Are you out of alignment?
Examining an often-misunderstood element of success
Alignment, in the teamwork sense, means “a position of agreement or alliance.” It is one of the critical qualities that determines success in an organization, particularly at higher levels.
Many individual contributors (ICs) get stuck at a certain point in their career because they can’t see that they are out of alignment with their company, and they don’t realize that the way alignment is achieved has changed for them. In the earlier part of your career, you can be relatively well-aligned just by doing a pretty good job on the things you are asked to do. You get an assignment, presumably from someone who knows what is important to do, and you do it well. As you grow as an engineer, maybe the technical implementation details of those assignments get more challenging, the tasks get bigger, but as long as you keep conquering them, you are fine.
That is until some point you realize that you’re still good at conquering the tasks, getting those hard problems solved, but you aren’t really getting promoted any more.
Sometimes this comes on slowly, and it looks like boredom. There are fewer and fewer of those meaty big technical problems for you to work on. You assume that they don’t need your skills. You get jealous that people aren’t asking for your advice before they build things, because clearly you know better!
Or it comes on all at once. You are told explicitly that you should find the next thing you want to work on, and you look around and don’t know what to look for. There’s no obvious problem that breaks down into what you know how to do. Or you find something, and you dig in. You get a prototype finished, and everyone yawns. Maybe it gets used for something small, but instead of changing the world for your team, people don’t seem all that impressed, and the things they are impressed by seem so trivial, boring, and technically easy by comparison!
My friend, you have discovered that you are out of alignment.
There are a lot of obvious ways people are misaligned to their companies. The classic “not a cultural fit” is one. If you fight against every process, decision, person around you, even if you’re right, that alignment mismatch will hurt you.
The more subtle way that most of us get out of alignment is by being unwilling to admit that we don’t understand what’s important to the company. We maybe don’t want to understand. We want to do things that are fun and challenging and interesting to us and have that work out to be the important thing. But for the fun things to be the important thing effortlessly is pretty rare. At a certain level, creating the alignment between projects that are interesting for you and what is needed by the company is a big part of your job.
Getting into alignment with the company is often a challenge for senior ICs because it requires a major change in focus. The hardest part is now identifying the right problem to solve, instead of solving the hardest problem. If you want to be able to find interesting work and also work on important things, you generally have to go find the interesting important things yourself. This requires that you to talk to a lot of people and listen to their problems, and then place a bet on a solution to one of these problems that will actually both be feasible but will also be seen as important. Your manager might help identify people that you could talk to, but you must take responsibility for doing the legwork and making the final choice in problems to address.
The alternative way to resolve this alignment issue is to force yourself to address problems that you don’t want to solve, problems that are perhaps not as glamorous to you but are clearly important for the success of the company. Taking responsibility for cleaning up an area that feels intractably broken is not the job for every engineer, but for some people it is an easier and more obvious path to alignment and success. The risk you take here is that you either burn out fighting to fix a situation that is really about people and organizational issues that are beyond your scope, or you pick a broken area that no one really cares about fixing.
In both of these scenarios, you are taking more risk than you used to in the past, and that is where the second part of the quest for alignment comes in. It’s not just about being willing to find the work to do, it’s about finding the most important work that is right for you to do. The more attuned you are to the needs of the company, the kinds of work that is highly valued, the more likely you are to put your energy into something that will pay off well for you.
I often say that at more senior levels you get promoted for making wise bets, and really what that means is that you are smart enough to know the payout for what you’re pursing. Whether it’s knowing which fire to put out first, or having an idea for the thing to build to make your whole team more effective, the better-aligned you are to the needs and values of the organization, the more likely you are to be successful.
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