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"Leadership" = taking accountability for things no one is asking you to do
Earlier in my career, it felt like there was a well-trodden path for what career growth looked like. For instance, as a PM, first I was responsible for a product, then longer-term product strategy, then a broader ambiguous domain, then an entire product line.
It wasn’t easy to actually accomplish each step, but by looking at a company’s career ladder and colleagues who were slightly ahead of me, I could get an idea of what the next level looked like.
But as I got to Director and beyond, I couldn’t see a clear path to follow anymore. What did growth look like, and how did I get there? I knew so few people at more senior levels — and even fewer who reminded me of me. I wasn’t sure anymore what would help me make progress in my career.
A hard part of growing as a leader has been acknowledging that after a certain level of seniority:
There’s no mold for what will get my career to the next level. Our teams, industry, and userbase change every day, so we need to constantly reassess what’s most needed now. There’s no clear playbook to follow, and no manager who can just tell me exactly what I need to do to be successful.
There’s no mold for how *I* should operate as a leader. There is not yet a cookie-cutter outline for “senior technical minority woman who has 3 kids and likes punny jokes and sleeps a lot” which I could simply fit into and be swept along a path to promotion. (I can’t wait till there is!)
Instead, I’ve seen the most growth when I’ve said — no one is asking me to do this, but I’m going to do it because I think it’s important.
This is terrifying, of course. It requires me to think about my goals, what I think is important for the company, and how I choose to express myself. And then I have to actually put myself and my opinions out there, which can be scary even in small forums.
But I also try to see the freedom and empowerment in it. Since there aren’t clear expectations I need to fit into, I have a chance to try on what’s both important to the company and authentic to me, whether that’s making a tough change to a product direction, writing an internal post series about the future so our team stays connected to our vision, or telling a joke to kick off a weekly meeting.
When I first started grappling with this realization, I remember talking with my manager about a project I thought was important. “Well, *I* wouldn’t do that,” they said. “But it’s your risk — if you want to do it, it’s on you.” I went ahead with it, and that conversation (and the successful project that resulted) became an inflection point for me being willing to take responsibility for what I think needs to be done.
There’s no immediate reward for making these choices, of course. And it can take years to know whether I made good decisions. But being willing to take accountability for what I believe is important, even if no one else sees it, has been a key part of owning my leadership.
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