When it comes to your career, always remember that you’re in charge. There are some elements that are beyond your control (amount of job openings, proximity to jobs etc), but in a general sense, you set the pace and the direction. Think of each phase of your career as a project that you manage. In the early stages of your career (up to 5 years), your focus should be on skill development and the building of professional relationships. As you approach the mid-career stage, you should be able to demonstrate the application of best practices and industry standards and start to set yourself up as a contributor of ideas. Finally, as you approach Manager/Director/C-Suite, it’s time to brand yourself as an industry leader and Subject Matter Expert. Look for opportunities to speak and get published (even if it’s on your own blog).
A couple of caveats here. Time-frames are not set in stone. Even though the average age for entrance into the C-Suite is 53, you can get there sooner. You don’t have to be a newbie for 5 years if you master your craft beforehand. Also remember that whatever your title (or age), you are a leader and people are watching you, so act like someone you, yourself, would follow.
Even though your approach to work may change depending on your level of responsibility and experience level, there are some best practices that you should have in place no matter what career stage you’re at.
We’ve all heard it said that leaders are learners. This is more than a catch-phrase. The value of Professional Development cannot be downplayed when it comes to career advancement. Studies have shown that organizations that encourage professional development activities are more likely to produce employees who are loyal to the organization, align more closely with the company vision and as a result, progress more rapidly than peers who don’t participate.
Increase your Visibility
In an earlier post entitled 4 Ways to Increase your Visibility at Work, I talk about ways to get out of the shadows and in front of key decision-makers. This is usually one of the first pieces of advice that I give to younger employees. We sometimes have the mistaken idea that as long as you work hard, your boss will notice, and reward you for your diligence. While this may be true some of the time, it won’t make you a stand-out in your field. I was recently impressed by a young female in the accounting field who is progressing rapidly in her career. As we spoke, she told me that she would reach out to her managers for training and spend one-on-one time with them. They were all so impressed with her drive and initiative that they all personally took the time to sponsor her in her career. For mid-career professionals, increase your visibility by getting on the speaking circuit. Volunteer to speak at conferences and other networking events. For professionals with more responsibility, consider becoming a sponsor or mentor. Also remember, the higher you climb in an organization, the more likely you are to be a representative of the brand. Use that platform to help your company shine and to also highlight your accomplishments.
Find a Sponsor
Sponsorship is something that I talk about often as it is one of the most neglected ways to advance your career – at least among women. Sponsorship involves an influential person becoming your career advocate. A sponsor will use their “political capital” to speak on your behalf, recommend you for high-profile projects, put you in front of the right people and help you to get promoted. The young accountant mentioned earlier became a protege of more than one sponsor in her organization. Since she had managed to increase her visibility (through her desire to learn and initiative) now every time a promotion or opportunity opens up, they immediately recommend her.
If you have a sponsor, consider yourself blessed. Your career will progress much more quickly than if you tried to navigate it on your own. If you don’t have one, make a plan to find one.
Networking is another way to increase your visibility outside of the organization. Regardless of where you are in your career, you should make an effort to attend both formal and informal networking events. Conferences, symposiums, and similar events give you exposure to industry leaders, keep you on top of the trends and allow you to be noticed by a wider variety of people. Networking can really open up your eyes to new possibilities and give you a perspective that your job alone can’t give. As I always say, networking is about reciprocity and relationships should be formed from an authentic place of interest in the other person. While networking can reap benefits for you, never forget that you have a lot to offer others. Look for opportunities to meet other people in your industry. An exercise that I like to do at every networking event I attend is to introduce myself to someone just starting out in their career as well as someone more experienced that I can learn from. I’m always surprised at how much I learn from people on both sides of the career spectrum.
Enjoy the journey
As I said at the start of this piece, you have control over your own career. That’s not to say that things will always be easy and that you won’t experience setbacks along the way. The key is to know who you are, set clear objectives for yourself and enjoy every step of your career journey.