With few exceptions, time spent within your chosen profession will find your career advancing along with your tenure. Even if you never make a conscious effort to improve, evolution has a way of carrying you upward simply due to your increase in experience and knowledge while on the job. Allowing your career to progress in this way, however, is tantamount to stagnation. Rather than leave your success to time and chance, you can do certain things to ensure a purposeful, semi-controlled series of events that will result in accelerated career progression. Yes, it is true; you can affect your professional destiny. In this article, I will touch upon the top four ways to do this: self-improvement, professional networking, managing upwards, and going public.
Who you are as an individual will weigh more heavily in your professional success than any other factor, and can be summarized in three basic ideas: your knowledge, the skill with which you wield it, and how you deal with other people. Since you become better at things when you you practice them, it makes sense to exercise if you wish to improve. What can you do then? You should identify and list the areas in which you want or need to improve, set goals, and formulate a plan to execute.
Making the List
Identifying one’s own shortcomings can sometimes be difficult, as we like to focus on those things in which we excel; yet honest self-examination is critical to self-improvement. Self-examination is an excellent first step, but also ask for feedback from peers, managers, friends, and those closest to you since they can offer insight that you may not have. Some possible areas for improvement are technical knowledge, analytical abilities, and communication and customer service skills. Break each of these into more specific items for improvement, and put them into a written list.
Wherever possible, set specific and challenging goals for each item on your list, as these will serve to both measure your progress and keep you on track. The goal you choose should incorporate the “doing” of it. For instance, if your list includes improving your analytical abilities, your associated goal could be to lead on a project or to volunteer to be the application architect — requiring the use of your analytical skills. Perhaps you’ve never done anything like this before, but that’s okay! This is precisely the kind of self-imposed exercise by which you will grow.
Now that you’ve listed your areas for improvement and set your goals, you need a plan for achieving them. Part of every plan must be reminders to yourself of what you will accomplish. Post your list somewhere obvious, perhaps your cubicle wall, and thoughtfully read it every day, keeping it fresh in your mind and reiterating the reasons behind it.
Most of your goals will be clear and tangible, with the plan to achieve them a simple step-by-step progression from where you are to where you hope to be. If, for instance, you have set a goal to increase your programming knowledge, then why not choose to get your certification as your execution plan? What better way to ensure that your knowledge of the programming language is intimate and well rounded than gaining the credentials to prove it? If certification isn’t an option, you could identify specific areas of the programming language that you have not previously used and assign yourself a project incorporating them. Any tangible experience in a thing is sufficient to increase your understanding of it.
Some of your goals will be less tangible than others. Developing execution plans for these can be extremely challenging, but not impossible. Take, for example, a goal of improving your customer service skills. As an execution plan you could keep a post-it stuck to your phone, reminding you to be pleasant, professional, and helpful. You could also keep notes in obvious and relevant places reminding you to “go the extra mile”, “smile when you say that”, and “anticipate their needs”. Since such goals have no end point, the measure of your success will be the feedback you receive from those you serve. Thankful emails copied to management, shining performance reviews, and even offers from clients to take you to lunch as a reward for a job well done are at least three positive indications that your goals are being achieved.
Networking is about forming alliances. We’ve seen the obvious benefits of alliances in war and politics, and the same precepts hold true in our own personal networks: the more allies you have, the more resources, options, and opportunities you have. Let’s take a deeper look at the whys and hows of networking for career progression.
Why a Network?
When I was newly married at the age of nineteen, I had a best friend named Joe. Joe and I spent a lot of time playing Robotron down at the local pizza joint, and so the time I spent with my wife was sometimes shortened. Naturally she saw this as a very bad thing. One day she angrily told me that I was acting just like Joe. Although the insult bounced off my Shield of Incomprehension quite nicely, it was true that the behavior that annoyed her was in fact just like Joe. We become like those around us. Osmosis does happen, so doesn’t it make sense to surround yourself with those you would like to be like?
