This post will teach you how to advance your career by doing a few things differently than you have done in the past. The techniques I’ll discuss are based on my own personal experience in the corporate world, at a large and fast-paced software company. They are straightforward approaches you can start using today to get your career on the right track.
What does it mean to advance your career?
Advancing your career, bluntly speaking, is about getting promoted and moving into higher levels of responsibility for whatever it is you do. With this expansion in role, there inevitably comes the spoils of bigger titles, more salary, heftier bonuses, people-management responsibilities and a general feeling of increased worth and pride in your craft.
Why you should care.
One of my teachers, Tony Robbins, is fond of saying “You are either growing or you are dying, there is no such thing as staying in the same place.” Tony is absolutely correct.
The world is changing quickly, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the workplace. Let’s suppose you are a highly talented software engineer, and you show up to work month after month, year after year, and continue to perform the same quality and level of work at your company.
Your coding skills are great, but you decide to not invest much in them. You just keep cranking out high quality code, and at first you see the benefits in terms of accolades from your bosses and increasing salary and bonus levels.
However, as time goes by, you find that new hires are coming into your company with higher and levels of competence. They know shortcuts and hacks for getting work done that allow them to work faster without sacrificing quality. You see that some of the remarkable problems your were able to solve when you were first hired are no longer so remarkable. It is getting harder and harder to impress people.
As time goes by you stop getting the promotions. The bonuses go from great to ordinary to sparse. You notice colleagues getting ahead while you seem to be going backwards in your career. All the while you think to yourself, “How is this happening, I’m a great software engineer! I’m writing code that is just as great as when I was hired!”
Great work, unless it is maintained and continually improved, will with the passing of time be seen as good or even mediocre. Companies are growing and constantly evolving organisms, particularly in the tech space. You cannot expect to maintain the same level of performance over time and still be recognized for outstanding work. The bar will go up over time.
The good news is there is a way out of this “treadmill” of increasing standards at work. Your way out is to set a higher standing for yourself than anyone else does for you. Commit to growing in your job and improving how you work. The majority of people in an organization want bigger rewards but don’t hold themselves up to a high enough standard to merit the rewards.
Make the commitment to yourself, and back it up by doing some journaling and introspection around the things that make you a valuable employee, and consider how to make yourself an even more valuable contributor.
The tips below will also help you out:
5 ways to advance your career:
#1. Create a vision for your career.
Do you have a clear idea for where you want your career to go? Most people don’t think far enough ahead. They are only focused on the next review cycle or bonus payout.
Grab a notebook and spend some time considering how your career has evolved to this point, where you are now and where you want to be in 1, 3, 5, 10+ years.
Whenever I do goal-setting or vision exercises for my own life, I also like to do a “rocking chair exercise”, where I imagine myself as 85 years old and sitting on my front porch in a rocking chair and reflecting back on my life. I highly recommend doing this for a few minutes. Ask yourself from this state of exalted wisdom and experience, “What are you most proud of?”.
When I first joined Microsoft as an intern many years ago, I wrote my career goals on a little sheet of paper, and carried it with me in my wallet. I covered it up in tape to keep it front getting torn to shreds. This paper had my 7 year career plan written on it, complete with the title I thought I’d have, and the job responsibilities I thought I would have 7 years into the future!
I picked a 7 year time horizon since I thought 7 years was “forever” (funny how the mind of a 20-year-old works!) and I figured it was enough time for me to do some pretty awesome things at work.
I even wrote the company I thought I would be working for 7 years into the future as “Company X” since I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be at Microsoft for that long (I was wrong!).
Want to know what happened? Did I meet my lofty goals?
No, I didn’t.
However, I did meet the goal just 2 years after my original deadline!
I achieved the exact title and a very similar job role and responsibility level as I had written on a sheet of paper 9 years earlier.
It took a little longer than I planned, but I did achieve that goal. This is the power of getting clear about your goals, and deciding how you want your career to evolve. It starts with you making a choice.
If you are not 100% sure what your career goals are…don’t worry too much about it. Just make something up that is inspiring to you now, and you can always revise it later. The biggest thing is to just commit to something, write it down, and remind yourself of it on a regular basis.
#2. Commit to mastering your top job skills.
Companies don’t give exceptional rewards to people who dabble. One simple way to standout at your job, is to get laser focused on the top skills that your job requires, and take whatever steps necessary to master those skills.
Mastery doesn’t have to take a Gladwellian 10,000 hours either. We are now living in an age where you can easily get training from world leaders for free on YouTube, and seek out mentors who excel at their craft on free community forums or get your questions answered by industry leaders on sites like Quora.
I consider Mastery a level where I am not just proficient in a skill, but I have the confidence and insight needed around the skill to teach others, particularly those who are complete beginners with whatever I am learning.
For my job at Microsoft, as a Product Planner, I was responsible for envisioning what we needed to build for future versions of our products. To excel at my job, I needed to master broad skills like presenting, public speaking, writing and problem solving while also becoming fluent in the tools of my trade – namely Excel, PowerPoint and a few analytical and statistical software programs. Most importantly, I needed to master the art of how to organize large teams of people (engineers and marketers) to help them create a product vision, and march forward towards that vision through cycles of software development.
Breaking down success in a job to a specific number of skills makes the vague notion of career advancement much more concrete and clear. With clarity, it becomes much easier to devise a plan of attack to achieve your career goal. It is also, practically speaking, easier to know what skills to invest in and how to go about doing that.
#3. Ruthlessly apply the Pareto Principle.
