Recently I received advice that I hadn’t yet received in my career: “be proactive”. It’s familiar advice, as I’ve often given it to people I have managed over the years.
The reason I received the advice is simple: I, in fact, haven’t been super proactive at work. I’m working fairly hard, but I’m definitely not going out of my way to get ahead of things in the same way I have before. This is very out of character for me!
Of course, there are reasons why I’m not being proactive, and many of them relate to being in a moderate mid-career funk. I’m building things I’ve built before, or that are adjacent to things I’ve built before. I usually have something special and differentiated to bring to every job, but I haven’t quite found what that is in my current role.
I think a big part of this is having worked on my own product ideas and not arriving at conviction with any of them. I also spent a lot of time in the mountains between jobs and can’t shake the feeling that they need to play a bigger role in my life. And I’ve had a knee injury spiral into 5+ years of pain, surgeries, and physical therapy.
For the first time in my career, I relate to people not being as engaged or proactive at work as they could be.
(To be clear, I don’t relate to, nor do I think I’ll ever relate to, people who don’t work hard or who take advantage of their employers. I have a pretty strong work ethic and want to do right by my employer.)
During my stints as a manager, I always had direct reports who are strong performers but didn’t go above and beyond. I always wondered why. Now I relate. Maybe they have other things in their lives that are higher priority. Maybe they just can’t bring the same level of enthusiasm to a problem similar to one they have solved many times before. Maybe they just don’t quite fit in at the company in the way they hoped they would. Maybe they are just tired, or in a funk, or going through some physical health difficulties.
This experience has made me realize that the advice I’ve given in the past to “be more proactive” is correct but not that helpful. The person likely already knows they aren’t being as proactive as they could be. It’s a good opportunity to understand the employee better. In some situations, there might be something you can do as a manager to enable the employee to be more proactive. But sometimes, it might be best to accept that for whatever reason, that employee is just not being that proactive right now, and that is ok.
Or maybe it is not helpful advise but absolutely the write thing to tell someone, because it results in the person taking some time to reflect, just like I’m doing with this post!
Writing this post reminded me of the phrase “work isn’t everything”, which I wrote about before, and infuses it with some new meaning.