How to take control of your career

In September 2016, the company I work at hosted a Women’s Leadership Conference entitled, “It’s Your Move.” The idea behind the theme was that every person is not only responsible for the direction of their own careers, but they are much more empowered than they might think. With some careful planning and the use of a multitude of resources, each of us can move strategically along the career path of our choosing.

Let me be real, I picked the theme out of a sense of defiance. After hearing story after story of women who were told they couldn’t get a promotion, get a raise, lead a company, break into a certain field and ultimately take control of her own career, I decided that it was time to defy these barriers and false narratives.

Being in control of your career takes boldness. It might mean venturing into an area that you might not be familiar with because there aren’t many role models yet. Being in control of your career takes confidence. It means knowing who you are, knowing your strengths and weaknesses (but focusing on your strengths) and knowing what you want. Inwardly, we need to take the stance of the defiant girl facing off against the Wall Street bull. Being in control of your career will require you to be strategic. It will require to you make the right connections, be seen by the right people and speak up at the right times. It will also mean that you have to make corrections and changes as needed.

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There are some things in life that are true mysteries.  Career advancement doesn’t have to be one of them. We still have a long way to go before there is more representation of women in key decision-making positions, but we’re seeing more women entering the C-Suite. It will still take many years to close the wage gap, but more women are learning how to negotiate for fair wages. We are making strides because, in addition to our expertise and training,  we are learning how to use the tools (sponsorship, networking, negotiation) that have always been available.

My career journey will be much different than yours but we all have the same tools at our disposal. What we do with them will make all the difference. When it comes to career advancement, fortune favors the bold, confident and strategic.

Career Advancement Best Practices

When it comes to your career, always remember that you’re in charge. There are some elements that are beyond your control (amount of job openings, proximity to jobs etc), but in a general sense, you set the pace and the direction. Think of each phase of your career as a project that you manage. In the early stages of your career (up to 5 years), your focus should be on skill development and the building of professional relationships. As you approach the mid-career stage, you should be able to demonstrate the application of best practices and industry standards and start to set yourself up as a contributor of ideas. Finally, as you approach Manager/Director/C-Suite, it’s time to brand yourself as an industry leader and Subject Matter Expert. Look for opportunities to speak and get published (even if it’s on your own blog).

A couple of caveats here. Time-frames are not set in stone. Even though the average age for entrance into the C-Suite is 53, you can get there sooner. You don’t have to be a newbie for 5 years if you master your craft beforehand. Also remember that whatever your title (or age), you are a leader and people are watching you, so act like someone you, yourself, would follow.

Even though your approach to work may change depending on your level of responsibility and experience level, there are some best practices that you should have in place no matter what career stage you’re at.

Continuous Learning

We’ve all heard it said that leaders are learners. This is more than a catch-phrase. The value of Professional Development cannot be downplayed when it comes to career advancement. Studies have shown that organizations that encourage professional development activities are more likely to produce employees who are loyal to the organization, align more closely with the company vision and as a result, progress more rapidly than peers who don’t participate.

Increase your Visibility

In an earlier post entitled 4 Ways to Increase your Visibility at Work, I talk about ways to get out of the shadows and in front of key decision-makers. This is usually one of the first pieces of advice that I give to younger employees. We sometimes have the mistaken idea that as long as you work hard, your boss will notice, and reward you for your diligence. While this may be true some of the time, it won’t make you a stand-out in your field. I was recently impressed by a young female in the accounting field who is progressing rapidly in her career. As we spoke, she told me that she would reach out to her managers for training and spend one-on-one time with them. They were all so impressed with her drive and initiative that they all personally took the time to sponsor her in her career. For mid-career professionals, increase your visibility by getting on the speaking circuit. Volunteer to speak at conferences and other networking events. For professionals with more responsibility, consider becoming a sponsor or mentor. Also remember, the higher you climb in an organization, the more likely you are to be a representative of the brand. Use that platform to help your company shine and to also highlight your accomplishments.

