A Conversation on Charting the Career Path


Recently, I had the pleasure to join a panel discussion as a panelist on Charting the Career Path with a group of young professionals in the Toronto tech industry.

It was a small yet effective forum. As panelists, we shared the different paths we took to leadership roles in our respective organizations, managing the delicate balance between technical craft and strategic leadership. We also explored a few challenges and opportunities facing women and young professionals in the technology sector. In the end, the entire group was so engaged and excited that we extended the event time to explore more topics and Q&As.

I left the event feeling motivated. I’m motivated by my peer panelists with their great insights in advancing their careers. I’m also motivated by the young professionals in the audience with their keen interests and strong initiatives in owning their career destinies. But what I’m most motivated about is knowing that I can do my part and do more to continue helping and supporting young professionals to become future leaders.

Therefore, in the hope to help more, I’m summarizing a few key topics I discussed at the event, with further elaborations and some examples. I hope it will help some of you who are exploring, learning and progressing in your careers.

The Transition from Individual Contributor (IC) to Manager

One of the first and unavoidable questions you will ask yourself at some point in your career is — Do I want to be a manager?

In today’s corporate world, the manager position is still one of the most chosen options as an individual contributor progresses their career in an organization. It may be natural to some people, but it is nerve-racking and uncertain for most of the individual contributors to manage the transition.

The first step is to understand the manager’s role and responsibilities. It’s ideal to give yourself some time to learn what it entails to be a manager before you make the switch. Not everyone can be a manager or wants to be a manager. Look for opportunities to stretch yourselves on tasks that a manager usually handles. For example, you can ask your current manager to delegate some meetings or managerial tasks to you. In some organizations, there are also interim positions designed to bridge the skillset between ICs and managers, which is a great setup for people to explore and validate their interest in the role and for the employers to evaluate the fit.

Once you make up your mind on pursuing the manager path, there comes the preparation. The general rule of thumb is to focus on the basics. There are basic yet very critical skills that a manager needs to have in order to effectively operate day to day. For example, running 1-on-1 meetings, sharing and receiving feedback, delegation, etc.

Another rule of thumb is that you can NOT prepare enough. So here is my next piece of advice:

Cultivate and practice a growth mindset and learn on the job.

If I have to name one thing that makes excellent managers stand out is that they all have a growth mindset. To quote Mindset by Carol S. Dweck:

As growth-minded leaders, they start with a belief in human potential and development — both their own and other people’s. Instead of using the company as a vehicle for their greatness, they use it as an engine for growth- for themselves, the employees, and the company as a whole.

I have one fun fact to share with you on this. The first thing I did on my first day being a manager is to google how to run an effective 1-on-1. Clearly, I didn’t prepare enough for the role. But through active learning and deliberate practice day by day on the job, I became a top manager in a short period of time. So don’t shy away from an opportunity coming your way just because you think you are not ready. Have faith in your ability to learn and go for the challenge with a growth mindset!

Women's Leadership in the Corporate World

One of the other key themes discussed in the panel was around women’s career progression and women's leadership. We explored two sides of the street — What should organizations do to improve the visibility of capable women; and how do women ourselves increase our profiles in a technical organization?

McKinsey has done some thorough research on women's leadership in the past few years. They recently published their report for Women in the Workplace 2022. One of the problems that organizations have is that the women's leadership pipeline has yet to reach gender parity. This problem continues in today’s corporate world.

Therefore, when I was asked how I can help to improve the visibility of capable women in my organization, my answer was to identify talented women, coach them and promote them into the management pipeline as soon as possible. In my opinion, gender parity is a low bar for entry-level management positions. We need more female entry-level managers in order to build a strong leadership pipeline. Additionally, the organization should continue grooming talent every step of the way in the pipeline as they rise up by providing a healthy and balanced environment for women and other minorities to thrive.

Seeing many young faces in the audience really made me reflect on how I advanced my technical career as a double minority (I identify as an Asian woman). What did I do differently that shaped me as a technical leader? There are three things I shared with the audience answering this question:

Rule #1: Be a top performer.

You have to be a top performer in your role. Period. It is the No. 1 rule that will not only get you recognized but also increases your competitiveness in the job market. Promotions or better job opportunities are just a natural product of the fact that you are the best at what you do.

Rule #2: Don’t settle.

In reality, being a top performer won’t always grant you the desired career growth that you aspire for. You need a bit of luck. If I were to generalize a tip from the randomness of being lucky or unlucky for career progression, I would say — Don’t settle. Don’t settle on a direct manager and a direct leadership group that is a wrong match with your own values, strengths, and vision. Don’t settle on a role that you don’t find keen interest and passion for. Also, don’t settle for a team culture that is toxic and demeaning. If you continue to look for a great match in your job, luck will find you eventually because you will naturally be a top performer in the job that matches you.

