Monday, April 18, 2016

What's your reputation and what are you doing about it?

One thing that I always struggled with as a software engineer was reconciling what I knew about myself and what other thought about me. Every year during annual reviews (more often with the good managers) I'd get a glimpse into how others viewed me in the form of my performance review. I was not usually surprised with my overall performance rating, but there were usually things that came up that I wasn't aware others were paying attention to. Some good and some bad.

As I've shifted into a management role I've come to really appreciate how much your reputation can help you succeed or get in the way of your success. One of the things I try to work with my engineers on in making sure that the best of themselves comes out in how others view them. It's just easier to succeed in your role and in your career growth if others have an accurate view of your skills and capabilities, and if you're open to the areas you need to grow in. 

All too often I see engineers trying to change their reputation by telling others that they're not what they seem to be or making excuses for why they act a certain way. More often than not, this is not helpful. Instead you need to be doing something different to change your reputation. Here's some tips to successfully manage your reputation:

1. Decide that you care about your career and your own personal growth

Almost everyone I've ever managed or lead on a team has said that they care about their career and their own personal growth, but when confronted with challenges many have decided that overcoming those challenges required more work then they were willing to do. They give up and let their reputations dictate their opportunities and their success or failure.

The biggest hurdle I've experienced to making this decision is believing that you can be successful. You have to know that the road ahead is difficult, that you are capable of success and then make a conscious choice to put in the effort to grow. 

2. Understand what your reputation actually is

The first key to this is just preparing yourself that you're going to hear things you don't want to about yourself. You're going to hear that you struggle in areas that you either don't believe matter or that you don't believe you struggle in.

The unfortunate reality is that if you're hearing feedback that you don't believe to be true, there is something you're doing (or not doing) that is contributing to the reputation. This is not to say it's your fault. But you must acknowledge that you have room to grow.

Personally, I've heard my whole life (not just in my career) that I'm too combative. I see that trait as being passionate about what I believe. While that may be true (at least I hope) it doesn't change the reality that I am viewed through that lens and that I can't change that view until I actually understand that it is a filter that people are using when interacting with me.

3. Look for ways to capitalize on your strengths

One mistake I made at the beginning of my career was using a strength ineffectively. I'm a person that has always had good intuition and perception. I pay attention to little details and become aware of things that others don't recognize. The mistake I made with this was two fold. First, I thought that because my intuition and perception were very good that they were flawless. In other words I thought I was always right. Second, I thought this good intuition was a license to offer advice even when my advice wasn't sought out. These two mistakes compound and ended up building a reputation of being a know it all.

Through very successful coaching by managers who recognized this strength being used ineffectually I've learned to turn something that was making me ineffective into something that makes me more effective by asking questions. When I intuit or perceive something that I don't believe others are seeing I now ask questions instead of making statements.

This helps me in three ways. First it shows that I'm open to being wrong about my intuition or perception. If I'm open to being wrong and others are aware of it, they're more open to me being right. Sounds odd but it's true. What I'm doing is creating a culture where failure is okay and others don't feel like I'm judging them if I succeed or if they fail. Second, it helps others to feel like they're also apart of the solution. By asking a question you're inviting them to participate. By helping others to be involved they feel ownership in the result. Lastly, it helps me uncover the things that I don't know I don't know. Occasionally, these questions will uncover evidence to reinforce my initial intuition or perception. But more often they will uncover things I wasn't aware of that help me gain a more solid understanding of what we're talking about. 

The key here isn't just to make sure you have opportunities to showcase your strengths, it's to learn to make your strengths more effective.

4. Look for opportunities that allow you to growth in areas of weakness in a way that sets you up for success

Everyone has room for growth. Effectively managing your reputation with respect to these areas of growth means learning the skills necessary to be effective and then practicing those skills. Once you start to master these new skills you then look for opportunities to scale them.

One common example I run into is growing as a leader. Most ineffective leaders, in my experience, think leading is about directing others so they focus on being right and setting the direction (read: telling people what to do). The result is that these people get a reputation as micro-managers who don't trust their direct reports or peers. 

An example of growing in this area is by learning what motivates people and then learning to apply that motivation to what needs to be done. This results in leading by getting people to want to do the right thing.

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