Conventional wisdom tells us that the way to foster career growth within a company is to look for the paths to growth and then take steps that have been defined. But Teri Carstensen, president of bank solutions at Fiserv, a $5.1 billion financial-services technology company, says that the best way to climb the corporate ladder is to create your own rungs.
Carstensen’s position wasn’t on any organizational chart when Fiserv began integrating and more actively managing some of its holdings several years ago. Some of the companies even competed with each other, so it made sense to integrate them, she says. She became a key contributor in identifying market opportunities and planning how the execution would take place. Soon, she found herself spearheading some of the initiatives, and was ultimately appointed to lead the new division in 2011.
“It was a role that didn’t exist within the company. It really built up over time as we put the components together,” she says. Now, she heads the new division that accounts for roughly a quarter of the company’s annual revenue and more than 20% of its workforce.
This approach isn’t just an opportunity—it’s a necessity to succeed in today’s workforce, says career coach Don Maruska, author of Take Charge of Your Talent: Three Keys to Thriving in Your Career, Organization and Life. Maruska’s background includes an MBA and law degree from Stanford as well as leading projects for McKinsey & Company, then starting and running three Silicon Valley companies and investing in startups. With average lifetime career changes at roughly seven, people have to “take charge of their talents and create their own paths,” he says. If that sounds a little fuzzy, sharpen the focus with these key steps.
You probably have a good sense of your competencies, but do you really know where you knock it out of the park? It’s important to know where you’re most confident in your capabilities, Carstensen says. If you don’t have confidence that you can contribute in ways beyond the framework you’re currently in, you’re probably going to feel insecure about your job and have trouble mustering the courage to propose where you see yourself next, she says. But if you know where you’re good, you’re going to be comfortable raising your hand or suggesting where you can deliver value.
“If I have a great idea and I truly believe that it’s going to drive value for the organization, I’m going to have to trust that the organization is going to value me in that process. In the worst scenario, I’m going to take away my skills and attributes. I’m confident enough that I’ll find something else to do,” she says.
It’s not about putting your head down and going to work—you have to lift your head up and study the organization, Carstensen says. That’s the only way you’re going to understand its values and where it values moving forward. If you’re proposing new opportunities that aren’t in alignment with those values, you’re likely to be disappointed. Look for the big problems with which the organization is struggling. If you can be the one to provide value there, you’re well on your way to defining your new role, she says.
A big part of being successful in asking for what you want is framing it the right way, Maruska says. If you make it known that you’re seeking new opportunities for your own growth, you risk being seen as a “job jumper” who might not be a good long-term investment. “But if you tell your boss, ‘Look, I’d really like to grow my contribution to the organization in ways that benefit my career, and that move the organization forward, and here’s my idea.’ Any boss who hears that isn’t going to close his ears and say, ‘Oh, no. I don’t want you to tell me about that,’” he says. Identify the needs of your audience to get people to listen to what you have to say.
Maruska says he’s seen people develop 20-page business plans for themselves. You don’t have to go that far, but you need to treat building your career like building a business, he says. Know and cultivate your brand so that people understand you and the value you bring to the table.
What are your strengths, and how are you communicating those to the audiences that can help you succeed? What tangible evidence can you provide that you have the chops to pull off what you want to do so that you can close the deal? These are the same types of questions you ask when you’re building a business, he says.
Everyone knows the value of a good network, but too many people don’t put the rigor necessary into building a great one. Carstensen says the mistake many people make is that they look for a champion—someone with influence who believes in you and can help you further your cause–separately from building a network. She says that champions often bubble up from your network. And, if you put the time and effort into growing a wide range of good relationships in various areas, you’ll likely find yourself with more than one champion.
Putting yourself out there comes with some risk, Maruska says. But you have to take risks to get ahead. The key is to manage the risk of negative fallout by knowing that your goals are in line with the company’s, and by making clear your value to the organization.
“It’s a classic fear people have. That’s why a lot of people end up in their career in places that they really wish they hadn’t. They were too fearful to take the risk,” he says.