“Sound masking!”

Kelly looks at me, a little startled and a little confused.

“What?” she says.

“Sound masking!” I shout, rummaging the kitchen for a pen. “They can use sound masking to get people in the door!”

Kelly has no idea what I’m talking about, nor should she. A second ago I was on cruise control, scrambling stir-fry on the stove. Now, I’m muttering to myself about smart buildings, scribbling on the back of the grocery list.

For some people, it’s the washroom. For others, it’s driving. For me, I do my deepest thinking behind the stove. But this wasn’t the usual daydream about arguments I’d never have. This was different – I was working.

When I started at Stryve, I was intimidated by all the talk of “on the weekend I thought this,” and “last night I worked on that.” I couldn’t imagine myself as someone who took their work home with them. Work stayed at the office – that’s how I separated Job-Kyle and Regular-Kyle. However, over the last few months, work hadn’t been confined to the 9-5. I was losing the ability to unplug. Something was happening to Regular-Kyle…

This isn’t supposed to sound like some freak mutation. This was the professional butterfly emerging from the amateur cocoon. Slowly, but surely, my job was becoming a career.

How did this happen?

This change doesn’t happen overnight, and it takes effort from both sides. While it’s up to the employer to serve up a lob, it’s up to the employee to knock it out of the park.

Phase 1

Employer: Establish a Cool Kid Culture

Remember looking up to the grade twelves when you were an impressionable freshman? They had cars and went to the mall on spare. They had fake IDs and could grow sideburns. When I was in grade 9, all I wanted to be was a grade 12.

This is how you need to present the core team.

It starts with creating a culture that puts social stock in the tasks at hand. The coolest person in the room needs to be the one closing the sale or killing it on PPC. The grade 12s had their cars – you have your campaigns. What’s cooler than cutting class to go to the beach? AdRoll’s updated prospecting feature. From the top down, your team needs to establish what’s cool and what isn’t.

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Employee: Strive to be a Cool Kid

If your company has established that Cool Kid Culture, you’ll need to be hardworking, organized, and knowledgeable to sit at the cool table.

This means reorganizing your priorities. Maybe you stay late to hit a deadline instead of rushing home. Don’t go out Thursday night if it means you’ll be late Friday morning – that’d be social suicide. Strive to fit in.

Sure, your partner may get annoyed when you’re late for dinner, but it takes a paycheck to cover the bill. You’ve put social life ahead of work life for long enough. Friends and family will understand when you need to balance the scale.

Phase 2

Employer: Empower your team

At Stryve, we set aside time in our weekly team meeting for shout-outs. This is where team members are recognized for their work. When I first started, I was shouted out for the simplest of tasks – Kyle set up his first AdWords campaign! Go Kyle!

It may seem silly, but that acknowledgment serves as an indication of acceptance. To continue with the cool kid comparison, this is the cheerleader saying, “That’s a nice shirt!”. It confirms that the reorganization of priorities is paying off and that seat at the cool table is opening up.

Employee: Be who they say you are

“Yeah! It is a nice shirt! Go me!”

At some point, you need to read your own headlines. This is where you learn to trust yourself and develop the confidence to walk on your own. Ease up on emulating your coworkers and be your own person. You know what works and what doesn’t – trust your instincts.

Now, before you give me some crap about Imposter Syndrome, recognize that everyone has Imposter Syndrome. Truthfully, if you didn’t belong, you wouldn’t be where you are. All those shout outs from your team? Stop thinking of them as lip service and start believing the hype.

Phase 3

Employer: Throw them in the deep end

For me, my confidence was tested the second I got comfortable. Out of nowhere, I was elevated to a lead role, running my own campaigns and delivering good news – and bad. There was no prep time or formal brief. Instead, my account manager dialed the phone and said, “You’re leading the call.”

As a company, you’ve empowered your team, instilled confidence, and established a culture of success. What else can you do? This sort of trial-by-fire may sound ruthless, but it’s where you see what people are made of.

Employee: Learn to swim

With my account manager essentially playing lifeguard, I wasn’t in any real danger of drowning. Sure, I splashed around a bit, but this was a test. I had to fight the urge to call for help.

Remember when you learned to ride a bike? Your parent would hold the seat while you petaled before eventually letting go. You’d be biking on your own, but they’d keep close to catch you when you wobbled. You did all the work, but they had your back as a stabilizing presence.

Consider your account manager nothing more than a stabilizing presence, available for reviews and confirmations. To defer is to fail. This is your opportunity, not theirs.

In learning how to swim, I came away with a new sense of responsibility and independence. I’d lived up to the Phase 2 hype and proved I could be independent. Remember the cool kids’ table? You’re sitting at it.

Phase 4

Employer: Never let up

Your employee has passed the test and learned to swim. Now it’s up to you to find deeper, darker water with seaweed to touch their feet.

For me, I was given the keys to the blog. Sure, it added work, but it was a vote of confidence and another push forward. When people get comfortable, you need to introduce new challenges and give room to grow. With every achieved goal comes the recognition from Phase 2, solidifying a positive culture built on constant improvement.

Employee: Never peak

It’s your job to meet each challenge with the same hunger you showed during probation. Your ceiling is the dangling carrot. Stay engaged and keep climbing.

Connecting the dots

Okay, so how did this process result in me blurting out buzzwords during dinner? When did I stop unplugging? How did my job turn into a career?

To me, a job is a stepping stone. It leads to another job, which leads to another job. Ideally, each job marks an improvement, another rung up the ladder until you find your career and reach your ceiling.

This four-phase process throws away the idea that significant improvement relies on a change of scenery. With an empowering, challenging, office culture, you can realize tremendous improvements without jumping ship. My job became a career as soon as I stopped thinking of the next step – why can’t this be the last stop?

With this shift in perspective came the motivation to invest in my workplace. The company’s success is my success. I care about our direction. The blog has become my baby. Once it grows up and goes off to college, a new challenge will come along and demand my attention.

If you’re a team leader, are you doing everything you can to empower and challenge your team? Employees, are you surfing LinkedIn for jobs without squeezing the juice out of your current role? I’ll say it again, a job doesn’t become a career overnight. It takes a company willing to be deliberate with their culture, and an employee willing to buy-in.

Time to flip the switch!