I had the opportunity to spend some time with a relatively new member of my organization at work this week and talk about our careers, goals, and priorities. Eager to grow where she currently works, she asked me what had been helpful for me and what she might do to accelerate her career path.
The question of “how do I advance faster” is complex; it depends on many factors, like the organization’s culture and growth trajectory as well as the individual’s performance, work ethic, and “fit" with the culture and where the company is growing. For example, if your company isn’t growing, it will be challenging to find internal promotions unless others open up a spot when they are promoted, leave, or retire. For me, I had a couple unique benefits based on good timing; I was the third person hired in the department and consequently had a lot more visibility than someone at a company of 500 or 150,000 people. I also benefitted from great leaders and mentors who assigned projects and opportunities not typical for most entry-level associates.
Additionally, wasn’t afraid to take some risks and challenge myself. For example, when I was 23 years old I moved from Ohio to Missouri to work for a company that was in the process of a complete transformation, where I knew no one and the role was largely undefined. In this case, the potential upsides outweighed the potential downsides, so I packed up my car and headed west. The first three months were challenging and uncomfortable, and consequently came with a great level of personal and professional satisfaction as well a new sense of independence.
There are three ways I have, or continue to, challenge myself and see the direct impact on my career.
Take New Roles (that I’m not ready for yet). I have never felt prepared or qualified for any position beyond my entry-level role as an analyst. When I'm in a new role, I have a high degree of discomfort for anywhere from six months to a couple years while I “figure it out.” While the initial experience is stress-inducing, the satisfaction of learning and accomplishment make up for it. Moving into a role in which you lack experience for the position requires tenacity; you have to be determined to figure it out. You also must be humble enough to know when ask for help from others and admit when you don’t know something (which is usually quite often and tough to do). The upsides are that you learn more at a faster pace and establish a reputation that you can solve problems and are up for a challenge.
Go to Graduate School (if you haven't already). Originally, I wanted to take two years off of work and go back to business school (ideally closer to my home). The enjoyment I had from my job and some personal ties to the area led me to research local business school programs and ultimately attend the professional, part-time program at Washington University in St. Louis. Whether you go back part-time or full-time, graduate school exposes you to new ideas, people, and situations that you will not learn at any job. Graduate school is a wonderful way to stretch yourself to learn new things, better manage your time, and expand your network. A Master's degree also qualifies you for a host of more challenging and senior-level positions.
Complete Special Projects (outside your scope of responsibility and expertise). Leading or participating in special projects is a fantastic way to challenge yourself, especially if you aren’t in a position to take on a new role. Over the years, I have gained expertise on areas I otherwise would know nothing about through special projects, making me more well-rounded and giving me extra confidence when I talk about those topics. It has also afforded me the opportunity to work with different people and build relationships across the company. Special projects pose the greatest challenge when the topic is in an unfamiliar area and/or you add it to an already full workload, because you have to figure out how to learn about the topic quickly as well as be more effective with your time.
What is the greatest career risk you’ve ever taken? How did it work out?