When people look at their careers, the focus pretty naturally falls to skills acquisition. Almost everyone believes that their future hinges on learning some skill or mastering some talent. Maybe you want to know more about business or strategy. Perhaps you think you need to read leadership books or find Harvard Business Review articles on being effective. You might be one of those people who looks at classes longingly – your career would be better if only you had the time to take a class.
While all of those things are helpful, changing your career actually starts much smaller. If you want to make meaningful strides forward, the first place to look is your vocabulary.
Most of us have career aspirations that involve taking on more prominent roles – either leading projects or leading teams or even just driving our own deliverables. All of these have a common thread: autonomy. One of the most basic elements of human psychology that transcends nationality, gender, race, whatever is this notion of autonomy. When we have control over what we do, we feel more deeply connected to the task, more responsible for the outcome. In this, we find purpose, and that purpose drives us.
So how do autonomy and purpose relate to vocabulary?
When you think about your job, what is it you are responsible for? I don’t mean what are the tasks that you perform. I don’t mean what your role is or what you do. What is it you are responsible for?
Without coaching, we all tend to answer this question the same way. We start off by describing the kinds of things we do. Network engineers might describe their jobs as a set of provisioning or troubleshooting tasks. Software developers might talk about the part of the code they work on, maybe even reference a project or two. Product managers might talk about the product or the market they serve.
These answers certainly describe what we do, but they fall short of explaining what we are responsible for. You see, we need to talk in terms of outcomes, not tasks. You might perform tasks, but they are in support of driving some outcome. You tackle help desk tickets when there are network issues, but that is in support of ensuring application performance and end-user experience. You do one thing, but you are responsible for something else.
The reason this matters is that if you think and act in terms of tasks, you will live your work life always subordinate to someone else who drives tasks to you. In effect, you run the risk of being an automaton working at the behest of someone else who serves as your brain. Sure, that is a little dramatic, but the essence is true.
Let me take my wife as an example. In a previous job, she ran marketing for North America at a major medical diagnostics company. Her boss told her one day that she needed to travel more. She came home and told me she needed to travel more. I asked her why, and her answer was that her boss had told her she needed to travel more. So I asked her “What outcome does he want you to achieve?” She actually didn’t know.
We talked about it some and concluded he wanted her there to make sure the events came off without a hitch. The actual outcome he cared about was that his events were well-managed. He translated that into “Travel more” when he talked to her. What my wife needed to do was respond – at the point of attack – with different language: What outcome would you like me to deliver? While it is possible that the outcome he wanted was my wife to be in whatever city, the more likely possibility was that he wanted to ensure that everything was taken care of.
Sure enough, when my wife changed the script on him, he stopped dead in his tracks forced to think about what outcome he really wanted. And when my wife used that language over and over, her boss gradually learned to talk to her in terms of outcomes, not tasks.
You see, language is a very powerful tool. All too often we use imprecise or incorrect language, preferring the colloquial over more accurate terms. But change begins with a common understanding, and that understanding is fairly connected to our vernacular. If you want to see small changes, start there.
[As an aside, if you are a manager, you should check yourself to see whether you delegate tasks or outcomes to your teams. You will find that teams that deal in outcomes generally experience much more autonomy, which drives better results delivered by more self-sufficient teams made up of happier individuals.]