Find a Sponsor

Sponsorship is something that I talk about often as it is one of the most neglected ways to advance your career – at least among women. Sponsorship involves an influential person becoming your career advocate. A sponsor will use their “political capital” to speak on your behalf, recommend you for high-profile projects, put you in front of the right people and help you to get promoted. The young accountant mentioned earlier became a protege of more than one sponsor in her organization. Since she had managed to increase her visibility (through her desire to learn and initiative) now every time a promotion or opportunity opens up, they immediately recommend her.

If you have a sponsor, consider yourself blessed. Your career will progress much more quickly than if you tried to navigate it on your own. If you don’t have one, make a plan to find one.

Network

Networking is another way to increase your visibility outside of the organization. Regardless of where you are in your career, you should make an effort to attend both formal and informal networking events. Conferences, symposiums, and similar events give you exposure to industry leaders, keep you on top of the trends and allow you to be noticed by a wider variety of people. Networking can really open up your eyes to new possibilities and give you a perspective that your job alone can’t give. As I always say, networking is about reciprocity and relationships should be formed from an authentic place of interest in the other person. While networking can reap benefits for you, never forget that you have a lot to offer others. Look for opportunities to meet other people in your industry. An exercise that I like to do at every networking event I attend is to introduce myself to someone just starting out in their career as well as someone more experienced that I can learn from. I’m always surprised at how much I learn from people on both sides of the career spectrum.

Enjoy the journey

As I said at the start of this piece, you have control over your own career. That’s not to say that things will always be easy and that you won’t experience setbacks along the way. The key is to know who you are, set clear objectives for yourself and enjoy every step of your career journey.

Leverage Failure for Future Career Success

Even though I have a lot of finance and accounting experience, it’s not my favorite thing to do. I admit that I enjoyed the money that I earned in this field, but I never had a real passion for it. I’m a firm believer in working to your strengths, so when the opportunity came for me to work in Project/Program Management, I gracefully exited the world of finance. Or so I thought. In my most current role, I am responsible for the L&D budget. This means that I have to set the budget and track each income and expense item for the program. Pretty straightforward, except that I would much rather plan, facilitate, strategize and build people.

For the most part, I was on top of the budget, but a major item slipped through the cracks and caused me to report significantly more income than the program had actually made. There were actually two mistakes here. The first, and perhaps the lesser of the two, was the administrative error that caused the miscalculation. In my final reconciliation before submitting my Board report, something didn’t seem right, but I ignored that instinct. This was the major mistake. I knew enough about budgeting to know that a 30% variance from forecast shouldn’t be ignored – but the numbers were saying something else. Errors like this can be big a problem when your program is self-funded, so I should have been checking not only once, but twice and possibly three times.

I had a moment, or maybe a day of panic and frustration because of this failure. Unless you have someone’s life in your hands, no mistake is fatal. I wasn’t happy with it, but I was determined to learn from it. Here’s what I learned about failure in this instance.

I) Own the mistake

Rather than make excuses for your error, the best thing to do is to own it.

  • Acknowledge that you made the mistake.
  • Don’t shift blame.

My mistake was pretty major. The error was entirely mine and it shouldn’t have happened. Based on this incorrect information, we could have spent money that we didn’t even have. Thankfully, we caught it in time.

You may have failed at something, but that doesn’t make you a failure. Mistakes don’t have to be fatal and they don’t have to define you unless you allow them to. Admittedly, the consequences of this error were unpleasant. I had to tell my boss that we hadn’t performed as well as we had thought and the financials had to be completely amended to adjust for the missed item.

II) Lessons Learned

Lessons Learned is a Project Management Best Practice. The idea here is that knowledge can be gained from every experience – good or bad. After you’ve acknowledged your part in the mishap, now’s the time to start looking at what exactly went wrong.

  • Do you need more training in a particular area?
  • Were you lacking information to make a complete decision?
  • Did you have proper systems in place?
  • Were you overwhelmed by your workload?

After some careful examination, you should be able to get to the source of the error. For me, the error was an administrative one. I hadn’t put a system of checks and balances in place that would flag me when an item was overlooked. I relied on my memory, and we all know how that can go. By documenting your lessons learned, you can gain a deeper understanding of what happened. It also serves as a historical document for someone else doing your job.

