My Career Trick – The Net Value Contributor

Date 24.03.2021.
By Tolu Agunbiade

When I reflect on how I felt when I first joined Microsoft as an MBA intern in the summer of 2014, the word that comes to my mind is ‘struggle’. To a limited extent, anyone could have discounted that my initial struggle as something expected given that the internship at Microsoft was my first real introduction to corporate America. I had just arrived in the U.S. from Nigeria a few months before for my MBA at the University of Michigan. However, that isn’t the whole story.

To a greater degree, my initial struggles were due to not being able to quickly find someone I could trust to answer what I call my ‘stupid questions’, answers to which would have certainly helped me become a Net Value Contributor in as little time as possible. Thankfully (before any lasting damage), I eventually found someone willing to mentor me and who won my trust by being comfortable with my ‘stupid questions’.

Now, almost 6 years into being a full-time Microsoft employee, my ready recommendation to anyone joining my team is to ask them to see me as someone ready to answer their own ‘stupid questions’ or to quickly find someone willing to play that role. My motivation certainly is to help them accelerate and grow to become Net Value Contributors as soon as possible.

The phrase ‘Net Value Contributor’ (NVC) comes from a book I recommend to new hires who join the team. It’s called “The First 90 Days”, by Michael D. Watkins. The main premise of the book is that by following specific steps, new hires can set themselves up for success in the first 90 days or less of their new role, delivering net value in the shortest amount of time possible.

The lessons from the book have been invaluable in helping me chart the course of my career at Microsoft. Based on my experience as well the specific ways I’ve applied the lessons from the book, here are the three things I’ll recommend you do to help you shorten the time it would take to become a net value contributor in your team:

  1. Focus on Communication:With one-on-one meetings with your manager or anyone at all, you must always go in with an agenda. I am known by my managers as someone very intentional with my one-on-ones because I always put an agenda together ahead. What I’ve found out is that most managers are very appreciative of this simple gesture. The agenda doesn’t have to be anything elaborate. It could even be a list of things you plan to research or learn about as a new hire. The most important thing though is whenever you have a planned interaction with your manager such as a one-on-one, ensure you provide an agenda ahead. This sets you up as taking charge of your ‘integration’ with your new team and can enhance your manager’s ability to identify potential areas help might be required to get you comfortable on the team as soon as possible.
  2. Create a Career Map:It is a well-worn cliché that a career is a journey and as it is with any journey between a physical distance, a ‘map’ is certainly required to navigate one’s career journey. In my case, I have found developing a career map invaluable in helping me stay on course. My career map is focused on three major pillars which are (1) competencies I need to develop (both technical and behavioral) in the short, medium and long-term, (2) a honest description of gaps between my current competencies and those I need to develop, and (3) the specific learning interventions (mentorship, trainings, books etc.) required to bridge the gap. In essence, my career map is focused on continuous learning rather than on arriving at a certain ‘end state’ of personal achievement.

 

I have my career map laid out in a single Microsoft PowerPoint slide and I make it a point to share this with my managers as part of the agenda for my first one-on-one. The thinking behind doing that is to get my managers to commit and invest early in my career ‘journey’. Having such a map also makes subsequent career conversations with your managers easier as it provides a reference point to validate how you’re being supported on your journey.

  1. Create a Differential Career Map:To make your career map (described above) actionable in the immediate term, you have to create what I call a ‘differential career map’. Microsoft HR makes this easy as they provide specific set of behaviors and competencies required if one wants to move to a higher level of impact. My career differential map consists of creating a ‘spider’ diagram rating myself on a scale of 1 to 5 (i.e., lagging to outstanding) on each of the required behaviors and competencies. For competencies or behaviors for which I’m lagging, I seek for opportunities, projects, or deliverables (once again in close consort with my manager) that will help me bridge the gap. For example:

                 Fig: Sample Differential Career Map

Since my managers’ access to organizational information is understandably at an altitude higher than mine, they can use the knowledge they have of my differential map to advocate for me when opportunities that are likely to help me bridge the gaps I have are being discussed even when I’m not present.

In the example provided in the figure above, I rated myself a 3 out of 5 in two of the three dimensions under the ‘Adaptability’ Core Competence. At that time, there were no opportunities on my immediate team to consistently demonstrate ‘Adaptability’. I brought this to the attention of my manager, and she was able to put me in touch with a peer of hers who fortunately was looking for a PM that could spend a few weeks to help her team on a challenging customer journey mapping project. Signing up and working on that project helped me demonstrably deepen my adaptability competence, and I had buy-in from my manager when I improved my score for that competence to 4 out of 5.

These three easy steps are not specific to Microsoft; they are universal. Following this process shows you are working with intention since you work for yourself first.

I’ll leave you with this cool story, just to demonstrate how powerful this is. A year ago, I met a fellow newly hired employee on my team at a Microsoft event. I shared these tips and recently I received a message informing me they just got promoted! In their own words, following this process worked like magic. Give it a shot and leave your thoughts about these tips in the comments section below. I look forward to connecting with you.

Author Tolu Agunbiade

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