If You Covet Other People's Careers, Do It Strategically

When trying to assess whether your career is on the right path, it can help to benchmark it against the people around you. Just make sure you're using the right benchmarks.

It’s only human to worry about how your career is progressing—and to measure yourself both against your own targets and your colleagues, friends, and contemporaries. So how do you meaningfully set yourself goals and usefully benchmark your career progress?

Start by recognizing that you have to do this. You must manage your career. Nobody else will do it for you—and if you don’t, you run the risk of being left behind. The kind of automatic promotion that once bore people upwards based on seniority no longer exists. Nor is it enough to simply be good at what you do. If you don’t think strategically about where you’re going, you risk letting your job get in the way of your career.

Begin with a benchmarking exercise. How do you stack up compared to your peers? When you look at them do you feel Pleased? Satisfied? Worried? Jealous? Ask yourself if what you’re putting in is commensurate with what you’re getting out—and if not, why not. You shouldn’t limit yourself to looking at your peers and boss either. “Find a group of people who give you good straight advice,” says executive coach Ros Taylor. This group should extend beyond your company—you want a wide network of contacts, colleagues and friends. Coaches and mentors are also very useful here too—this is their raison d’etre. Similarly, search firms in your sector will be able to give you a feel for what the market rate for your job is and how your skill-set stacks up.

If you do think you’re falling behind, ask yourself why. Are other people harder working? Listen to feedback. If you didn’t get that promotion and a colleague did, get people to tell you why. Remember too that you have go out and find opportunities. “Highly successful people often volunteer for things no-one else wants to do,” says Taylor. “It makes all the difference. Be a volunteer, not a conscript. Volunteers get noticed.”

Bear in mind that success is often more complex than it appears. For instance, if your organization pays below the market rate, comparing yourself to people who work in similar firms might leave you wanting. On the other hand, it may offer great flexibility—so if a good family life is a more important goal, then it’s the place for you. Similarly, some metrics can be deceptive: a colleague may earn more than you for no reason other than that they drive a harder bargain. Finally, it’s worth asking if your organization is still right for you. It’s an old truism that sometimes to get the promotion or pay rise you deserve, you have to get it at another company.

Now you know where you stand, start thinking about where you want to go. Ruth Colling, a director at business psychologists Nicholson McBride says, “Ask yourself what success looks like to you? Is it salary? Is it responsibility. If you have clear goals, you’re more likely to succeed.” Keep the number of goals manageable—three or less—so that you can focus on them properly. If your goals look like mountains, break them down until they become molehills. For instance, if your goal is to get a new job, step one might be writing your resume. If you’re completely unsure where to start, start anywhere. Sometimes just getting a bit of momentum is enough.

Stay focused on your goals and prioritize them. Of course, you have to do ordinary work too—but if you’re serious about the goals, you can’t let ordinary work get in the way. Learn to differentiate between what is urgent and what is important. The best advice here is often to block time off for your goals—it’s notable that some executives put time at the gym in their diaries, affording it the same importance as meetings. Keep track of your progress—give yourself deadlines and milestones and incentivise yourself with treats when you hit them. Appraise yourself monthly or more often. It can be a great idea to share a goal with someone else. Two people are far more likely to stick with something than one. You might want to consider working with a coach: anyone who makes you feel accountable is likely to improve your chances of success.

If you slip behind, remind yourself that it’s better to be halfway than no way—then get back in the saddle. If you discover, the goals were completely unrealistic, you may wish to lower your sights—but you shouldn’t give up. And if you achieve your goals early, set some more and get going on them. Hopefully, the next time you benchmark yourself against your peers, you’ll feel at least satisfied and perhaps even pleased.

Rhymer Rigby is an author and journalist based in London. Find him on Twitter at @rhymerrigby. This piece is adapted from The Careerist: Over 100 Ways to Get Ahead at Work.

[Houses: DeMih via Shutterstock]

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