You’re a hard worker, just like you said at your job interview. In all your time at your company, you’ve done consistently good work. You’re reliable. But for some reason, you just aren’t shining as much as you’d like. Maybe there’s a sexy new project at work that you were hoping to be assigned, but it went to someone else. Perhaps you’re holding out for a promotion but haven’t seen it yet.
You’re starting to wonder if your hard work doesn’t cut it. You’re doing some great things, but your boss doesn’t seem to notice. You aren’t getting bigger or better projects, which means you aren’t really growing in your position. Is there something else you should be doing?
The solution here isn’t necessarily to approach your boss and ask point-blank what gives. Before you charge into your boss’s office demanding a change, stop for a minute and ask yourself: How proactive am I in my career? Do I take on more than is required of me? Do I go out of my way to take on projects that benefit teams other than my own? Do I regularly help my teammates? And do I do these things without permission, or only when I’m asked to? In other words, am I fearless?
If the answers here are mostly “no,” it’s time to be more proactive. Don’t wait for your boss to create opportunities for you–create them yourself.
No matter what stage of your career you’re at, simply “doing” the work is never enough. In order to take charge of your own career, you often have to take the initiative.
The most successful people are proactive. They provide value beyond what’s asked of them, and in the process, they showcase their talents and show everybody else how much they can contribute. Over time, teams learn to come to them with bigger and better projects. It’s a virtuous circle that benefits both the company and their careers.
Depending on your personality, this might not feel so natural. It may also come more easily to people at senior levels who typically don’t have to wait for a supervisor to approve every decision they make. People earlier in their careers might hesitate to be so proactive, fearing that if they do, they’ll be scolded for overstepping.
In reality, this fear is typically unfounded. What it really boils down to is your confidence and how much you know about the company and industry you’re in, not the current stage of your career. Here are a few tips for being more proactive at every level.
Just as you would while preparing for a job interview, sit down and log your strengths and weaknesses. Has your team actually seen the full breadth of your skills? Do they know what you’re capable of? Are you actively utilizing your strongest skills, or are they being underleveraged?
Sometimes assets are hidden inside what appear to be disadvantages. Maybe you’ve been harping on the fact that you’re the youngest on your team–does that also make you the most social-media-savvy? Consider your strengths and weaknesses from all angles. You need to understand them better before stepping up to show your team more of what you’ve got.
Being proactive isn’t about picking any extra project and adding it to your to-do list. It’s about identifying strategic opportunities for the good of the company–not just for yourself.
Which opportunities are those? Ask yourself these questions to pinpoint where you can help your company or team–and your career in the process:
- What do you know about the business, company, or industry that only you can see?
- What are some possibilities your company or team haven’t explored yet, and why not?
- What gaps do you see?
- What business objectives are you most passionate about at your company, and which of those are you uniquely qualified to help with?
Note that the answers to these questions may mean working with your current team, or not! Embrace the opportunity to meet teams other than your own if that’s where you can best contribute. Going out on a limb to forge those relationships is another sign that you’re interested in growing beyond what you already do.
Now it’s time to sell your boss on the value of you taking on this project. Boil it down to a one-liner summarizing what you hope to achieve, and why it’s important to the company or team. Practice explaining that in the mirror if it helps.
While it can be scary to work on a project with no obvious stakeholders, if it’s a truly valuable undertaking, it’ll prove itself. Other people will see its value as it develops, and you yourself will become more certain of it.
Keep in mind, however, that it’s essential that you believe in the value of the undertaking. If you’re not sure it’s worth pursuing, get a second opinion from someone you trust (a close colleague, a mentor), or table it until you find another opportunity that makes your heart beat faster with conviction.
The only way you can get away with working on something only you see the value in (at first) is if you’re keeping on top of all your current duties. As you start to stretch into self-initiated projects, it can be tempting to focus on those alone, but that’s a mistake.
Being proactive only to drop the basics isn’t a sign of leadership potential–it’s a sign of poor time management, a reason why you might not be progressing in your career as quickly as you thought yourself capable. That can be tough to recognize, but it’s useful intel.
This is crucial, whether you’re an intern for the season or a seasoned manager. If you find yourself waiting for someone else to signal or approve the next step, check yourself: It’s up to you to keep the ball rolling. Rather than waiting for a new assignment or task, ask yourself what else could be done, and do it.
Of course, be sure to use your best judgment here. There’s a category of things that you may in fact need approval for; sending a mass email to the whole company or expensing some unapproved dinners might create some challenges. But for a more run-of-the-mill project, it may not be necessary. Default toward asking for forgiveness, not permission.
You’re ultimately the best (and only) person to represent your own interests to your boss. Tell her what you want out of your career, and ask her to keep an eye out for opportunities for you. A good manager will keep you top of mind for upcoming projects that match your interest and skill set–or they’ll tell you why they think you’re not ready for those opportunities just yet. (If it’s the latter, don’t despair; this kind of feedback can be helpful, as now you have something tangible to work toward.)
But asking for your manager’s support isn’t the same as sitting on your hands and waiting for it. After all, it’s easy to wait for approval. It’s a lot harder to take initiative. But when you’re proactive, it often pays off–for you as well as your employer.