelings or fail to acknowledge them, but the overall loss of confidence and accompanying sense of unease is common.
Being in Stage 2 feels awful, but it is an inevitable step along the job journey. These growing pains can be minimized to some extent through formal training and documentation, having regular 1:1 conversation with the boss, and (most important) access to a peer mentor who has been clearly established and formally tasked with providing support by answering questions and helping the new employee get up to speed. A key component is making allowances so that more tenured employees in the mentor role are not unwittingly penalized for offering their support. Often, if there is a gap between when a role becomes vacant and a new employee is hired, the rest of the team has to pick up the slack in terms of workload. This is challenging enough, but when team members are then asked to train and mentor the new employee, this can become even more of a strain.
In the short run assisting new employees is a productivity drain, not a productivity boost. Employees in this stage need a lot of hand holding and step-by-step direction. If allowances are not made in terms of time provided, objectives and metrics, and recognition of the commitment that being a mentor requires, this can quickly build resentment. At best, tenured employees may decide to simply continue tackling the extra workload and fail to get the new worker up to speed; at worst, they can ignore or be openly hostile to the newbie.
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Stage 3: when competence grows faster than confidence (S3)
The dramatic plunge from Stage 1 to Stage 2 is inevitable and takes place relatively quickly. The time spent in Stage 2 before advancing to Stage 3 varies greatly. Some employees never make it to Stage 3: they remain stuck in Stage 2 and may remain unproductive or even become disruptive: it is bad enough to not carry your weight but worse if you are actively detracting from achieving goals and objectives. Others may start looking to leave the organization for greener pastures; if they do then the process to fill the role starts all over again. It is essential that organizations devote sufficient resources to ensuring their people do not get stuck in Stage 2. It is vitally important for employees to make measurable progress in their roles to move into Stage 3.
Stage 3 is best summarized as “two steps forward, one step back” for employees. Slowly, each day, they are getting better in their new roles. People are absorbing what they have learned and are making incremental progress. Unfortunately, setbacks are still a regular occurrence: employees are often reminded of their limitations and lack of expertise. Mistakes are made, gaps in knowledge are highlighted, obstacles arise that they cannot overcome alone. Each of these incidents serves as a reminder to the person that they still have more to learn in their role, and these setbacks lowers their confidence level. In Stage 3, employees are getting better at their job but progress is incremental enough that their confidence does not grow at the same rate as their abilities. Ideally Stage 3 is reached within 3-6 months of starting a new role but employees can remain in this realm for a substantial amount of time; 1-2 years is common and sometimes longer depending on the complexity of the role. Step-by-step instructions are less important than encouragement, which is key at this stage along with the ability to make mistakes. Making your own missteps is a crucial part of the learning process. Each role has a different tolerance for failure that is acceptable, but allowing for as much as possible without causing irreparable harm is best.
Stage 4: achieving mastery (S4)
Making it to Stage 4 is not guaranteed. Some employees unfortunately never make it past Stage 2. Others make it to Stage 3 but continue to have struggles, and sometimes employees can even regress back to Stage 2. The path is winding and can be bi-directional: it is never a smooth ascent and does not always end up at the intended destination. Ideally, Stage 4 should be the ultimate aim: mastery. At this stage, confidence grows by leaps and bounds to catch up with competence. Employees are good at what they do - and they know it. This is a blissful state: people are rightly proud of their knowledge, expertise, and accomplishments. People enjoy doing what they are good at. Typically, there is a lot of recognition given to those who are great at a set of skills or tasks. Beyond external praise, employees also enjoy an internal pride. At this stage, it is important to empower employees: give them as much leeway as possible and support them by removing obstacles when called upon, but otherwise be in the background ready to jump in only when escalation is necessary.
Once mastery is achieved, employees generally go in one of three directions: 1) they want to go deeper into their current work, perhaps by inventing new tools or methods and becoming deeply identified as an expert in their role, 2) they want additional responsibilities, such as becoming a frontline manager or moving up in the executive ranks, building upon their established expertise while also learning new skills, or 3) they get bored and want to face an entirely new challenge. These pathways are mapped to those who want to be the subject matter expert (SME), those that want to get promoted, and those that want to redefine themselves.
Generally, the SME will stay within the same organization because their deep knowledge of systems and processes are foundational to their mastery. The other two pathways can be opportunities that arise internally within an organization. Most firms historically have focused on the concept of the “career ladder”: a series of promotions over time with increasing pay and responsibilities. Few firms focus on the “career journey”: a series of experiences that stimulate employees and make them more well-rounded, regardless of whether they ascend the formal corporate hierarchy or not. While organizations often conduct exit surveys to ascertain why employees are leaving, rarely do the true reasons reveal themselves. Too often, it is to get away from a bad situation: a terrible boss, a dead-end role. Other times it is for a promotion or a new opportunity with the ability to acquire new abilities (or leverage existing ones that are not being fully utilized).
Customize support based on each journey stage
Too many organizations have taken their employees for granted over the years. During our current period dubbed the Great Resignation, talent acquisition and retention is the #1 question I receive from employers. The days of lifetime employment have been over for a while, but companies have been slow to adapt their hiring practices and increase their support for existing employees. Generous pay and benefits is a start, but firms must focus on the employee experience, starting with how well they are supporting the job journey. In the past when employees were more reluctant to make a move, many were stuck in Stage 2 or Stage 3 without the support necessary to progress to Stage 4. In today’s environment, sitting in Stage 2 or Stage 3 too long is almost a guarantee that an employee will leave your organization. Gaining an appreciation for each of the four stages and varying the level of support and resources for employees in each stage is essential for retaining talent and building expertise.
Finally, one of the reasons this lesson has stuck with me for so long is that it gave me a framework to discuss my feelings with my boss and both of us a benchmark to use to assess my progress. Instead of telling my boss that I was frustrated, getting stuck often, and depressed about my relative incompetence in my role, I could simply say “I’m in S2” and he knew what that meant. We could then work together to identify ways to help me progress on to S3 and each 1:1 use this framework as a way to signal how things were going. By utilizing the job journey, we could both discuss my work in a productive way that was open and candid, but not emotionally charged.
How well does your organization recognize the “job journey” of employees, if at all? Are supervisors aware of the different needs that employees have in each stage? Do employees have a way to signal their relative job satisfaction (or lack thereof) in a safe way? Are employees encourage to regularly perform self-assessment of their work and what they need in order to be successful? Does your organization have a healthy culture that provides the different levels of support necessary for employees at each stage of the job journey?