Rule #3: Be strategic.

Finally, be strategic in your career growth. The fundamental reason why we all need to stay strategic is the scarcity of time. We don’t have unlimited time at hand to work on everything. Therefore, we need to be diligent in how we spend our time and deploy strategies that generate the highest value for the organization and for our own growth. One question I was asked recently by one of my team members that stood out is — What can I work on in order to help create the highest value for the organization? That’s thus far the best question I have been challenged with when it comes to stretch task assignments. Whatever tasks you are assigned with this goal in mind will be instrumental for the organization and raise your visibility in the organization.

Can we have a work-life balance?

Work-life balance has been a catchy buzzword in the corporate world for years. Is there a secret recipe to keep a work-life balance? My answer is No. There is no universal way to have a balance and the reality is, we all lose balance from time to time when life/work throws a curveball at us.

However, there are a few effective principles I use when I detect a possibility of feeling unbalanced (and/or burnout).

Principle #1: Ruthless Prioritization

Do you ever have moments where you are losing control of your own time because there are too many things going on? How do you feel when that happens? Overwhelmed? Stressed? Easily irritated? I’ve been there. It’s a sign of not prioritizing properly. When that happens, we need to put a pause on the momentum and reprioritize ruthlessly.

To give you an example, I recently went through a very hectic month. A few key programs were kicked off at work that required my immediate support. In the meantime, I needed to prepare for two external events to that I was invited as a panelist. On top of that, my 3-year-old son got very sick from the bad flu. To top it all off, our whole family got sick afterward. What a crazy time! When a situation like this happens, I know I have to put on my time cop hat and start a prioritization exercise. I put our family’s health as the top priority and shuffled tasks that I can either delegate or reschedule for a later date. Work-wise, I spent my time on only the most urgent and important tasks and took the necessary sick days to focus on health recovery. Lastly, I had to turn down one of the two external events given my reduced capacity. With all of these reprioritization efforts, I managed to keep the work-life boat sailing past the storm without losing balance.

Principle #2: Dynamic Boundaries

People often talk about setting clear boundaries when it comes to work-life balance. It never really worked for me. Both work and life can be unpredictable and ever-changing. It requires us to have a high level of flexibility and resilience to adapt and thrive on the changes.

Therefore, instead of setting clear and rigid boundaries between work and life, I make them dynamic instead. It’s like a seesaw game. Work is on one end, and life is on the other. If they are always balanced, there is no fun and sparks from the game. If you want to fully enjoy the game, you will need to enjoy the ups and downs from both sides. Sometimes work may take priority, and sometimes life takes priority. Setting boundaries given the context and adjusting them as the situation changes will give you the power to lean in or step back at the right moments.

Principle #3: Supportive Partnership

One final principle is to build a strong and supportive partnership with important people around you. To name a few, your life partner, your direct manager at work, and your close friends. I continue putting efforts into building a strong partnership with my husband and when things are getting difficult at home or at work, we try our best to help each other.

The other key relationship you need to cultivate and grow is with your direct manager at work. It plays a big part in your pursuit of a work-life balance. On top of keeping a healthy and positive relationship, I recommend going the extra mile to build a strategic partnership with your direct manager. One common phenomenon when it comes to direct reporting relationships is the perception of a one-way authoritative mode of working. Both parties need to go above and beyond this notion so that they can have a mutually beneficial partnership to maximize the values they can generate in the workplace. For example, during the hectic month I mentioned earlier, I kept an open dialogue with my manager on the situation and got his ongoing support over my changing priorities and time-off needs. In return, I continued performing at my best at work without sacrificing quality or getting burned out myself. This is a win-win partnership.

Last but not least, invest time and effort in a well-rounded support system. Immediate family members and direct managers or peers at work may not be sufficient to keep you balanced. In my case, self-care and close friends are very much needed in my support system. It might be different for your case. But the idea is to identify those necessary elements in keeping you happy and relaxed, continue investing in them, and give priority to them.

I hope this article helps you cope with career transitions, leadership challenges, and work-life balance. I would like to end this article with advice from Pattie Sellers on career progression.

Careers are a jungle gym, not a ladder. The ability to forge a unique path with occasional dips, detours, and even dead ends presents a better chance for fulfillment. Plus, a jungle gym provides great views for many people, not just those at the top. On a ladder, most climbers are stuck staring at the butt of the person above.

Do you like this article? Follow me for more articles about career growth, self-improvement, leadership, and technology management: Catherine Liu

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