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To Get Ahead, Think Ahead

5 steps to help you advance in your career

Web Abstract:

  • Think beyond your next job to get ahead in your career.
  • Recruit mentors to help you identify and develop the skills you need for career advancement.
  • Your experience and accomplishments show employers you're qualified for the job you want.

Each week I speak with high-performing individuals who are seeking career advice. These people are almost always ambitious and talented, but they're often doing a disservice to their career by not thinking far enough ahead. They focus on what the next logical step in their career might be, but they don't look any further ahead than that next step.

Focusing only on the next step on the job ladder often results in developing a deep but narrow skill set that's unique to a specific class of jobs. That might be fine if you want to stay within that type of job, but if you're looking to go further, the narrow skill set that you're developing might not be sufficient to take you to your ultimate objective.

The key to getting ahead in your career is to look past your next job. Here's a five-step strategy for thinking ahead that you can use in your own career or to help your employees advance in their careers.

Step 1: Think a Job Ahead

Whenever you find yourself ready to change jobs or advance to the next level in your career, take time to think about what you want the next job after that one to be. I like to call the job two steps ahead of where you are right now "the job that you really want."

The reason to think another step ahead is because your next opportunity must equip you with the skills and experience you need for the subsequent job—the one you really want. Ask yourself "What gaps in my current skills and experience do I need to fill before I can get the job I really want?" Your next job should help you fill those gaps. For example, if you're a frontline manager of administrators, it's unlikely that you'd be able to step directly into the position of director of operations. You need to think about the skills that you're lacking for the director of operations position, then make sure your next job takes you closer to your goal.

Step 2: Find Mentors

Identify people who currently have the job you really want or a comparable one and ask them for a few minutes of career mentoring. Send each person your resume in advance and explain your intentions.

During the meeting, be up-front. Explain that you'd eventually like to have a job similar to the one that your mentor has. Summarize your experience and your current role. Then, ask what would prevent you from getting your mentor's job if you were to interview today to succeed him or her.

After talking with a few people, determine the common themes that arose across those discussions. You should be able to identify a set of skills and achievements that you'll need to qualify for the job you really want. Building on the earlier example, you might find, for instance, that the people who currently hold director of operations and network operations manager positions aren't confident that you have the experience necessary to manage a seven-figure budget, would prefer a candidate who has a stronger business background, and believe that you'll need to show that you've successfully managed people of multiple disciplines rather than just administrators.

By seeking out mentors who hold positions similar to the one you want to eventually have, you'll expand your professional network more than you would have been able to by networking only with your co-workers and current manager. You might very well meet people who know of opportunities that could help you further your career. It's also important to stay in touch with those mentors as you progress in your career. At some point in the future, those people might have a need for someone with your skill set or experience. Making yourself known and leaving a positive impression on the people you meet with can pay huge dividends in the future.

Step 3: Obtain Needed Skills and experience

When you have a clear idea of the types of skills and experience you'll need in order to get the job you really want, map those skills and that experience to a job that will help you obtain them. You might find that there's more than one job between you and the job you really want, but you should be able to plan your ascension strategically.

Continuing with our earlier example of moving from being a frontline manager of administrators to a leadership position in the IT department, you realize that as a front- line manager, you've never been involved in forecasting and managing a budget. Your management experience might also be limited to overseeing a few people who report directly to you as the functional expert in your group. To become qualified for the leadership position you want, you'll need to develop budgeting skills and broaden your management experience.

To gain experience in managing a budget, you might want to pursue a position in which budget management is a core responsibility. Alternatively, you could ask your current manager to give you a role in the budgeting process. To build your business background, you might enroll in a certificate program in finance or organizational management at a local university or community college. To broaden your management experience, you might consider looking for a position that expands your role beyond just the area in which you're recognized as a technical expert. For example, you might go after a job as the manager of a line of business (LOB) application team that includes developers as well as administrators. Such a position gives you a chance to demonstrate that you can be successful in other areas and can adapt to new situations. Put them all together, and these actions constitute your plan of attack for achieving the skills and experience you need.

Step 4: track and Quantify Your Achievements

As you learn new skills and broaden your experience, be results-driven and quantify your accomplishments. As you progress in your career, your accomplishments and results become more important than how you spent your time. For instance, consider the difference in these two resume bullet points:

  • Managed budget for LOB application team
  • Grew LOB application user base by 50 percent while reducing per-user costs by 16 percent

The first statement simply describes how you spent your time; the second recounts what you actually accomplished. Both points might describe you, but the first is much more effective and impressive than the second.

Step 5: Focus on Your Strengths

Often, I find that otherwise well-qualified individuals disqualify themselves from a job after reading the job description and seeing a requirement or two that they can't fulfill. For example, a job description for the position of director of operations might state that applicants must have an MBA or experience with a specific software package, neither of which you possess. But you shouldn't assume that you'd never be considered a viable candidate for that job. Most job descriptions are boilerplate templates that might—or might not—apply exactly to the job you're interested in. Instead of being discouraged by deficits in your experience, think about the assets that you'll bring to the position: the skills, experience, and accomplishments that uniquely qualify you for the role. Focus on those assets and play them up.

It's Who You Know and What You Know

I constantly see people make huge strides in their careers simply by thinking ahead, identifying the job they really want, and planning their path to that position. Along the way, they might debate the cliche"It isn't what you know, but who you know." As is so often the case, the cliche is wrong: It's both who you know and what you know. Follow this five-step strategy, and you'll come out ahead in both areas. And don't forget, as you take that next step up the career ladder, to advance your thinking and your planning another step into the future.

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