Quote attributed to Louis Pasteur
One of the important things I learned in my professional career is that success comes to the prepared. Certainly there is an element of luck involved, after all your skills must be required and seen by managers making staffing decisions. But, you can’t control the luck element while you can most certainly control your preparedness.
Just for perspective, this post is not about cotton candy and rainbows. I am not going to promise you instant professional success. I am going to show you a path to success that will require you to 1) fundamentally change your work paradigm and 2) invest more sweat equity than you likely have to date. But, if you do both things your probability of professional success by any measure will increase dramatically.
Take A Minute And Remember Your College Days
Think back to when you decided to attend a college or university. Do you remember how you made that decision?
For most people it involved deciding what field you wanted to study and identifying the educational institutions that represented the best opportunity for you to develop knowledge and skills in that field. Of course other factors ultimately came into play like cost and whether you even had a shot at getting admitted.
And, while you were at the institution you selected each semester you had to make choices about the courses you were going to take. Some were mandatory for the degree, but you had to decide which additional courses to take among the various available electives. You considered the relevancy to your chosen field of study and the workload each represented. At the end of the exercise, you created a balanced and personal curriculum of study designed to help you develop the knowledge and skill set necessary for success,
Now Remember When You Searched For Your First Job After Graduating
You did your due diligence and researched companies to determine which had jobs in you chosen field and would also give you a real opportunity to both contribute and develop. You made certain that the environment was conducive to your learning style and that the position being offered would help you get grounded in the fundamentals of your chosen profession. Hopefully you had a few offers and agonized over which was the absolute best for you to take.
Now Fast Forward To Today
Those early years are now in the rearview mirror. You’ve learned a lot more about the Company and what your role in it is. The starry eyed optimism (or naïveté if you prefer) is gone and you find yourself competing with colleagues just like you for a limited number of advancement opportunities. Your direct manager assigns you work and to be successful you try and over deliver against the success criteria. You are investing long hours and not having a lot of fun. Every time a promotion opportunity comes up, you seem to get passed over. Management tells you it isn’t that you are doing poor work, but rather the person selected is more ready for the increased responsibility. Since your manager assigns your work, you wonder how you can ever hope to be the one seen as ready the next time a promotion opportunity presents.
You Are Playing The Wrong Game
The single biggest problem is your paradigm that hard work will be recognized by your Management and rewarded with increased responsibility. The truth is working hard demonstrates your growing capacity. It does get recognized, but it leads to an expanded workload. For your Company that demonstrated capacity increase translates into higher productivity. For you, it is the highway to career burnout.
Stop the madness and make a conscious decision to step off the hamster wheel.
Here Is The Right Game
I want you to stop thinking about you serving the Company and start thinking about the Company serving you. It is all about YOU!
When I gave that advice to my direct reports, my Management didn’t like it very well. They didn’t like it because they didn’t really understand that it is precisely how they created their own success. Of course I ignored their protests.
Start by identifying the skills you need to master in order to become better at your chosen profession. Any number of published articles can help you define what they might be. But, for the purposes of creating an example, let’s say you need to increase master of leadership, communication and finance. Then create a list of the top 3 – 4 projects you are responsible for. This isn’t an exhaustive list of your work, it is just the big buckets with clear success criteria.
Now create a table using the desired skills as column headings and the projects as row headings.
In that table, start identifying how you can leverage the project to help you better master the desired skill. Sometimes it will be obvious. For example if you have budget management as a big project, better understanding how to create more reliable spending forecasts could be a way to further develop your finance skills. But so could meet with the CFO monthly to better understand the common challenges to budget management and listen to his/her experience on how to improve the process.
When your table is complete (not every box needs to be filled, but at least one box in every column needs to have something in it), you now have a personal development plan. Just like when you were in college and has a curriculum for the semester that defined what you were going to learn, you now have a forward looking plan to learn what you need to further master the skills you desire.
Now, here is the hard part – Work The Plan!
I find many people get as far as creating the plan, but then feel crushed by the daily work volume or they never change their paradigm from what you can do for the Company to what the Company can do for you. Don’t be one of those people. Work that plan. And when your projects change or you feel you’ve mastered a skill (or need to add another), then change the plan. Keep it evergreen.
You Have Actually Created A Virtuous Circle For Success
Despite my Managers complaints, the process is actually good for both the Company and the individual. You get on a path of continual skill development making you more ready for increased responsibility. Your Management will notice and you cease being a cork bobbing on the ocean hoping for success. Follow this process and the Company gets more and higher quality work from you because you are actually better at your job. At the end of the day it is a more than fair exchange.
Now, when you find your assigned work no longer gives you an opportunity to further develop skill mastery your choices are simple. Either work with your Manager to get your project list adjusted, or work with a headhunter to find a job at a Company where your learning curve will be steeper. You wouldn’t dream of staying at a college that never allowed you to take a course in your chosen field. Similarly, don’t stay at a company that can’t give you the opportunity to develop your skill set.
At the end of the day, remember that your commercial value is a function of your personal skill mastery. It really is all about you.