Whether you’re in an entry-level gig that’s going nowhere, a mid-level manager whose career has stalled, or stuck in an industry you hate, you can make it better by building the skills you need to get out, says leadership coach Jennifer Davis, founder of Jennifer Davis Coaching.
Use your current role as a springboard to your next big opportunity with this six-step approach.
What are the skills you’ll need for your wish-list job? You might assume what they are, but a better course of action is to seek out those people doing the job and ask them, suggests Rebecca Zucker, a partner in leadership development consultancy Next Step Partners. Whether you want to move into a different industry or further along the path you’re already following, the best way to set goals is to get a clear vision of the outcomes you really need instead of guessing at them, she says. The skills you need will also change during different phases of your career.
Engineer and leadership development expert Ash Norton did exactly that through her employer’s employee resource groups (ERGs). “We had a resource group for business women, engineers, and other employees. Networking through those groups was really helpful for me to see others that I wouldn’t have directly been introduced to,” she says. Whether you grab coffee or lunch, set up a short meeting, or even ask some questions by email or IM, you can gain insights about the development areas that will matter most to hiring managers.
Once you have a list of the skills you’ll need, work on a development plan, Davis says. Much like you would create a plan for a big goal or a business, look at the big picture of where you want to go and then break down the steps, resources, people, time, and investment you’re going to need to make to get there.
Zucker suggests integrating daily or weekly practices as part of your plan. Focus on one or two of your development areas at a time, and make sure you’re doing something to build that skill daily or weekly. For example, if you’re gunning for a management role, you’ll need to get good at giving clear, direct feedback. To develop that skill, work on giving feedback to someone else at least once a week. You might even team up with a coworker who wants to receive feedback to improve job performance, and who can give you input on your feedback style, she says.
Speaking of feedback, think back on the input you’ve gotten on your skills and where you could use further development, Davis says. Your performance reviews and even casual responses to your work can give you a list of things to put on your development plan. For example, if colleagues are always commenting on your inability to find the right document when you need it, you might need to work on implementing better organizational systems.
And try not to take negative feedback personally, she adds. “What I encourage people to do is not think of it in terms of black and white or good and bad. It’s all just information. I’ve gotten some of the best feedback from people I’ve worked with on projects where I don’t necessarily agree with the way that they manage, but feedback allows you to be aware of what your impact is on others,” she says.
In some cases, your boss may be able to help you create a plan for your career path, Davis says. In office environments where employee development is valued, take advantage of that environment to get input and guidance on how to develop your skills. If telling your boss that you want to reinvent yourself isn’t the best idea, then work on finding a mentor who can give you rock-solid advice about where to go next, and how to open the doors that lead to where you want to go.
If possible, create a dynamic that puts you on more equal footing. For example, when Norton was a young engineer, she also had a strong mastery of Excel. In exchange for the leadership and career insight her boss gave her, she shared some of her spreadsheet wizardry to automate some of his routine tasks. By providing value to him, she put the relationship more in the realm of peers and felt good about asking for help.
“I’ve mentored a lot of engineering co-ops, and new engineers, and that’s something that I really press with them, that you have a lot to offer, even as a brand-new employee. Because one, you think about things differently. Two, you don’t know everything, so asking questions helps others see the gaps in how they’re communicating,” she says.
If your current workplace offers learning and development modules, access to seminars or conferences, or other opportunities to learn, sign up. Internal training programs may include leadership or management skills, or you may be able to learn new technical skills through a class or seminar.
While working for free should be considered carefully, there are ways to volunteer that provide more value than financial benefit. Look for the opportunities from which more experienced people are shying away, Norton says. If your goal is to move into producing events or working in marketing, and colleagues are bemoaning all the work that needs to be done for the next trade show, volunteer to help.
If there’s a nonprofit that needs a board member and you’re looking for leadership credentials, give it a shot. (It could help you in more ways than one.) Or if you’re gathering information to move you ahead in your current career, take on assignments that more experienced folks willingly toss your way.