The Pareto Principle is also commonly known as the 80/20 rule. This rule states that 80 percent of the results comes from 20% of the work. This rule has been applied to all types of scenarios, and holds true a scary high amount of the time.
In your career, what are the 20% of projects or tasks that get you 80% of the impact and recognition? What is the 20% of the time spent that results in 80% of the progress and productivity?
Ask yourself these questions thoughtfully and spend some time journaling the answers. You will amazed at what efficiencies you will find. To find even more focus, apply the 80/20 rule two or three times to a given area of your life to get to the heart of what activities are really most fruitful in driving you forward.
Now comes the tough part. Ruthlessly cut out those activities that are not productive and double-down on those that are. Spend more of your time doing “20% time and 80% impact” tasks.
I always applied the Pareto Principle at work, even before I knew what it was. I did so out of necessity.
Throughout my corporate career, I was always very active outside of work, particularly with endurance sports. I started out running a marathon, then graduated to completing Ironman Triathlons and Ultramarathons. I even become a yoga teacher and often taught 2–3 classes a week, on top of a heavy workload in the office. I was forced to learn how to manage my time well. I also wanted to advance my career, so I stumbled upon the Pareto Principle and applied it, on my own, without even knowing what it was.
My coworkers were always amazed with how I got so much done. The trick was ruthless prioritization of activity. I didn’t take any shortcuts. Instead, I spent a good amount of time each week, and each morning, planning my week and day, and committed to focus only on the most impactful things.
The fact that I had to get out and train a bunch to survive my long-distance races provided me with motivation to get to work early, leave work on time, pack my meals and get good nights sleep. It also motivated me to say no to work projects that would be huge time-sinks, without clear ideas for how the project would actually benefit anyone.
Apply the 80/20 rule to you job, and your life as a whole. Focus on high value and high impact projects and tasks. What to do with the rest? Delegate, dump or defer the tasks to a later date. If they are really that important you can get to them later, otherwise, you will more often find that deferred tasks end up disappearing. That shows you how important they really were.
#4. Be clear with manager about your goals.
You manager is not psychic. You must be self-directed in your career. After all, who else but you really cares if you get ahead in your job? Once you start caring, and acting like it, you will be amazed at how many others reciprocate.
If you want to get ahead in your career, you need to make abundantly clear what your career aspiration is, and why you care about it. The key here is not be arrogant about it. Particularly in tech companies, virtually everyone is a high achiever and most, if not all, think they are under-rewarded and worthy of promotion on day 1, whether or not they are truly deserving.
When you talk to your manager, ideally as part of a regularly scheduled career discussion or 1:1 meeting, you should build up your relationship with him or her to the point where you are both on the same page with where you want your career to go in the short (e.g. next few months), medium (1–3 years) and long (3–5+ years) terms.
During these conversations, focus not just on what you want (e.g. a promotion) but why you want it and how you think you can get there by doing great work.
#5. Don’t be a jerk, just be nice. Really!
I’ll never forget one of the last meetings I had prior to leaving Microsoft, after a 14 year career there. A fairly senior member of another team was in the meeting, and I was presenting our plan of attack for an upcoming conference where we would be laying out our strategy for the year to come to a large part of our sales force. This dude, who I’ll leave nameless, didn’t agree with my points.
He was highly vocal, and at one point stood up and starting screaming and pounding the table, claiming that I was out of my league and didn’t know what I was talking about. We were sitting at a conference table with 12 other people, and another 10 folks on a conference call line. Everyone was stunned. In my 14 years at the company, I had never had something like this happen, so frankly I was stunned too!
I had recently moved into my role, so he sorta had a point. What he didn’t know was that my plan was based on copious input from a variety of seasoned veterans in my division, including members of his own team.
What was my response to his fist-pounding tirade? Not much.
I was highly confident in my plan, and had already vetted it with many other folks. This individual was being flamboyant in an attempt to look good in front of his peers, this part was obvious to me, but I was not going to start playing into his charade. I just acknowledged his point and said “I hear your point, but this is our plan and we are moving forward. The time for feedback has passed. Right now you need to sit down and act like a professional for the rest of this meeting; or you can leave, your choice. If there is something truly urgent and critical you disagree with, you can share that feedback, but you need to do so calmly.”
He ended up leaving the room. I saw him later when he calmed down, and we had a more civil discussion in private. Turns our what he really wanted wasn’t far off from what I was proposing, he just didn’t have the patience to listen to my full pitch before interrupting and jumping to the conclusion that I was trying to undermine his authority somehow.
After the meeting, I can’t tell you how many people commented on how I stayed “zen-like” in the midst of that tirade. My decision to take the high-road and not react to someone else’s melodrama made a big impact.
No matter what happens in a meeting or in your career, if you have confidence that you are doing the right thing and are living your values, you cannot go wrong. Just try hard to stay cool and calm under pressure. This is easier said than done, but there are plenty of chances to practice, and practice does make it easier to call upon this state of calm-zen-like-focus at will, when situations become more intense.
The moral of this story is to just be nice. Be nice to your co workers. Be nice to your managers. Be nice to your employees. Treat people in the proverbial way that, “you would like to be done unto you.”
You shouldn’t be a push-over either, but you can still deliver hard messages and stand up to what you believe in without being a jerk. People will remember your being nice far more than they will remember your pom-and-show and name-calling, your tearing other people down or your ranting and raving for attention.
Apply these five tips for advancing your career and let me know how it goes in the comments. Even if you can’t apply all five, pick just or two and give it a go. If you need help, just let me know.