How to Climb the Career Jungle Gym… While Constructing the Rungs

Lessons on taking big swings and climbing higher

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Last year I made a career change, transitioning from leading product development at Zillow Group to leading the company’s new Community & Culture organization. This career change was a big move for me. While I have made other significant career moves in the past, this one was an intentional move to follow my passions. It was by far my biggest swing on the “career jungle gym.” This jungle gym, unlike the ladder that is often used to describe career trajectories, exemplifies how most careers don’t have only one path up or down.

Now that I’m nearly a year into my new role, I’ve reflected on a few meaningful lessons to share in hindsight.

1. Pay Attention To What Makes You Fulfilled

We’ve all heard the advice that you should follow your passions, and I totally agree. When we are passionate about what we are doing, we often produce the best and most sustainable work. However, in order to follow your passions, you first need a clear vision of what they are. That means paying attention to what you’re good at, what you enjoy doing and where you are most needed.

When we become too focused on where we think we are (or should be) headed in our careers – with sights set only on trying to climb up the next “rung” – we can miss those signs. The lesson: it’s important to set some goals for ourselves, but we shouldn’t let ourselves become blinded by them.

2. Forge Your Own Career Path

I’ll save you some time with the job search by telling you that there’s a good chance your dream job doesn’t exist… yet. Most of us are seeking a role that perfectly combines the work we are passionate about with a role that needs us, but you might need to create it rather than find it. Keep in mind that if you’re creating it, you’ll likely need to justify the need and show early results before your company will invest in it.

For example, when the iPhone first came out, a few developers and I saw the potential for a mobile real estate scenario. We started working on a Zillow app on the side in addition to our normal day jobs and responsibilities. After doing that for almost a year – not because we were trying to make the case for a new role, but because we were so excited about what we were working on – we launched our first app. It was a huge success and resulted in Zillow deciding to invest in a mobile app team. We built a solid case for the investment, and I proved myself a leader in the mobile space. As a result, I was named Zillow’s first mobile product manager.

3. Ask For What You Want

Similar to my mobile experience, I had been dedicating spare time to leading side projects around social impact products, cultural experiences and diversity within our tech team for nearly four years before I realized I wanted it to be more than a side project. Once I had that realization, I knew I needed to speak up and request the chance to pursue these passion projects fulltime on behalf of Zillow Group.

To be clear, I’m not promising you will get everything you ask for, but I do promise your chances are way higher if you ask for it. After all, your managers most likely aren’t mind readers. This is especially true when what you want next in your career isn’t just the next obvious rung on the ladder – and even more so when that rung doesn’t even exist yet.

4. Refuse to Accept Labels

Once you have figured out what you’re pursuing, you’ve paid your dues and made the case, don’t let your confidence or ego stop you from taking that final swing. When I was about to transition from product leadership to Community & Culture, I realized that I had started to internalize all the labels that had been placed on me, such as “woman in tech” and “woman in product.” Joining the HR department conflicted with those labels, and I had an internal clash between who I identified as, and who I wanted to be.

Fortunately, I was still able to make the leap despite those confusing voices coming from my ego, and in retrospect it was the best decision I could have made. I have been able to use many of the skills I learned in product development – like creative problem solving – to get stuff done in my new role, with the same passion and effectiveness as I have always had.

Recognizing that our career paths can be more of a jungle gym than a ladder is a freeing feeling. It opens up so many more paths and opportunities for fulfillment. Once we choose to embrace that, we can dream bigger, reach higher toward new rungs, and take the big swings that get us where we want to go. 

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