III) Make Adjustments

Once you know why something went wrong, you can more readily work on ways to prevent it from reoccurring. As mentioned earlier, Project Managers work most effectively when we can apply Best Practices. This means that we don’t reinvent the wheel unless we absolutely have to. One of our Best Practices is the Monitor & Control of processes. There are templates and procedures in place that help to reduce the occurrence of human error.

If you use failure to leverage future success, no opportunity will ever be a wasted one.

I had become siloed in my thinking, wrongly believing that Project Management and Finance were two completely separate worlds when there is, in fact, a lot of overlap between the two. When I framed budgeting in reference to Monitoring & Controlling, a language I was more fluent in, it created a system that I more readily embraced.

IV) Move On

Don’t let one mistake define you or derail your career momentum. After the dust settled, I emailed my boss to let her know how the error happened and what I would do to prevent it from happening in the future. Even though she didn’t ask me to, I increased my level of accountability and reported back much more frequently. I created a few simple templates that would ensure no item was missed and saw my reporting accuracy improve significantly. We laugh about this mishap now that it’s in the past.

Failure isn’t fatal

Looking back, I am grateful not for the failure, but for the learning that came out of it. I learned that there were areas that I needed to develop in myself in order to become better at my job. As a result, I took a few budgeting and finance courses to ensure that I could do this part of my job to the best of my ability. I also took an SQL course that taught me how to build databases. I started applying an old time-management trick I learned early on in my career. Do the thing you like least first thing in your day. When audit time rolls around, I close my office door and set aside time each morning to focus completely on finances. This ensures that I’m fresh when I’m looking at those numbers and that I’m also free from distractions.

Success > Failure

Here’s where the success comes in. Since I took the time to re-work my finance processes so that they were much more accurate, I now have more time to focus on the aspects of my job that I really enjoy. I still have to do my projections and reconcile spreadsheets, but I have much more confidence in their accuracy. My SQL training has allowed me to build functional databases that are more accurate than what I had been using. If I hadn’t made the error, I would still be spending extra time on that part of my job.

We all make mistakes and we all fail at times. The outcome is entirely dependent on what you do with it. If you use failure to leverage future success, no opportunity will ever be a wasted one.

 

Sponsorship -An Essential Tool for Career Success 

Whether you’re building your entrepreneurial empire or scaling the corporate ladder, there are essential tools that you will need to ensure career success. At the minimum, you should know how to work your network, communicate effectively and exhibit emotional intelligence. Those skills will get you in the door, but if you truly want to differentiate yourself from the rest, you need to find a sponsor. 

What is sponsorship?

People are under the wrong impression that coaching, mentoring and sponsorship are interchangeable, but they differ in form and function. They are all important to your career development, but sponsorship is more powerful. All three have career advancement as the end goal, but where coaching and mentoring involve the planning, sponsorship is about the doing.

“A coach talks to you, a mentor talks with you, and a sponsor talks about you.”

A sponsor is a prominent person who uses their strong influence to increase your visibility. Think of a sponsor as your career champion who can open closed doors and put you in front of the right people.

Strategies to attract sponsors

An overarching theme of Partnhers is being strategic and intentional about your own career and success.

PartnHER Strategic Life Plan

  1. Think about what you want.
  2. Develop a plan of action.
  3. Go after what you want.
  4. Have fun while you’re doing it.

Strategic Sponsorship Plan

In the same way, you should be strategic about finding a sponsor. In most cases, it doesn’t just happen. You are responsible for increasing your own visibility and profile. Your plan can look something like this.

Strategic Sponsorship Plan

  1. Research SME’s or Thought Leaders in your field. Learn from them.
  2. Reach out to them.
  3. Put yourself in front of them.
  4. Let them see you in action.

If all goes well, your sponsor will have seen enough potential in you to endorse you to other power brokers. The rest is up to you. Just remember that this is a two-way relationship and it works best if both parties benefit. The sponsor should treat this relationship as they would any investment – with great time and care. Likewise, the protégé should be enhancing their sponsor’s reputation and not draining them.

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No matter where you are in your career journey, it’s never too late to find a sponsor. The most successful people have had more than one sponsor throughout their careers. They see this as a valuable tool that can open doors and increase their visibility to the people that matter.