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In Pursuit of Growth: How to Job Hunt Internally

Posted by

Ana Wang

Published on

December 18th 2019

This is part of our series on the modern job hunt. Check out our primer on defining the modern dream job so you know what you're looking for, to start. If you're a career changer, there's certain things you should know about looking for a job. But here's a scenario that isn't really that glamorous to talk about because it's not about major reinventions and wild, endless possibilities. So that's the big question we're exploring today: what if you're already working at your dream company? How do you keep growing from there?

So much of conventional career advice is centred around finding the job, breaking into an industry, pursuing that career jungle gym and riding the criss-cross path (formerly ladder-climb), to more money, fulfillment and power. And on and on it goes. But no matter where you are and how great of a job you have on paper, there have been times you’ve wondered, is there more out there? The grass is greener on the other side, right?

Not necessarily. To borrow lessons from the self-help aisle, more like the grass is greener wherever you water it (minus toxic work environments, of course). I’ve had the chance to peek behind high-functioning companies and low-functioning ones, and I think one of the best measures of success is employee retention; it’s not the only factor, considering how difficult hiring right is in general, but it seems to be an important one. As can be naturally assumed, if you like where you work, you may be inclined to stay there longer. But that seems a bit counterintuitive to the habits and attitudes of high-performing people: these are the people who are generally seeking new challenges, new ways to grow and new paths to achievement. Who needs loyalty when you’ve got options?

So what are the options?

Option A: from junior to senior to manager to director

Option B: leave

…Is that it?

Looking back at my own career, I can’t think of a sustained period of time where I wasn’t actively trying to grow and learn, even when I had a nice boss, great coworkers, benefits, and I enjoyed my day-to-day. Sure, I’ve had my career lulls - certainly mid-afternoon ones - but I can’t forget all the times I started to feel like I was outgrowing my role, and the guilt that came with wanting to do more. Having that drive made it easier for my managers to give me more work and opportunities to learn: I’ve grown many of my skills, from my first photography gigs to building a startup to learning how to get press, through the mentorship I’ve had in various jobs early in my career. These were opportunities that I had at companies without formal development paths.

And then, when I landed in the world of tech, I became swooped up in the 10x approach to professional growth. For the first time, I worked in a company culture where learning and growth was actively encouraged. In my opinion, environments like this are the best place for creative people to work, because what creative people often need the most is to learn. In the end, I still left this company, but not without fully deciding to adopt this mindset to work:

Leave everything and everyone better than when you found it, because change is inevitable but growth is contagious.

We can’t not talk about money here: there’s a common perception echoed by many, including the statistics, that it seems the best way to increase your salary beyond an annual raise contingent upon performance is to job-hop your way to a different company. I’ve read this advice many times and I’ve seen it play out too.

So, a lot of career advice is centred around just going for it and doing whatever it takes to get wherever you need to, whatever you’re worth, and not a lot of it about how to find a better job where you already work and how to contribute to teams to make them better as your company grows.

I think the latter is actually a lot more difficult to do. Falling in love is the easy part; building and maintaining a successful, symbiotically effective and mutually valuable relationship over the long term is the real challenge. But we may be prematurely giving up on the problems we arrived to help solve when we chase only the money. I’ve always been good at my jobs, but I don’t think I’ve ever done an exceptional job at complex work, digging into new problems and becoming an expert in my role, until after I’ve been there a while.

There’s something magical that happens when we combine the somewhat archaic idea of steady jobs and commitments with the modern jungle gym approach to career development. We get a hybrid where we see people as ongoing value creators, capable of continuous growth and change. Employers start to see people as fluid, able to create compound value over time because they aren’t boxed in and are given the space and support to embody the growth mindset.

Do enough companies really value and enable internal growth as much as they should? Probably not. Depending on where you work, it could even be a hush-hush affair. Sometimes it’s done as an ad-hoc retention strategy. But when professional development isn’t baked into company culture, it often falls into the realm of the “difficult conversation”, because we bring all sorts of ego into it: what if they think I don’t want to be here? Do I even tell my manager? Or from the other side, what if they’re happy? What if they think I don’t want them here? What if they leave me? But then there’s the what if of: what if you get that sweet gig at your dream company? And you can keep doing it, over and over again? What if growth is assumed and encouraged?

There are many paths to an internal job change: it could be a promotion, a move to a different department or team doing the same role, a career change altogether, or a new challenge, relocation or in some rare cases, a lateral move to a role better suited. Depending on the size of the company you work for, a job change, new manager, team and day-to-day bundled together, could even make an entire world’s difference between meh and magic.

So let’s talk about how to navigate the internal job hunt: how to talk to your manager (should you?), how to use professional development perks and what you should know about applying for jobs internally.

Talk to your manager

Now, this is highly dependent on who your manager is and your relationship with them - as with all advice for human to human interactions, your mileage may vary. But generally, if you have a high-trust relationship, you should try to talk to them openly. A great manager knows the value of growth and development from a human perspective as well as a business one. They can be on the lookout for opportunities and projects for you. And they can help support your learning and growth through mentorship.

Should you tell your manager when you’re looking for jobs? It depends on your relationship with them, but maybe. Should you tell your manager when you’re actually started applying for other jobs at your company? It depends, but probably yes. You don’t want your manager to be caught off guard - different companies screen internal candidates in different ways, but sometimes they’ll go to your manager right after initial screening, and before interviews. And definitely tell your manager before you tell anyone else at work, including your closest coworkers; you never know who might let something slip.

