In my experience, many people fall into two buckets.
The first: those who have well-paying jobs they’re happy with, because these jobs pay the bills and provide a good income. These people make lateral moves every few years to roles that pay incrementally more, and will stay on that track likely for the foreseeable future.
The second: a smaller group, who are working or networking day and night and catching up on emails during the weekend. They work hard and seem to operate from an internal force that motivates them to push hard every day.
Here’s the rub: the people in the second bucket don’t necessarily move up faster than those in the first. They look at their jobs as their main source of financial and professional success and take pride in their work, but they often appear to grind for the sake of grinding, and thus miss small opportunities for improvement that lie outside their current path. And so they run the risk of burning out, or determining the most effective steps to move up/advance their career (which typically don’t involve working 24/7).
While the first group may appear to be “treading water,” (or at least, our society loves to think they are), behind the scenes they’re often buying investment properties or working on side projects, or finding other income streams outside their primary employment.
Neither way is right or wrong. During my career, I’ve distilled the best from both groups and come away with some best practices that anyone can apply to their career path — whether it’s becoming an entrepreneur or working for a large company (or both). Here’s what I’ve learned:
1. Prepare for the next, next step
Many people are paying fixed attention to what’s directly in front of them — that next promotion, that first VP role, that next raise. Instead, ask: what’s the next step after that next step is achieved? What is the role I’m preparing for actually preparing me for, and what could I be doing today to get ready for that next-next role?
While at Careerbuilder, I saw that my next step was an enterprise leadership role. But the next step was a regional/area director role. In order to succeed at that next-next role, I would need:
1. Experience selling to Fortune 100 companies
2. A big-picture understanding of the company, and each internal group’s contribution to each other
In anticipation of this next-next step, I went back to school and earned a MBA in order to amp up my understanding of other departments and their role in the enterprise. Once I’d gotten the degree, I quit my role as head of the Pacific Northwest mid markets team and went back into the field as an enterprise sales rep in the San Fran office. After all, how could I lead people 15+ years my senior if I hadn’t walked in their shoes? I used the next 1.5 years to learn the differences between selling to a 5,000 person company, and a 50,000 person MNC.
Then, instead of waiting for an area director role to come my way, I went to Glassdoor as their first VP of Sales. My roles as a leader and as an enterprise sales professional had shown that I was capable, and I made up for a lack of knowledge in other areas by getting that MBA. I had prepared myself for the next, next step and so I got the opportunity to jump two levels at once. It was all about the right preparation, so when the opportunity presented itself, I was there to take it.
2. Write out your goals and make them actionable
By better defining and writing out my goals — both daily/weekly goals, and more long-term goals — and reviewing them on a consistent basis, I was able to ensure I was tracking toward my commitments to myself, and to the company, on an ongoing basis. Anytime I would question what I should be doing, I could look at my goals to keep me on track.
Writing your goals out in a visible and easily accessible format is crucial. This adds a level of accountability which helps keep them tangible and holds you accountable to yourself — and your peers.
3. Discuss your goals with people that can do something about them, and meet their expectations as well as your own
Evan Ross, one of my directors and mentors, taught me a lesson as a young man that has stuck with me. I told him that I wanted to be in leadership, that I had paid my dues and this was my main goal. He made it clear to me that leadership in itself isn’t a goal, because I could control if it happens or not. Rather, “a goal is to understand my expectations of what success looks like, and map my career to that. You can control: your activity, attitude/team building, and your sales.”
Goals are something that are dependent on how hard you work, how well you interact with others, and how well you sell. Nevertheless, its important to fit them to others’ expectations.
I had been with Careerbuilder for four months when a leadership spot opened up. There was a candidate for promotion who had been with the company for 2.5 years, had relocated to Phoenix to help open the office, and had been very vocal about wanting the next leadership role. She consistently beat me month after month in pure sales.
Meanwhile, there was me. I had been working hard to produce results: closing $65,000 in new business in my first four months, and also leading a bi-weekly training for the team. I ended up getting the promotion not just because I could sell, but also because I met my leaders’ other expectations for what makes a leader.
Tip: Your direct boss does not determine in the end if you get promoted or not…his boss does.
4. It’s ok to be bested at some point (you’ll learn from the experience), but it shouldn’t be because you were out worked
Throughout my career I have been astonished by that which separates greatness from mediocrity.
Many mid-level or underperforming reps say, “I’m working 10 hours a day and still not getting promoted…what else can I do?!??!”
Make sure you are the person who puts in the extra 10% that matters, and not the person who puts in the extra time without the extra results. You can spot the difference by seeing if your 10% is actually producing results. Working for working’s sake is not a fulfilling or productive use of your time, and won’t get you anywhere.
Tip: Find the two people that you feel are most successful, and mimic their activities. Ask them to lunch and ask if they’ll share some of their wisdom on productivity with you. No need to reinvent the wheel or “try to make it all on your own.”
Working hard often does not mean working more hours but working better hours on problems that are difficult to fix but necessary to success.
There is no magic bullet for career success, of course, but the above four principles have helped me to achieve much more than I once thought possible. The key is putting yourself in the best situations possible and when the time is right, trust that you have what it takes (or will prepare and do what it takes) to be successful at that next step.
Don’t wait for the next opportunity to surface before you begin preparing for the next-next opportunity.