If You’re Not Operating Career-Forward and Building Professional Equity, You Could Stifle Your Success

UPDATED: May 3, 2024
PUBLISHED: May 5, 2024
Young business women being career forward

You’re probably asking yourself, “How do I keep growing? How do I stay relevant? How do I maximize my career trajectory over time?” If you’re operating “career forward” like we are, you’re building equity—the same way you might in your financial life. But you create this equity in your career. We call it professional equity. 

As you start focusing on building professional equity, let’s continue the analogy with this idea: Think of yourself as a growth stock. Simply put, a growth stock is a share in a company that is expected to increase in value at a faster than average rate. If you think of that stock as a person, it’s someone who is always looking to grow and develop and expand their career at a level that is significantly above average.

In the financial market, growth stocks—think of Tesla or Apple in their early years—are especially exciting because of their upward trajectory and heightened ability to create exponential shareholder value. They grow revenues and earnings at a faster rate than their competitors and have a higher profile of risk and returns than other stocks. We believe that leaders with a similar mindset are equally exciting. A growth stock mentality enables you to take ownership of your career destiny. 

As an employee, you’re an essential part of your company’s ability to create value. Your perceived worth at your organization is based on your level of consistent contribution to achieving meaningful results. As is true of an individual stock, your current performance matters, and so does your anticipated future performance. 

The “growth stock” mindset

Thinking of yourself as a growth stock helps you get into the right frame of mind for driving professional success in the short and long term. As your stock rises, your company reaps the rewards of your performance. But just as importantly, you’re likely to experience a host of personal benefits, such as increased compensation, a greater ability to shape your role at the company, enhanced job security and more opportunities to transition to a desirable role at a different company. 

In this mindset, you’re always trying to improve yourself so you can enhance your level of contribution. You invest in and anticipate your company’s growth, stay agile and develop the capabilities you need for continued success. You focus on learning new things, honing your skills and going out of your way to gain new experiences that could be valuable in your role. You take on different responsibilities, some of which may come with the risk of failure, because the chances of rewards and further growth make them worthwhile. In other words, having a growth stock mentality enables you to take ownership of your career destiny.

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It’s never too early to get into this frame of mind and start taking actions to build your professional equity position. This can mean paying attention to the smallest details. Those who are committed to building professional equity keep striving, even after they’ve achieved success. They never settle in and rest on their past achievements, thinking that they’ll be carried forward by momentum. They don’t get comfortable coasting in roles that they’ve become familiar with because they know that this approach is bound to eventually derail them.

When people stop pushing themselves, their professional equity gradually declines and their compensation year over year slows in contrast to their peers’. These people are often the first to be let go when a company goes through a merger or acquisition because their contribution level isn’t high enough to make them a critical asset. Ultimately, they lose control of the ability to drive their career destiny. 

As an exercise, identify a job that you might like to have someday, whether at your current company or another, and determine any skill set or experience gaps you have that would reduce your chances of getting hired. Ask yourself, “If I were to apply for this dream job now, what are some reasons I might not get it?” Check job descriptions and job postings whenever possible and pay attention to who gets hired for what positions so you have a solid idea of what ideal candidates look like for various roles. 

Thinking of yourself as a growth stock is not only a smart move for you as an individual, but it is also the best thing you can do for your employer. This mentality goes beyond general loyalty and focuses on what companies truly want: performance. When you have a learning mindset and an insatiable appetite for driving results and growing professionally, both you and the organization will thrive. 

Take note of the equity players 

In every organization, there are individuals who are pulled into the most exciting strategic initiatives. Everyone seems to want their opinion, and everything they touch seems to turn to gold. Who are these people at your organization? How have they earned so much equity? By studying these “equity players,” you can uncover the elements that drive their success. And by building relationships with them, you may build your own equity.

Keep in mind that these people aren’t necessarily the most senior on staff. You don’t need to cozy up to the CEO—that’s an overreach for most people. Equity players exist at every level, and some may be at a level below yours and in a variety of functional areas. But if you know what to look for, you’ll spot equity players who create the organizational current that can drive change and accelerate others’ personal equity.

In our own careers, we found that having strong relationships with the top performers in our organization paid off in both discreet and overt ways. We recommend that you do the same by creating a strategy for identifying those people and finding ways to win introductions and meaningful interactions with them. Building your connections in this strategic way will pay dividends over time as your professional network expands and becomes even more valuable. 

Watch out for benevolent stagnation

There’s a benevolent form of stagnation that companies often impose on well-performing employees. The salary may be good, and the work may be important, but such employees are not going anywhere. If you’re on a growth stock path, you’re less likely to let this situation happen to you. 

There’s an oft-mentioned management principle called the Peter principle, which was developed by Laurence J. Peter. According to the principle, the typical hierarchical management structure allows for people to be continually promoted based on past achievements—with skills that are not necessarily transferable—until they reach a point where they are incompetent. They will then fail to earn further promotions, plateauing at a point above their competency.

The concept of building career equity is the opposite of this principle. If you adopt a growth stock mindset, combined with the career forward principle, you can anticipate and build the skills you need to remain competent—even with an enlarged role. We want to emphasize that although career plateaus can happen at some point in your career, you can overcome them by staying focused on growth. 

The growth stock mantra is simple: Be excellent at what you do, look for chances to grow your network and your capabilities and stay aware of external opportunities. Even if your company is hitting its numbers and everything is going swimmingly, don’t relax and get too comfortable. There is always more you could be doing to better set yourself up for success later. That’s why you should commit to always performing at your highest ability level. 

When you’re pushing yourself to be the best, you’re playing both the long game and the short game, knowing that there will be ups and downs along the way. You can expect years of exceptionally hard work, resiliency and constant learning, but it will be worth it. There’s something exhilarating about seeing how far you can go. Undoubtedly, you’ll learn and evolve in unexpected ways throughout your life and the stages of your career. But if you’re always focusing on improving your ability to contribute, you’ll be incredibly well-positioned for whatever direction life takes you in. Growth stock leaders steer their own boats and career destiny. 

Excerpted from CAREER FORWARD by Christiana Smith Shi and Grace Puma. Copyright © 2024 by Christiana Smith-Shi and Grace Puma. Reprinted with permission of Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Photo By fizkes/Shutterstock.com

Christiana Smith Shi is the former president of Nike’s consumer-direct division where she led the company’s global retail and ecommerce business. Before that she was a senior partner at McKinsey & Co. Christiana has been named one of the Most Influential Corporate Directors by Women, Inc. She currently leads Lovejoy Advisors, which is focused on digitally transforming consumer and retail businesses. Shi is a graduate of Stanford University and has an MBA from Harvard Business School, where she graduated as a Baker Scholar. She lives in Portland, Oregon.

Grace Puma is the former executive vice president and COO of PepsiCo, and before that held senior positions with United Airlines, Kraft Foods, Motorola, and Gillette. A board member of both Organon & Co and Target, she has been ranked on the “Most Powerful Latina” list by Fortune magazine and recognized as the “Executive of the Year” by Latina Style magazine. Puma holds a BA in business administration and economics from Illinois Benedictine University. She lives in Tampa, Florida.