Use your professional development perks

Most companies have some version of professional development perks now, so use them! I’ve had some of my most subtly significant career moments come on the fringes of my actual job, through professional development perks. I’ve had my perspective changed, my knowledge informed, my world widened, through every form of learning I’ve had available to me.

You don’t necessarily need to have an end goal, as long as you can clearly articulate how this contributes to your professional development. Major bonus points if you’re able to tie it into your current line of work and any goals you and your manager have talked about, though that’s not always necessary. Of course, different companies have their own rules and guidelines for how they approach this. When in doubt, ask. If you come across a manager who’s a bit stingy about this, that’s a bit of a red flag. At larger companies, it can be a good idea to ask around. Internal knowledge management is a common challenge for fast growing companies, so there may be a varying interpretation of what’s available.

Professional development includes things like:

  • training
  • courses
  • books
  • conferences
  • non-formal programs such as cross-department mentorship
  • company-wide training or professional development talks

    You should be using these perks even if you don’t have a clear idea of where you’d like to be in the future, as long as you can communicate the impact and value; those perks can often be ways to help you explore career paths, not just to build skills on established goals.

    Don’t slack off

    I’m not sure if this really has to be said, but it occurs so often that it probably deserves a mention. Sometimes when we’ve got our eye on something else, we lose touch with what we’re doing right now. But when you’re applying for jobs internally (and even before the process ever begins), you’re heading into dangerous territory if your performance is not so great. If you’re not meeting the standards of your current job, it can be even more challenging to switch jobs.

    Many internal applications don’t require formal references but they will likely chat with your manager beforehand and that may be your only official reference. If you have any sort of job where there are measurable KPIs, just be aware that these things may potentially be available to see company-wide too.

    Try new things

    Putting yourself forward for new projects and opportunities is a great way to signal that you’re ready for something different, as well as to build new skills on the path there. After I had “mastered” my current role, I started being poached for internal projects within my department and outside of it, projects that weren’t a part of my job description but provided me opportunities to learn and generate value for my company. They also kept my role challenging and interesting.

    Depending on the culture of where you work, you may have a manager going to bat for you and putting you forward for these opportunities. But you may also need to be proactive and seek those opportunities for yourself. If you’re finding others on your team being given opportunities with none coming to you, approach your manager. There may be reasons for it, things they feel you can work on or concerns about your workload.

    New things could include:

  • Teaching and mentoring new team members
  • Working on side projects (both personal and at work)
  • Shadowing other people at your company
  • Volunteering for more cross-functional projects
  • Taking the time to give people constructive feedback on their projects (if they ask for it)

    Doing new things is also a way to network internally and to get in front of different teams who may remember you for a role you may apply for later on. They also show that you’ve done, in some way, the thing that you want to be doing.

    Don’t do it to escape, be intentional about what you apply for

    If you work at a big company, be selective about the roles you apply for. The same goes for small companies, but they may not have formal internal job application systems. You don’t want to look like the person who’s trying to get away from a role and applying to just about everything that comes up, just because you can. This is important for internal job hunts where applying for many positions can potentially be detrimental, in the eyes of your hiring manager(s).

    And always tailor your cover letter for each unique position. Copy and paste cover letters are painstakingly obvious.

    When you don’t get the job, ask for feedback and apply it

    When you don’t get the job, be gracious and always ask for feedback. If the company you work for is a large one, there may be dozens of applicants (or more) for a single position. As a former hiring manager, I knew that feedback was important and taking the time to do that is challenging, when hiring wasn’t my actual job but embracing the company-wide culture of growth was. So the rule we made was to always offer feedback, and then provide it to whoever took us up on the offer, whether in a video call (we were remote) or via email if they were more comfortable with that. I don’t have the exact numbers, but less than half of our applicant list did so. I remember who did, and especially who applied the feedback. I also remember the people who never said yes to feedback but applied over and over again.

    When you work at a startup

    I want to end this with a special section dedicated to startups. I’ve worked at 3-ish by now, of varying definitions. One was a scrappy startup that never really took off, one was a large well-known one which some may no longer consider a startup but where I worked on a startup team, and this one. In this environment, you have both the wildly exciting but also vaguely scary challenge of not having roles to apply to, but roles that instead you build.

    This comes back to knowing what you value, what you want, and who you are (see defining your dream job if you missed that). That kind of environment might not work for you, or it could be exactly what you need. But if it’s where you are and what you’re aiming for, you’ll need to get extra good at being proactive, communicating, and taking the reins on your professional growth. If you want a specific role, you can’t exactly expect a job to come up like it might in a larger company. You might have to be a part of establishing that the role is firstly, important, and secondly, that you’re the one to do it. It doesn’t have to be as formal as that to start - it could (and probably should) start small, a project you’re interested in taking on, an extra thing you noticed and really want to help out with. As with everything else that’s been said so far, it helps a lot when you’re already doing a good job.

    This article was about job hunting internally, as part of our modern job hunt series. Did you miss our modern dream jobs primer? Or are you a career changer, about to embark on your first job hunt in a brand new field or role? After the holidays, join us as we sit down and talk to 5 creatives on their dream jobs: from a creative director to a creative technologist, and more. What have their career journeys been like? How did they end up with careers they actually love?

    If you liked this, check out our blog for more you’ll enjoy.