When I first started my career, I found myself in a job that I was eager to get promoted out of. But when I applied for positions above mine, I was invited to a meeting with my boss, who told me in not so many words to stop worrying about advancement and just focus on the job I had. This made me realize I was in an organization that wouldn’t be transparent about my growth and that I should take responsibility for advancing myself.
I took his advice, and I did focus. I focused on the job I wanted to have next, and I started building my skills and taking on tasks that I would have in that role. Not only did I find more ways to get involved at work, I started taking on clients as a part-time tech consultant. I have never felt more invigorated or passionate about my work than when I was consulting, and this eventually allowed me to take the leap into running my IT managed services company full time.
Part of the challenge of being a young professional is goal setting—namely, figuring out where you want to go next. But goal setting is often stymied by companies (and individuals) that rely too much on job titles, which causes people to segregate the work they could do into two buckets: my job and not my job. Such segregation is dangerous—both in small, growing companies and in bigger, established organizations—because how you avoid getting stuck in a role, especially in these well-defined environments, is a question that becomes more difficult to answer the more limits are placed on your productivity, regardless of whether those limits are externally imposed or self-imposed.
Here is my advice for working for the job you want, not just the job you have:
1. Cultivate a proactive perspective to accelerate your career.
Despite what you might have heard about millennials, 80 percent of them claim that they would prefer to work at the same company for much of their careers. But if that’s true, then why do nearly half of all young professionals say they want to leave their current jobs?
Most of us are presented with this very conundrum: We don’t want to job-hop, but we have a hard time seeing how to advance in our current roles. This is a problem because if we don’t see ourselves growing, we devolve into comparing ourselves to others and competing for salaries instead of considering the company culture, perks and potential skills we could gain in each successive role.
Still, and though it may sometimes seem like employers enjoy rigid and specific role definitions, many businesses are moving away from overspecialized roles and placing more emphasis on recognizing employees who can handle a number of job duties that contribute to the business’s success. The key is for employees to get out of this “role-specific” mindset and focus on how they can motivate and maximize their value to their team.
By using your current role to understand, define and qualify for your next position—either as part of your company or outside of it—you can start taking control of your destiny and level up in your career.
2. Practice good goal setting to identify skill gaps.
I’m aware that everyone tells you to set goals, but there is a reason for that. If you can’t see progress, you will give up far sooner than you should.
In this case, the goal-setting process will also help you define the skills and job responsibilities you want to move toward. Look up job descriptions or talk to others at work to identify the skills and responsibilities you may need in order to advance. Then undertake an honest assessment of your own skills and deficits. As Randy Milanovic of Kayak Online Marketing points out, honestly assessing your own strengths and weaknesses and asking for help from those around you can help you identify how external factors like classes or opportunities create a path for growth.
Once you have a good list of which areas to pursue, you can set reasonable goals for the next quarter. Are there courses on learning sites that will help you gain a basis for more advanced projects? Are there any local community college classes you can enroll in? Start your search by homing in on a few simple tasks, like completing one course in HTML coding or assisting with two extra team projects. After three months, review how much you got done, then set more goals accordingly. This process will help you focus on what you need to do to be successful and will push you to grow.
3. Adopt a “how can I help?” attitude, and stick to your word.
Walking into work every day and asking yourself how you can help will offer two main advantages: You’ll be exposed to new projects and tasks, and you’ll develop a greater sense of satisfaction and positivity about your career.
As people take you up on the offer to help, you will start to formulate which career areas you enjoy and which you’d rather not take on as a full-time role. This will also help you figure out which of those skill gaps can be filled in-house as you engage with others and help them with their projects. We all want careers that align with our passions and skills, but there are passions and skills you probably haven’t discovered yet.
Once you take control of your own growth opportunities, you’ll gain the confidence to try more things—both at work and outside of the office.
The second effect is that you will stop feeling limited in the job you have. Once you take control of your own growth opportunities, you’ll gain the confidence to try more things—both at work and outside of the office. You’ll also start to find the flexibility and learning environment you’ve been craving, primarily because you’ll be creating it.
Most important, once you start assisting others, be sure to meet deadlines, keep promises, and leave any and all meetings with a complete list of the tasks you’re responsible for. The fastest way to tank your work reputation is by not delivering for people counting on you. Having a good system to keep track of projects, deadlines and deliverables can help you avoid this. I suggest Asana, Basecamp or OneNote as potentially helpful software, but finding out what other team members already use may be your best course. Overall, improving your time management and creating a reliable system for balancing larger workloads helps you become dependable and shows you’re ready for more responsibilities.
4. Strive for open communication with team members and managers.
Most organizations aren’t purposely obtuse about advancement paths. If you’re unhappy with the level of communication within your work environment, though, change it. Find an appropriate way to bring up to your boss that certain expectations aren’t being met or to tell him or her if you feel something is unfair. Introducing more communication avenues or tools and becoming a leader in self-improvement will make you invaluable to your manager in the long run.
Don’t let fear keep you from open communication, either. Many employees don’t feel their voice will be heard if they say, “Others in my role and with my experience are making X amount of money.” You may even feel you’ll be let go if you try to express this. But before abandoning any effort for a raise or promotion and jumping ship, find a way to bring up your concerns to your supervisor at least once, doing so diplomatically. If you never ask, you’ll never know, and I’ve found that most organizations would rather keep someone valuable than start over and train a brand-new employee. Also, if you’re a manager, look for ways to create open and transparent dialogue.
5. Look for ways to help others grow.
You shouldn’t wait to gain a management role before starting to expand your mentoring skills. Just because you aren’t officially above someone on an organization chart doesn’t mean you can’t help that co-worker grow. The best managers help those beneath them gain skills and become more confident, increasing their capabilities and helping them achieve more. This type of servant leadership is easily practiced by teammates, not just bosses.
Mentoring has many personal benefits, too. Learning to listen, to creatively approach problems or explanations, or to work with people who are different from you are all important leadership skills you’ll need in order to advance. The key to great mentorship is to focus on helping those around you solve problems or develop new skills, which will require creativity, patience and often reflection on your part.
Only you can dictate where your career is going, so take the lead in determining your professional future, and be bold in pursuing it.
Only you can dictate where your career is going, so take the lead in determining your professional future, and be bold in pursuing it. You don’t need a specific title or express permission to improve yourself, but you also shouldn’t expect this extra work to result in an immediate pay raise or recognition. You’re doing these things to advance yourself, and by focusing on your long-term goals and measuring your incremental steps toward them, you’ll find your passion, reap more satisfaction from work and, ultimately, advance to the next stage.
This article was originally published in December 2017 and has been updated. Photo by @DimaBerlin/Twenty20