What makes networking worth the time and energy? The transfer of knowledge, for one thing. Through conversations, emails, and IMs, I have both received and given many a useful tidbit, trivia, snippet, and factoid. Via my network, I have also had opportunities that would otherwise not have come my way. Ah, and let’s not neglect to mention the fact that your network can quickly fill many if not all of the gaps in your own expertise! For instance, my co-worker might ask me about a problem he’s having on his project. I don’t have an answer for him, so I turn to my good buddy Jim who just happens to have been delving into that very subject four months ago. The point is clear: your personal network is absolutely the best resource for acquiring the knowledge, input, and expertise you need in short order, and rarely will it disappoint.
Building Your Network
The looming question now is: How do you build or enhance your own network? Let’s be clear that invigorating your personal network will require you to come out of your shell on occasion, at least a little bit, to take advantage of opportunities to get to know people. While it is possible to build your network online via fairly anonymous means, a network built that way takes much, much longer and isn’t nearly as solid or deep as one that has face time invested in it.
So how can you get to know someone you don’t know? Begin with the people you already know. Next time you have a question they can’t answer, ask if they know someone else who might. They’ll likely say ‘yes’, and share this other person’s email or IM address. You draft a short, personal introductory email to go with the question you had, and voila! The connection is made.
Make it a point to be where your peers are, both virtually and physically. Participate in technical forums, visiting such sites daily and reading the posts that look interesting. If you know the answer to a question or have what you judge to be valuable input on a topic, by all means, share it! By participating, you’ll get to know who’s good at what, who knows who, who works where, and you’ll even get a little bit of insight into the personalities behind the expertise. Then when you do meet some of those individuals at conferences, you’ll already be two steps ahead.
Search for and attend local user group meetings of people in your profession. Arrive early and sit near the front where you can hear the pre-meeting banter and participate easily. Introduce yourself, make eye contact, say hello. It won’t be long before some form of the world’s most popular professional question, “Where do you work,” will come your way. Be prepared for it, give the short essay answer, and add tidbits that will lead to other questions either then or later. Smile, be personable, and participate with sincerity. Like a falling domino, one “hello” will eventually cascade into being acquaintances, which will lead to other acquaintance. It’s up to you, however, to push the first domino.
Attend conferences relevant to your profession. Attending even one conference can be a sizable investment, but if you’re able to go, there are few places better suited for networking than a conference. At these conferences, sit with people you don’t know and participate in the conversations. Exchange business cards, ask questions, and don’t hesitate to invest the same level of enthusiasm and interest after conference hours at the local attendee retreat (translation: “bar”). Don’t worry about saying something stupid. Nobody goes to a conference to judge other people or compare pedigrees; it’s all about the free exchange of information, so don’t hesitate to take full advantage of this.
Join an online networking group, such as LinkedIn. Sites such as these are designed to help you manage and grow your personal network. As the theory of the “six degrees of separation” states, everybody is connected to everybody else by six levels or less; it may surprise you to learn who the people you know may know .
Let’s not have tunnel vision and focus solely on networking only with other folks within your profession. Most of the qualities and knowledge you seek can be found in many other disciplines and professions as well. Therefore, I recommend that you diversify your personal network so that it includes people from all age groups and walks of life. Such a cornucopia of perspectives can only have a positive effect on your own point of view.
Toastmasters, an outstanding organization that has a presence everywhere, was formed primarily to help its members become better public speakers, and it is quite effective. Most chapters tend to meet at least twice a month and host special social events throughout the year that offer excellent opportunities to network on a more personal level.
Those of you who are self-employed should join your local chamber of commerce and begin participating in their events and social gatherings. Oftentimes chambers of commerce have several committees that are active with projects for the organization or community. Lunchtime presentations and after hours business mixers are a common occurrence; who can resist the professional opportunities those present?
Another organization that has been around for a very long time and has a presence virtually everywhere is the Masons. There may be mixed reactions upon hearing their name, but at their core, based on my personal observations as a Mason, it is an organization of men from all walks of life who believe in, promote, and practice the basic human virtues such as charity and ethical behavior. All Masons are part of a very extensive and well-rounded personal and professional network. Although the Masons limit membership to men, they do have equivalent organizational branches for women and teens: Eastern Star, and DiMolay, respectively.
