This is part two of a series offering practical tips to help you chart your career course with confidence – view the entire series
It’s no mystery there are fewer opportunities the higher you advance in an organization. Politics aside, the people who get those positions have usually been successful at growing their value over time. Whether you aspire to an executive position or have a more modest career target in mind, you’ll likely compete with others for those positions.
In this article, we’ll explore practical tips to help you build career capital. Invest in these four areas – reputation, connections, knowledge, and experience – and you will differentiate yourself from your peers, increase your capabilities, and position yourself well for a promotion.
The hallmarks of a great reputation are doing quality work, having a great attitude and being a team player. Here are some things you should know about a great reputation:
- It’s table stakes. That means without a good reputation as a starting point, you’re not even in the game. So if you mess this one up, you can skip the other three ways to build career capital.
- It takes time. I love the enthusiasm of new college grads, don’t you? So eager to prove themselves, so ready to move on to the next position. Not so fast. You have to put in the work to build this reputation before you’re ready to move on to the next.
- It matters at every level, whether you’re a document scanner or the CEO. No matter how menial your current position, give it your very best.
- You don’t get a free pass for extenuating circumstances. So, you have a lousy boss? Your teammates don’t pull their weight? That’s really frustrating. Truth is, we all face frustrations. Do quality work, have a great attitude and work well with others in spite of frustrating circumstances.
- It doesn’t require perfection. We all make mistakes. How you deal with a mistake will either improve or tarnish your reputation. Own it, clean up the mess, and learn from it.
Sure, we all know we’re supposed to network, right? That’s why we collect LinkedIn connections like we’re a Beanie Baby collector who just discovered eBay.
To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with having a large number of LinkedIn connections, but the kind of connections I’m recommending are real live honest-to-goodness, mutually beneficial relationships. That requires more than just the virtual equivalent of exchanging business cards at a conference.
Here are a few tips for building these connections:
- Be a giver. Approach networking with the idea of what you can give, not just what you can get. Yes, of course, you’re interested in what you can gain from this person’s background and experience, but look for ways you can share from your experience as well.
- Be genuine. Listen for important facts and jot down some notes so you’ll remember those details the next time you connect.
- Focus on quality over quantity. You know a lot of people and you have limited time. Identify your most important professional contacts and invest your time in those.
- Periodically make contact. Perhaps it’s an invitation to lunch, an email congratulating them on an achievement, or a book recommendation. Relationships must be cultivated.
- Diversify. Develop a network with broad skills and experience and you will have a deep well of insight to draw from.
- Keep expanding your list. Your network connections should keep pace with the ever-changing business landscape.
- Job-specific knowledge. Whether it’s your current position or the one you aspire to, consider what knowledge and skills would increase your value. Maybe it’s a certification in Project Management or Supply Chain. Perhaps it’s a broader competency, like how to give an effective presentation. These knowledge gaps can often be addressed through industry groups, college course work, or online tutorials. A relatively new (and free!) option may be a MOOC. MOOC stands for Massive Open Online Course and represents a highly disruptive event in higher education, where big-name universities offer certain virtual courses at no cost, but without degree credit. With a little research, you may find just what you need in a MOOC.
- General Knowledge. For this one, flash back to your high school Current Events class. At the time, you probably had very little interest in political trends, foreign wars, or anything outside the realm of pop culture. It just didn’t seem relevant. As a smart and aspiring professional, however, you now recognize the relevance of developments outside your immediate frame of reference. Right? No matter what your role in today’s global business ecosystem, it’s a critical skill to stay abreast of changes in technology, regulation, and geopolitical events and understand how those developments may impact your business.
Fortunately, it’s never been easier to stay current. With social media, real-time information is only a click away. Instead of trying to reserve a block of time to read print publications, I now tap into multiple social media channels such as Twitter, blogs, Ted Talks, LinkedIn, and podcasts to access information. Using a “skim and dive” technique, I use little snippets of time to quickly scroll through topics, marking the ones I want to come back to for a deeper read.
Finally, build your career capital by expanding your experience. In the early years, this can be a real challenge, since most higher-level positions come with experience requirements you haven’t had the opportunity to gain. Here are some ways you can gain relevant experience:
- Volunteer for special projects. Many companies assemble cross-functional teams for certain initiatives. In our company, examples include environmental, safety, and continuous improvement teams. In addition to broadening your experience, serving on a cross-functional initiative will also build your knowledge and your connections.
- Get involved in community or non-profit groups. Don’t just join. Raise your hand! Lead a United Way team, serve on the school board, organize a fund-raising event, join a committee at your local Chamber of Commerce –these experiences offer valuable lessons in team-building, leading through influence, and project management.
- Accept a lateral move. Your best career move may be across the building in a different department. The “career ladder” model of yesterday has largely been replaced by a “career lattice” model, reflecting the need for broad experience across several disciplines. So, consider an opportunity outside of your current functional area. Even if it doesn’t come with a higher salary or fancy title, it may be your smartest move.
Building career capital takes time and attention, but the return on investment is well worth the effort. Not only will you improve your chances for a promotion, you’ll be able to make greater contributions in your current role as well.
About the Author
Riddle me this, Batman: what do the Securities and Exchange Commission, at-risk children, poetry, global talent management, and journalism all have in common? Answer: they all represent a chapter of my rather patchwork career! Not surprisingly, I sometimes chuckle at popular notions about career planning! Certainly, my path was light on planning, but it all makes sense in a weird way. I love engaging with people around a meaningful goal, whether helping disadvantaged children handle life or helping business find new ways to connect with customers. I love the journey more than the destination, and find joy in capturing the view with language all along the way. I love a challenge and draw energy from the vision of a better future.