03/08/2015 11:24 EDT | Updated 05/08/2015 05:59 EDT

How to Stay on Track When Driving Your Career Forward

There are times when you need to stop accelerating, adjust your gears and realize that not even the best race car driver takes the turn at full throttle. This approach translates when navigating your career too.


Many years ago I was described as someone who "went through life with her foot on the gas" -- full speed ahead, places to go, things to get done. While I like to think of myself taking the pedal to the metal in that fast, red sports car, over the years I have learned that the gear shift and brakes have a purpose too.

There are times when you need to stop accelerating, adjust your gears and realize that not even the best race car driver takes the turn at full throttle. This approach translates when navigating your career too.

Make room for others on the road

Right now many of the people I work with find themselves juggling a double whammy of leadership shuffles and planning cycles. New colleagues, new reporting relationships and new priorities require understanding the full implications of all the changes -- including changes in communication styles -- that will help you adapt.

The ability to respond instantly that worked so well in the meeting with the person whose sentences you could confidently finish may no longer be welcome in new circumstances. Last week, it was funny and efficient, and gave the team confidence that you were on the same page. This week, that same action says, "I'm not a good listener, I am driving so fast I don't have the patience for you to finish a thought." The ability to respond in the meeting before the question is even out may get you the prize on Jeopardy, but it is shutting down the dialogue or new idea that the team needs to cope with change.

Rather than replying immediately with the answer, give someone who does more of their thinking in their head the opportunity to put up their hand and contribute; see who else responds to the email chain before weighing in.

Slow the quick-witted, sarcastic comments

A sense of humour is very important, yet sometimes fast-paced sarcastic wit can be misinterpreted, painting you as not serious or, worse, mean-spirited.

Those quick comments that the people closest to you see as oxygen, that help them relax and be real with you (and which may include the occasional word you are trying to teach your children not to repeat) isn't appropriate for every audience. Unless you are auditioning for Saturday Night Live, sarcasm is not appropriate when you are making a first impression or with people who don't know you well. Take what you want to say and put it in a word cloud to share with your friends over a private glass of wine when you can get the deserved laugh from those who know you mean no harm. But in the meeting, put the brakes on the sarcasm. Soften the message and be a little more professional.

Adjust your speed

There are times when the pace that got you to where you are in your career is not the pace that is necessary to get the job done.

Use the gears to your advantage. Now isn't the time to demonstrate your quick reflexes -- you know you can stop on a dime if required. Think about where your end destination is and review the GPS choices to get there; your top options for today may not be the shortest distance or fastest route. Figure out who has more information to help you navigate the changes ahead, and take a detour to talk to them to learn what guidance they can offer. Consider when you should gear down to thoroughly consider a new approach. Sometimes Stop, Start, Continue is the optimal path. I may love a particular project or idea, yet in the context of the new players on the team I have to consider if this project is still our smartest avenue.

So now I like to think of my red sports car as something I warm up. I still accelerate and love the thrill of the pace -- I still perform best in high gear. Nevertheless, I gear down occasionally so I can see what I am driving by as more than a blur of colours. Sometimes I use the brake, and not just to avoid hitting a police officer on horseback, but to pick up something or someone along the way that makes the journey more pleasant. And once in a while, I put the car in the garage or take it in for a tune up so it will keep performing.

A fast and full life and career is rewarding, however, if you don't want to burn bridges or flame out, particularly in times of stress and change, it may be time to slow down and make connections with the people and ideas that can keep you on track. Speed is good, but there is a reason the car has gears and brakes alongside the gas pedal.