Whether you raise naked mole rats, are an avid bottle cap collector, or are a self-taught taxidermist, organizations exist with which affiliation would provide excellent networking opportunities.
Gustave Flaubert once said “There is no truth. There is only perception.” The axiom applies as well to the relationship between you and your managers. How you are perceived is a most relevant factor; those who look at you often have the authority to help or hinder your career progression, and it is almost completely within your power to control the way they perceive you. What can you do to help mold the image you have in your manager’s eyes? I call it managing upwards, and it’s a habit that you should acquire and practice. In a nutshell, it’s learning how to recognize your manager’s needs and fulfill them in order to ensure that your own merits are clearly seen.
I once worked with a person who was a guru in his area of expertise. Yet this person was repeatedly passed over for conference opportunities, never selected as a lead on high profile projects, and was not the one chosen to represent our company when technical expertise was needed. His bedside manner wasn’t lacking; He was friendly and articulate. Neither did he lack knowledge or expertise. So why was he not given these opportunities? I believe it was because he consistently neglected to give time and attention to managing upwards, so our manager’s perception of the individual was skewed. He always answered yes/no questions with a yes or a no, he never proactively shared task summaries and never openly expressed any desire for self-improvement. He never went the extra mile, at least not that anyone could see.
An employee’s biggest failing can be in not keeping their manager aware of what he or she is working on, of the status of an existing projects, or generally just “in the loop”. By the time a manager has to ask about your project’s status or about what you’re spending time on, they are probably already seeing things through less than rose-colored glasses. It’s simple to put together a concise status email at the end of the week and send it to them, yet the value of that email is priceless. When requesting training or permission to attend a conference, relieve your manager of the burden of sifting through a mountain of information. You should provide him with a summarized justification as to why it is a good investment. When your manager asks you questions that could be addressed with a concise answer, don’t respond with the easy yes or no when you can clearly see that such an answer will likely lead to further questions; anticipate those questions and provide your manager with a full, thorough answer. Maintain communication with your superiors on every front; it won’t be soon forgotten.
Make your manager look good. Any time you can make your manager look good in his manager’s eyes, this is a good thing. Opportunities to do so don’t come along all that often, so be watchful for them. These can be things like demonstrations or presentations to be done for people outside your own group, high-profile projects, or emergency requests or fixes that are suddenly dropped in your lap. Anything that will be highly and immediately visible to those outside of your department has the potential to either make your own manager shine or be highly tarnished. The key to handling these projects correctly is to give them the same importance as your manager gives them, and give them your best efforts.
Treat every aspect of your job as if you will be judged by both the results you produce and the way in which you go about producing them, because you will. In the end, the little things that were all in a day’s work will likely be one of the determining factors in your professional progress.
Taking Yourself Public
It’s easy to see how your manager’s perception of you is a vital to your career progression, but what about within your professional community? Although not a requirement for career advancement, having a solid reputation among your peers on a global scale can cast you in just the right light in the eyes of prospective employers or clients.
Going public is nothing more than sharing your expertise with the community in a way that benefits others and humbly promotes you. If you do decide to build a public professional reputation, note that it is a very delicate road requiring much care, good etiquette, purposeful planning, and a watchful eye. In many respects it can bear a great resemblance to political races, with every action and word scrutinized ahead of time to ensure that the public’s view of the candidate will always lean to the positive. However, there are more differences here than similarities. Taking yourself public is not a contest with any other individual, nor should your motives be pride or a hunger for fame. Rather, the objectives and motivations are to share what you know, give back to the community, and to help others learn and grow. The results of doing this well? A good public reputation.
In the old days a young girl’s transition to womanhood was celebrated with a formal coming out ball. By contrast, your own coming out should be done subtly and somewhat quietly, not with a bang. Coming out with a bang… going from little to no public contributions to flooding the web overnight…may actually have an adverse effect. Here are some suggested ways to begin the coming out process.
