It’s often said that patience is a virtue. At work, waiting for opportunities—especially those that feel like they’re advancing your career—can be torture. Counting the months until your next performance review, only to be disappointed if it doesn’t come with a bump in pay or title, is emotionally draining and likely one of the reasons the median time spent with an employer is declining.
I spent a few years in corporate America before launching my first startup, and one of the most important lessons I learned is that if you sit around and wait to be offered a chance to step into the spotlight, you’re going to be waiting for a long time. That’s because the most successful employees don’t wait for opportunities to come their way—they create them.
Instead of waiting for your boss to bring a new challenge to the table—or worse, waiting until your next performance review to talk through how well you tackled last year’s goals—here are some actionable steps you can take right now to prove that you’re a natural leader who is ready to move up the corporate ladder.
Related: 4 Steps to Successful Career Mapping
Say you’re fresh out of a college business program. You’ve probably learned the ropes of sales, marketing, accounting and more. Pat yourself on the back, but realize that those are relatively common skills. Why not pursue a certification in advanced financial modeling? If you’ve got a soft spot for marketing, why not take HubSpot’s courses in content, SEO or inbound marketing? Pretty soon, you’ll become known as the expert in your area. That’s how my career as a speaker began: I developed a reputation as the go-to source for people who wanted to talk about superfans, and before long, I had so many requests that I began speaking full time.
2. Embrace conflict.
Workplace conflict might not sound like a way to win friends, but it doesn’t have to be destructive. Matt Levy, founder of Credera, recalls in a series of blog posts how he got off on the wrong foot with Rob Borrego—who he’d just invited to be the company’s CEO. By discussing their differences respectfully and building trust deliberately, Levy and Borrego are now close friends. Their partnership’s strength is grounded in that initial conflict.
Don’t create unnecessary conflict with your co-workers, but don’t run from it, either. See it as an opportunity to better understand someone you’ll be spending 40 hours a week around. Chances are, the other person will respond the same way. Goodwill is taken for granted less often than you might think.
3. Ask for help.
At first, asking for help might sound like the opposite of creating your own opportunities. But consider the Ben Franklin effect: By asking someone for a small favor, you endear them to yourself. The reason is that, when you help someone, your brain rationalizes your actions by assuming that you must like that person.
The root of opportunities are personal relationships. The Ben Franklin effect isn’t enough to build a trusting one overnight, but it can be the seed. To get it to sprout, nurture it the same way you would a friendship. Somewhere between 70 and 85% of jobs are found through networking—in other words, relationship-building. I’ve helped more than a dozen friends find jobs over the years, and the majority of the people I’ve hired to various positions were referred by a friend or acquaintance.
4. Share factory-floor workarounds.
At every company, how management thinks things get done and how they actually get done are two different things. But while managers often have good reasons for pushing certain processes or products, sometimes they simply haven’t thought of the more efficient method. In healthy company cultures, at least, leaders don’t punish people for those discoveries; leaders reward them.
Although it took consumer products company 3M some time to come around to the idea, its Post-it Notes were actually an employee’s alternative to reusable bulletin boards. When the worker kept losing church hymns from his church song book, he didn’t buy a bulletin board; he added a reusable adhesive strip to the back of his hymns. Fast forward to today, and Post-it Notes are one of 3M’s most valuable product lines.
5. Be a mentor.
As much as mentorship benefits the mentee, it can also be a professional boost for the mentor. Mentoring others develops leadership and communication skills: Spotting strengths and weaknesses, explaining things diplomatically, and giving supportive advice are key to mentorship as well as management roles.
But mentorship does more than hone leadership skills and catch the eye of executives. When that mentee matures, guess who they’re going to look to when they need a co-founder, adviser or investor? Guess who other employees will turn to when they’ve got a new project or opportunity in mind? It can be tough to predict how, but mentorship inevitably pays off for both parties.
Opportunities can’t be built by following a user manual, but that’s the beauty of them. If opportunities didn’t require hard work and helpfulness, they’d all be taken by people who hadn’t earned them. And is that really the sort of environment any of us would want to work in?
Photo by @anniespratt via Twenty20