Whatever you want to achieve in life, having a career strategy is fundamental to achieving it. Making things up as you go along can take you in the right direction, but a good plan will get you there faster and more effectively.
So what are the steps you can take to ensure that your career strategy develops you to your best potential? What can you learn from the experts and those who have already built the career that they want?
Taking the right attitude to your career is vital. Jill Hazelbaker, the youngest senior executive in the Fortune 100, talks about the willingness to take risks. Risk taking allows you to take opportunities when they present themselves, without letting potential negative consequences hold you back. It’s an attitude that lets you seize the moment and keep pushing forward.
It’s an attitude that can also give you the confidence to try new things. The best way to learn is often to throw yourself into an activity and pick it up as you go along. That way you’re applying the skills and cementing them in your memory even as you learn them.
Hazelbaker also talks about the need for fearlessness, and this is mirrored in the work of Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries. Professor de Vries has pointed out the extent to which fear of failure can cripple even those who have reached the top. Some people become uncomfortable or even ill once they reach the high position towards which they have been working. Fear of success and an unaddressed belief that they do not deserve it suddenly cripples them. They may feel exposed, unable to hide behind others, or even feel like impostors. This can lead to self-sabotage and failure.
If you find yourself facing such feelings then, painful as it is, it’s best to address them. Take some time to consider your fears; what’s triggering them and where they come from. Armed with this knowledge, find ways to move on past.
A good plan is about more than its component parts. It’s about the way that they slot together to make a coherent whole, propelling you towards your destination.
Strategy consultant Dorie Clark points out the need to step back and look at the big picture. Achieving success involves investing in your career, and that can mean large investments in time. Sometimes you need to take what seems like a step backward to develop the skills and connections for a bigger leap forward, or to do work for no pay that will increase your skills or profitability. It’s the time authors spend writing guest blog posts as their book comes out, or that an intern spends gaining experience without pay.
When considering such possibilities you need to weigh up the costs and benefits, but make sure that the benefits you consider are the long term ones, not just the ones in front of you. Identifying the correct skills to develop is also central. These shouldn’t just be the skills that interest you, though that’s undoubtedly a factor—after all, you want a job that you find interesting. But sometimes you have to think strategically about those skills.
Boris Groysberg of the Harvard Business School surveyed senior consultants at a major executive search firm, and identified the groups of skills companies most prize in potential senior executives. These are:
- Leadership skills, including vision and drive
- Strategic thinking and execution
- Technical knowledge and technology skills, including understanding the impact of technology
- Team and relationship building
- Communication and presentation
- Managing and driving change
These are skills that any manager should already be considering, but prioritizing them could help to put you on the fast path to success.
The age of the man in the high tower, creating or leading from a position of splendid isolation, is long behind us. No one works alone, no one develops alone, and no one can succeed without support. So how can you ensure that the support you’re getting is right for you?
Finding a mentor is a favorite option. It gives you direct, specific guidance and someone to advance your case when needed. Nothing is better than a good mentor for ensuring that you develop the right skills and have the right support. But a mentor/mentee relationship involves a heavy commitment from both parties, in the work and in the emotional investment of building that relationship. So how can you ensure that you get this right?
Karie Willyerd, a senior vice president at SuccessFactors, recommends creating short-term mentoring opportunities. Approaching a potential mentor with a request for a specific short-term mentoring project means that they know what they face less of a commitment, making them more likely to say yes. It also allows you to test the waters and see if this is the right mentor for you.
Of course your boss is also important in your development. Amy Gallo, a contributing editor at the Harvard Business Review, has highlighted the problems that can arise from a boss who is too nice, not giving you the feedback you need to highlight your weaknesses. If you find yourself in such a situation then be direct but empathetic, trying in a structured way to ask for what you need. And if all else fails, consider leaving their team—their weaknesses shouldn’t hold you back.
With the right attitude, the right structure, and the right support you can build a strategy that pushes your career forward. So take the time to plan it out and to prepare for your future career.