If you aren’t already, you should begin blogging, sharing useful tidbits of your knowledge and experience. It is important to be mindful not only of the technical aspect of your posts, but most especially of the human aspect. Lace your posts with an air of humility, not pride or condescension. Be mindful of the overall tone of your posts. Most importantly, remain utterly aware of your audience, and take care to craft your posts with them in mind. After all, there’s not much point in investing the time to share information that is intelligible to only a minority. These may sound like trivial concerns, but readers don’t filter out the human side of blog posts, and it is through the tone of your writing that your peers will begin to get a feel for who you are and form their opinion of you as a person.
Once you feel that your posts might be useful to the masses, you can expand your audience by requesting that your blog be added to some of the more popular blog aggregators. Once a post has been consumed by an aggregator, there will be more eyes on you than you probably anticipated, so read and reread your posts before committing them. Either much grief or much joy can come of aggregators, depending on the care you take before posting.
Participating in forums was mentioned previously as professional networking, so I won’t delve into it again too deeply. The same admonishments apply here. In a forum you are represented, as a person and a professional, by your written word only. If you don ‘t take care, it is quite easy for your reader to misinterpret your meaning. Additionally, be sure to respond to posts only if you feel you have something to offer. Resist the urge to participate in threads that are ripe with flaming or other off-topic content. Always remember your audience.
User Group/Conference Attendance
This is yet another area mentioned earlier. When taking yourself public, consider the opportunity for you to share your expertise in a more formal and live fashion: as a speaker! Nearly every conference has a call for speakers some months before the actual event, and every user group needs presenters on a monthly basis. If you have something to offer on the theme at hand, don’t rule yourself out as a potential presenter!
Being selected as a contributor to a magazine is indeed a privilege and honor. It is also an outstanding way to take yourself public. As your contributions are published, people begin to associate your name with your knowledge and the personality that you display through your writings, allowing these readers to form an opinion of who you are.
To contribute to a publication requires perseverance, a decent ability to write, and ideas worth printing. The best way to become a contributor is to write several articles or columns and submit them. There are good odds that your work will be selected at least once, and often one opportunity can grow into others.
Your Personal Site
Your personal site is the one place where you should take the time to let people know more about your inner workings. You might think being personal on your site is a bad move. After all, we’re talking about going public with your professional reputation. Will showing some of your more personal traits actually undermine your efforts? Not if you are mindful to keep your personal site’s content tasteful. At the same time, don’t be afraid to show your human side. One of the most memorable conference sessions I ever attended was by a man named Joey Coleman, who gave a presentation entitled “Your Personal IPO.” It was about using your website to let people know who you are, for both personal and business reasons. Within ten minutes, using a slide show format, Joey managed to give the audience enough information to make them feel as though they’d known him all his life. Some aspects of yourself that may deem to be trivial but are actually relevant are facts such as where you’re from, your life growing up, your aspirations, highlights of your life, family, career progression, hobbies, musical interests, travel, and just anything about you that stands out in your own mind as a feature of your identity. Use your site to get creative in this way and let people know who you are! Oh, and if you ever get a chance to hear Joey speak, be sure not to miss it.
Your Google Resume
Two months ago I was in negotiations with a prospective client. Our final interview went well. The client surprised me by telling me that he had googled me and was satisfied that I was the man for the job. Every blog post, every newsgroup post, every time I responded on a forum…it was all there for his viewing pleasure, and to some degree he relied on what he had found to help him make his decision. So even if you do decide not to go public on purpose, you should bear in mind that you may very well have already done so.
In this article we’ve looked at some of the factors that play a role in your professional evolution. Purposefulness, patience, and a good work ethic can indeed influence both the velocity and success of your career. Building and honing your skill set, placing yourself among those who possess the qualities you desire, and being mindful of your reputation among your peers, managers, and the community as a whole are all just a few of the many facets of your career which, when tended to, will help pave the way to reaching your goals.