Remember how you felt at the start, when you were looking for your first job? All you wanted was a toehold, a way in, a chance. But it felt like everyone else had control of your future.
I got my first job out of college because I could type. And yes, I was taken aback when the hiring manager later told me the reason she interviewed me. Typing wasn’t supposed to be what got me a job—my BA in Spanish was supposed to be wildly appealing to the Pan American Health Organization!
Years later, I know that in your first job what you need most is a good boss. I had one at the Pan American Health Organization in Washington, D.C. In fact, as I was leaving that first job my boss said to me, “Have you ever thought about a career in management? You’d be great at it. You have a way of getting people to do things they don’t really want to do. And that’s the most important skill for management.” Not only was that boss just what I needed in my first job, he also inspired me to pursue management roles in my future career. Actually, too much is made of the connection between our bosses and our success on the job. In my view, we must manage our own careers.
Really, you ask, what new can be written about career development? Google tells you what you need to know and do. Blogs and listicles and tweets are regularly yapping at you about the importance of managing up, the new skills you need most and confirmation you should fake it until you make it.
I got the best possible career advice nearly 20 years ago from a colleague who said, “Remember, no one cares about your career more than you do.” On the spot, I knew he was right, and I’ve regularly reminded myself of that phrase ever since.
No one cares about your career more than you do. What does that mean?
It means you, and only you, are responsible for your success at work. I offer six actions you can take to be sure you are positioned for what you want, when you want it.
- Stand out.
Managing your career has to include establishing and evolving your work identity. What kind of colleague do you want to be? What values do you bring to the workplace? At the beginning, the midpoint or even in your final years of working, you can make adjustments to who you are at work.
Aside from doing your job well, I emphasize two personal actions that will make you stand out. They are:
- Be reliable. Do what you say you’ll do, when you say you’ll do it.
- Be nice. People want to be around nice people.
- Learn from the people around you.
Early in my career, I learned from a coworker that rehearsing presentations made me more successful. I was a compensation analyst at the time and I made monthly presentations to senior HR executives. My task was to make the case for pay increases for individuals and/or groups of employees based on salary survey and benchmark data I had collected. The goal was to gain their approval of my recommendations. My coworker and I would practice the day before—I’d run through my presentation with her as the audience. In the first few months, she had a lot of suggestions for more strategic ways to organize and convey my recommendations. As I improved, we made a game out of the rehearsals. My goal was to get through the practice session without her pointing out what I should have included. She shared her strategic presentation skills and I’m still grateful.
Count also on the learning that comes from watching and listening. When you attend a meeting or observe interactions between people, pay attention. Reflect on what your colleagues and campus leaders say and do. Which of their approaches should you adopt? How might you incorporate their methods into your own work and communication style?
- Stay up to date.
It’s your responsibility to determine what you need to read about and what future expertise you’ll need to have. You need no permission to do this but it does take discipline. You also don’t need a professional development budget because the Internet is your free source for new knowledge and skills. Get into the habit of 15 minutes of reading at the beginning or the end of each day. Believe me, I understand that time is hard to come by. But if you don’t invest in staying up to date, you are making a conscious choice to limit your career options—both in a future job and perhaps for assignments in the one you are already in.
Wait! If you work in a nonprofit, you are in luck. Your environment is filled with projects and committees and initiatives that actually serve as professional development opportunities. Think about it this way: There are never enough staff to do the work and there’s rarely enough budget for new positions. This means you can volunteer yourself or get assigned to something that can increase your skills and knowledge. My career changed at William & Mary when I asked for a meeting with the provost and volunteered to lead a website redesign project. It was a lot of work and I did it without a pay increase, but it set the stage for my move to a career in higher ed consulting.
- Always be ready.
Sometimes, you can move up while staying in the same organization. In my 23+ years at William & Mary, I had four careers—one in human resources, one in IT, one in marketing and one in fundraising. However, there will likely come a point when your future success requires you to leave your current organization.
Remember, you own your own brand and you should be ready to effectively promote yourself at any point. Minimally, you need to update your resume, LinkedIn profile and portfolio every year. Always be ready. You may need to put yourself on the job market quickly to take advantage of the perfect but unexpected opportunity. Presenting at conferences and personal blogging allow you to build a reputation within your sector.
- Take risks.
Your career can’t hinge on getting rewarded with a promotion because you’ve done well at your current job. Congrats if that happens, but sometimes, you need to take action. Consider applying for jobs that are more difficult than the one you are in. You put yourself out there not knowing what will happen. You take the risk.
If an unexpected someone encourages you to apply for a job you’re not sure you are qualified for, take it seriously! Here’s how I moved from HR to IT at William & Mary. I was working with a CIO to establish new jobs and reorganize his unit. In a sea of university bureaucracy, I was an HR rep who was responsive to his goals. I was doing what I said I’d do, when I said I’d do it. He noticed. A few months later, he sent his admin assistant to my office to drop a hint that he hoped I’d apply for a new technology training job he was filling. I had no background but he thought I had potential. I took a risk—that was the start of a 12-year career in IT.
- Get by with a little help from your friends.
Working is about relationships. At some point, you may decide to explore what’s out there, or you might lose the job you have and unexpectedly be searching for a new one. If either happen, you should take full advantage of your personal contacts. Reach out. Tell everyone (including LinkedIn) that you are looking for a job. Talk to as many people as you can about your search; go way beyond informational interviewing and official references. Drink a lot of coffee with a lot of people you haven’t seen in a while. Getting the word out will generate more job options for you to consider.
Rely on your network to endorse and recommend you. Maybe you’re uncomfortable about getting a leg up because of someone you know. Get over that feeling quickly. Remember, when people in your professional network put in a good word for you, they are actually helping a hiring manager. Hiring is risky, and managers look for ways to reduce risk by learning more about the people they are considering from people they trust.
I know there are realities that affect your actions. Being able to pay your bills, job security and work-life balance. The point here is your career is yours to manage. Don’t expect others to care about it more than you do. Determine what you want and keep yourself on the path to getting it, whenever you’re ready.
Susan T. Evans is a proven leader, an award-winning communicator and an independent consultant.
susantevans.com | @susantevans