“I would love to hear all about your career path and how you planned to get to your role today.” This was a question I was hit with last week during a mentoring session with a colleague I just started working with. I have to admit, it stopped me in my tracks and left me wondering if I could admit to this enthusiastic young talent that I, in fact, have not been working against a long term career plan?
I thought about maybe cobbling together some quick thoughts that spoke about a detailed long term development plan, clear goals and objectives. I also thought about brushing it off and just telling her it was luck, chance, and being in the right place at the right time. However, I quickly realized not only were neither of these scenarios true, they were also not helpful at all. So I told the truth; I admitted to not having worked with a clear long term and well defined development plan and spoke about five things that made a real difference in my career.
- Have a “development plan” in place and review it regularly - While I may not have had a step-by-step development plan clearly detailed out, I have always taken time each year to think about my development goals, identify activities to engage in that support my development and discuss this with my manager. This has created self-accountability and an awareness of the areas that I want to work on. I look back at the end of the year to measure my progress and this helps me set up my development planning in the coming year.
- Know your strengths and your weaknesses - Some call them “areas for development,” but I call them “weaknesses” and I share mine to anyone who will listen. I subscribe to the adage that “admitting it is the first step.” By communicating my weaknesses, I create a new level of awareness in myself that enables me address them, evolve how I want to, and do what is necessary for growth as a leader. Admitting them has also created opportunities for direct feedback from the individuals I have shared them with. My team has been more than happy to inform me that, yes, in fact I do that, or even in some cases what I think is a weakness they don’t see as problematic. This feedback has been very important for my development.
- Look for opportunities each and every day to develop - A few years ago someone said to me that they saw my name on every project we had under way in HR and asked why. I was quick to share that I truly believe the best way to develop is to take on projects and/or roles that introduce you to new topics and skills. Don’t be afraid to sign on for something that you know very little about; in fact, it is my goal to continue to work in areas where I have little experience. The last two roles I’ve had put me in a situation where I was asked to lead when I knew less about the topics than anyone else on the team. Scary? Yes, but what an opportunity to learn! By knowing your strengths you can leverage those to contribute, while you simultaneously learn a whole lot. Participating in projects not only supports personal development, but it also expands your network and visibility. This can be a big advantage when new opportunities come up, as more individuals will know you and your work.
- Learn from others - Mentors are a fantastic learning resource, but how can you incorporate learning from others into your everyday work? Early on in my career, one of my best leadership role models was actually the worst leader I ever worked for. What did I learn? Everything that I did not want to do myself as a leader. From other leaders, I have also learned about the type of leader and contributor I want to be. In every situation I enter into, I actively look for the opportunity to try a skill I have been working on, or to learn something new from someone in the room. This may seem daunting, but try taking just two minutes to reflect at the end of a meeting and capture what you learned. Additionally, it is even better if you can go into the situation knowing what you are hoping to gain out of it.
- Do not be afraid to take a risk - A couple of years ago, I was talking myself out of an opportunity, saying I wasn’t ready for it and I didn’t think it would be good for my family. Fortunately, my mentor directly challenged me to not say, “No” before I had a chance to learn more about the role and see if it was something that could work. Really what he did was call out my unfounded fears and encourage me to learn what I needed to learn and to take a risk. “What is the worst that could happen?” is what he asked and he was right. Every risk I have taken, while initially hard, has resulted in long term success and career growth. If I had not been willing to take risks along the way, my career would have taken a very different route, even if it had been detailed and well planned.
So as I spoke with my mentee, who was thinking about her career development and planning for this year, my advice was not to get hung up on having the perfect plan with a clear answer of where she wanted to be in five years. I encouraged her to understand her career development needs, her strengths and her weaknesses. I told her to think about what she wants to grow toward- it doesn’t have to be a specific role, as it could be to an area of the business, or a set of responsibilities- and then plan a few actions to help her get there.
You must seize opportunities when they come your way and don’t be afraid to take a risk. If you practice these things throughout the year, you will be well on your way to the career you want!