How Taking “Half-Steps” Can Further Your Career (& How Your Company Can Help)

Earlier this fall, I participated on a panel of women in STEM for the Grand Rapids Girls Robotics Competition. My fellow panelists and I had the pleasure of a very engaged audience of young women in high school, and we explored a wide range of topics relevant to women in STEM fields.

One topic that stuck with me was the idea of developing one’s career in small moves rather than big leaps—especially when looking to shift or grow your role within an organization. One of my fellow panelists described how she had worked her way from an entry-level position to vice president in a large engineering organization through a series of very deliberate moves, which she coined “half-steps.”

My Journey by Half-Steps

In that discussion, I realized I had done the same thing with my own career, without observing or naming the pattern. Seven years ago when I started at Atomic Object, I was a designer, and pretty young in my career. For the first few years, it was all about gaining experience and perfecting my craft. But about three years ago, I started to see ways I could provide value to the organization and grow professionally by gaining competency in the realm of delivery—a discipline we hadn’t previously formally developed in our organization.

The opportunity to act came in the form of a large project with an aggressive timeline that needed significant delivery support. On that project, I worked half-time as design lead and half-time as delivery lead (although we hadn’t formally created or named that role yet). Eventually, I transitioned to doing delivery full-time. Recently, I have made another half-step: I’m still spending 50% of my time in delivery, and the other 50% is in Atomic’s sales and pre-project consulting.

Benefits of Half-Steps

Making career and role transitions in half-steps has a variety of benefits for both organizations and employees.

  • Half-steps allow an employee and an organization to explore a shift in role or responsibility, while preserving an exit plan. For both the organization and the employee, this can provide extra security if it turns out that the new role isn’t a good fit for the employee, or isn’t what the organization wants to do after all.
  • Half-steps allow employees to ease in and come up to speed on a new discipline, while still providing high throughput on their existing role. For example, if a designer or developer at Atomic were interested in transitioning to a delivery lead role, we would likely staff them half-time or less on a straightforward project so that they could learn the ropes in a low-pressure, low-risk setting. This provides the chance to gain competency and experience before drinking from the firehose on a complex project.
  • Half-steps give organizations more flexibility in their resource plans. This is related to my last point. Full-scale shifts can create capacity vacuums in one discipline or role, while overloading another one. For example, sometimes a discipline or department has more work than capacity, but not quite enough to justify another FTE. Adding somebody to the team via a half-step can alleviate the stress on the receiving team, without leaving a huge vacuum of knowledge or capacity in the employee’s existing team or discipline. It gives the organization more flexibility to effect a final transition when the time and circumstances are right.
  • Half-steps create generalists. Even if a half-step transition is not fully completed, the employee returns to their existing role with greater knowledge and empathy for other parts of the organization. Generalists can solve problems in out-of-the-box ways with interesting cross-disciplinary connections, and they provide organizations with flexibility to solve capacity pain-points in the future.

How to Take/Enable Successful Half-Steps

  1. Make sure both the organization and the employee are committed to the half-step. Half-steps shouldn’t be used to satisfy idle curiosity, on either side of the employer-employee relationship. If you as an employee are interested in making a half-step, you should be quite certain that it’s a direction you want to pursue long-term in your career. You can prepare for your half-step and develop this certainty via introspection, networking, talking with mentors and leaders at your company, and perhaps taking classes outside of work to explore the role you’re looking to move into. Conversely, organizations should be fairly certain that the employee’s move will benefit the organization, so that they can be fully ready to support and guide the employee into the new role.
  2. Make expectations clear to everyone involved. If an employee is expected to spend 50% of time on a project and 50% of time in another department or role, talk to everyone involved to make sure they understand the arrangement. The employee’s existing teammates need to know that the employee’s availability will be reduced. The employee’s new teammates need to know that other responsibilities exist. If conflicts arise for the employee’s time or attention, they need to be solved through clear conversation with both teams.
  3. Try to keep a regular schedule. If possible, dividing one’s calendar into larger blocks of time devoted to one team or the other can be a helpful way to make sure that everyone is on the same page and that each team is getting the amount of time allotted to them. This one can be hard depending on the role—some schedules are more sporadic than others.
  4. Track and analyze time. At Atomic, we bill hourly so we already have strong time-tracking habits in place. In other organizations, you may have to be more inventive. However, for me, it’s proven to be very useful to understand where my time is going. It can help answer questions like, is my plate too full? Are both of my teams getting the time they need, or am I doing a bad job of distributing my time? When is it time to hand off some responsibilities or make a half-step into a full transition? Is a full transition responsible and beneficial to the organization? Having the data makes these questions an easy analysis, instead of relying on a gut feeling.

Half-steps can be a productive and low-risk way for an individual or a company to experiment with new roles or ways of approaching workload and career development. They can give people exposure to other teams and new mentoring relationships, while smoothing resource challenges for teams and organizations.

If you’re looking to make a change in your career or introduce something new to your organization, it’s worth considering how this technique could benefit you.