By Robert Strohmeyer
Getting a job is one thing. Turning it into a successful career is another. What makes the difference between career development and just moving from job to job?
As it happens, a lot depends on the consistency, focus and execution you bring to your work life over the long haul.
Here are five key factors you can control to nurture your career.
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The single most important thing you can do to achieve any goal is to actually define what it is. Otherwise, no matter what happens in the future, your perception of whether you’re making progress will be entirely subjective.
According to research in the field of performance psychology, it’s important to set multiple career development goals that ladder up. Don’t just focus on big-ticket, end-state achievements like, “I want to be a CEO.” Instead, articulate mastery and performance goals for yourself. Identify skills that those in your goal position have mastered, and seek to master them yourself. Then, measure your performance in those skills over time, and track your progress with data.
This career development mindset will also help you turn annual or quarterly performance reviews into growth opportunities rather than formalities. By inserting your own mastery objectives into your job’s performance management framework, you can elevate your vision from just doing a good job in your current position to developing your skills and capabilities over the long haul.
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As you navigate the complexities of your career path, it’s invaluable to have the guidance of those who have succeeded on the same path.
In my own career, I’ve been fortunate to have the mentorship and sponsorship of executives I’ve worked with over the years. These experiences made a tremendous difference in helping me see the path to my own executive career. But people in leadership and executive positions don’t typically seek out mentees. You have to take responsibility for finding and connecting with your own mentors and applying their advice to your career.
Statistics suggest I’m not alone in this view. One report notes a whopping 97% of people with a mentor say it’s been valuable to their careers. While a recent survey from the Association for Talent Development reports that more than 57% of people have benefited from mentorship in their careers, only 29% of organizations offer formal mentorship programs.
So, you can’t expect the businesses you work for to arrange these opportunities for you. And even when they do, you still need to take charge of ensuring you reap the benefits. It’s also a good idea to maintain your own relationships or network of mentors over time as you move from job to job.
Chances are you know at least one successful leader in your personal or professional life whose example and advice you value. While it can feel awkward to ask someone you admire to be your mentor, it’s been my experience that most really great leaders appreciate being asked for career development advice and cherish opportunities to guide and help talented people along the way. So, don’t be shy — ask for guidance. More importantly, apply the good advice you get and check back in with them periodically. Over time, these relationships will bolster you in a variety of ways, including potentially opening up new opportunities in your field.
Achieving more senior positions requires constant growth in your professional abilities and experience. Knowing where you have gaps in either your resumé (demonstrating you’ve held the right roles) or skills (demonstrating you’ve done the right work) for the role you want is essential.
For instance, if you want to advance to a sales leadership position, you may need to demonstrate not only your sales acumen but also your leadership ability. Otherwise, no matter how good your individual performance is, you may not appear to be an obvious fit for the chief revenue officer role when the opportunity presents itself.
Work with your mentor to really assess what the key skills and experiences would look like for the position you’re aspiring to, and think about how you’d get them. If you want to lead, for instance, you may find it prudent to pass up taking on the best territory in your market to instead embrace an available regional management position. You may find you need a certification in a key skill such as P&L management to win that role. By identifying these resumé and skill gaps early, you can prioritize addressing them as you progress in your career.
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While tenure and advancement with one company can demonstrate consistency and loyalty (two qualities prospective employers love!), the data shows that changing jobs is often more profitable than staying in the same company for a promotion.
The difference appears to be seniority. For those in more junior positions, promotions and raises tend to be smaller than for those in more senior positions.
So, if you’re early in your career, you can end up making 7% more money by jumping to a new company than you would get if you took a promotion in your current job, according to the study. But if you’re more senior and performing at a high level, it may pay better to hold out for a promotion or raise.
At all times, optionality is gold. When great opportunities present themselves, don’t be afraid to interview for them. Having an offer in hand from a new company gives you leverage for a better position or higher salary in your current one. Just don’t abuse this tactic. No matter how much your boss loves you, they’ll almost certainly let you walk if you appear to be constantly on the brink of quitting for something else.
In my own long career, I’ve identified one single trait that consistently differentiates rising stars from the stagnant ranks, and that’s coachability. Coachable people bring a growth mindset to their work, readily see their own knowledge and skill gaps, learn from mistakes, spot opportunities to improve and just keep getting better.
When I’m hiring, I almost always prefer candidates who demonstrate a penchant for lifelong learning. If you’ve been working in your career for a decade but just completed a certificate program in a key skill, that signals a growth mindset and coachability. If you’re constantly reading the latest books in your field or adjacent fields — or even unrelated fields — you’re going to learn things that make you stronger, smarter and more adaptable in business.
In a field of talented people all striving for the top roles, those who show the greatest ability to learn, adapt and grow consistently stand out. And standing out often leads to career growth.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Robert Strohmeyer is a serial entrepreneur and executive with more than 30 years of experience starting and running companies. He has served in leadership roles at three successful software startups over the past decade, and his writing on business and technology has appeared in such publications as Wired, PCWorld, Forbes, Executive Travel, Smart Business, Businessweek and many others. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.
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