I accepted my first management role early in my career, heading up a 15-person team at GE Global Research’s semiconductor laboratory. It was a big step at the time, but today I manage 28 labs of over 500 people, in addition to our research headquarters with around 2,000 people on site. Making that first shift from contributor to leader wasn’t easy, but it set me up for the other big changes I’d go on to make in my career.
When a new role or opportunity forces you to change your work habits, it’s rarely clear just how to do it or whether the adjustment will pay off. And it isn’t just your role that pushes you to shift gears. Having a family has also forced my work habits to evolve, including in ways I never expected. Still, there are some common themes. In my experience, there are four key ways you’ll need to change your approach to work as your career progresses.
Early in your career, the best ways to understand your boss’s priorities and keep your performance up is simply to communicate. You ask questions. You put in a lot of face-time. You meet frequently. This is good for you–it helps you highlight your skills and achievements and keeps your boss updated on your progress. This is how you built trust and, ultimately, get promoted.
At some point, though, expectations shift, and I made the mistake of not recognizing this. I kept my boss in the loop on projects and decisions where his guidance was no longer needed, and only after he asked, “What are you looking for me to approve?” did I realize the error. My project had grown, and so had I; despite having picked up the leadership skills to handle it, I clung to my old habit of checking in with my boss–which now projected insecurity, not conscientiousness. So I quickly shifted tactics and began to only check in when we hit key milestones or needed to make high-level decisions.
As you advance your career, time with the boss is better spent talking strategy (not execution) and receiving coaching, which means you may no longer need to meet once a week. Use the increased distance to build a different kind of trust–the sort that shows you can manage your team on your own. If you want more autonomy, give yourself room to be more autonomous.
Entry- and associate-level jobs often require that you spend a lot of time working on things others need to review. Your own work output is managed closely, and you take direction on a very regular basis. That sets a certain pace for how you manage your workload. But as you move into higher-level roles, you need to lengthen the timeline that dictates your work.
Start managing your tasks according to weekly, biweekly, and even monthly or quarterly timelines–it’s no longer as much about daily execution. Pacing yourself and your team is crucial both to avoiding burnout and performing well.
When I first started my career at GE, the way I managed my time was very different than the way I do today. I’ll often pick the top three things that need my attention every month, then divide my time across those priorities each day. By the end of the month, I can measure how effective I was, and without that longer-range vision, my time would easily get swallowed up by daily distractions.
There will be times when you need to give thorough, exhaustive feedback, no matter your position. But the higher-level the role, the more managers need to shift from oversight to coaching.
The difference can be easy to miss. For new managers, engaging with direct reports often means giving them time to talk through their commitments and establishing specific roles on your team. But as your management role grows, you need to spend more time discussing their approach to tasks and managing their responsibilities, and less time reviewing their actual output. Eventually, effective leaders become something like chiropractors, adjusting how those under their care might operate, but with less formal yet more regular check-ins than the annual visit to a general practitioner.
Or, to pick a different analogy, leaders need to coach team members to become coaches themselves. To do any of this well, you need to move from one-on-one engagement to team management as a whole. The more a team operates as a single organic entity with shared values and purpose, the more likely its members can hold each other accountable and drive collective results.
A final work habit you need to adopt as your career develops involves life beyond where you actually work: You need to develop a professional profile outside your business, from an active social media presence to representing your business or industry at conferences or in publications. This range of representation grows as you move to larger management roles, and with that, so do the sensitivities of speaking for a larger entity.
This may mean moving from casual, personal engagement to a more planned, thoughtful approach, partnering with your company’s external affairs team in the process. Social media can be a great tool to connect with potential recruits, partners, and even your own employees. But there’s also a risk that you may offend others or obscure your own points, so it’s worth considering keeping personal accounts separate from professional ones as your career advances alongside your public profile.
One key habit doesn’t change as your career evolves, though. Each time I feel my role change or evolve, I try to do the same thing: Take a step back to examine my priorities, refresh my focus, and keep my eye on the bigger picture. No matter what else changes, I’ve found that continuing to make an impact and feel fulfilled at work depends on getting that right, time and again.
Danielle Merfeld is vice president of the Niskayuna Technology Center and technology director at GE Global Research, where she leads a global team of over 500 scientists and engineers to develop electrical technologies for all of GE’s industrial businesses.