Three ways to take charge of your career development

Don’t expect career development to be served on a platter. Mentoring, long-term thinking and the development of a personal brand can all help you to become less reliant on your employer for career support.

Career ladderWorking with individuals and organisations on career development over the past five years has given me a deep insight into what motivates and drives people at work. My own insights are supported by people who spend their entire careers researching this very subject. People like Daniel Pink, Dan Coyle and Adam Grant offer a compelling perspective, which can help inform leaders and managers about how to get the most value from engaged team members.

What continues to strike me, though, throughout all the work I do, is the level of expectation people have about the organisations they work for and how much they rely on them to provide the keys to unlock the sources of this motivation.

People are driven by progression and expect companies to provide promotions. People want to learn and develop, and expect their organisations to make the time for them to do so. People seek mentors and coaches and request their companies makes these available to them through development programmes. People want to grow their internal network and want their companies to put on events to enable this to happen.

Some companies do all of this and more. They listen, they have dedicated teams in place to support this work and they put these ideas into action. These companies and leaders are outstanding to work for and should be recognised for the personal and professional development opportunities they create.

The majority of organisations don’t have such comprehensive development programmes in place, though. It doesn’t make them bad to work for, it just means that the focus, culture and resourcing may not yet support this investment. In this context, expecting your company to provide the keys to your career development creates a challenging dependency that can lead to people feeling frustrated about their future.

However, there is often far more that an individual can do than they realise. Yes, it requires them to put effort in, and yes, it may require them to invest in their learning, but in a future where all of our careers become more squiggly and have more movement, taking ownership for our career development has never been more important.

Based on my personal insights, I believe there are three things individuals can take control of that have the biggest impact on their career and should be invested in even when companies do not have the resources to support it.

1. Mentoring

Dedicating time in your diary to learn from other people who have been in your situation, and who generously share their advice and expertise, is one of the most effective ways you can fuel your development. Back in 2016 I wrote that the best way to get a mentor is not to approach someone out of the blue and ask for their help but to offer them a mutually beneficial exchange, and that advice still stands. Being clear about what you want to learn, specific about why you are approaching a given individual to learn about it and realistic about the time you are requesting is the most effective way to establish a strong system of mentors.

You don’t need a formal company programme to enable this. In fact, you can be far more targeted and get a more unique perspective by doing this independently. There is no one stopping you from making contact with people and with a considered approach. The worst response you can get is ‘no’.

2. Career possibilities

Waiting for your organisation to provide clarity on your next role and rigidly fixating on what you want to do next can limit your development opportunities. You can often find yourself waiting for someone to move on before you can do so and, given the organisational changes we’re all working within, roles can change, evolve and disappear while we wait.

I’ve witnessed several people become fixed in their thinking about promotion or progression against an integral job grade or pay scale, and lose sight of other career possibilities which might help them to develop. This is often driven by short-term personal needs about status or salary rather than more long-term thinking about the knowledge and experience you can acquire to increase your value to your employer.

I can empathise with this conflict; I’ve been there and at times have let short-term thinking and shiny objects drive my career decisions. It doesn’t always work out badly, but it is a risk and one you can mitigate.

To prevent a fixed view about your future roles, think more broadly about where you could add value to your company. Identify sideways moves, secondments and side projects that could open up possibilities and explore them with conversations internally. This is not about searching for a new job, it’s about exploring your future. This ‘growth mindset’ approach to your future career development can help a lot when you’re having conversations with people.

READ MORE: How marketers are switching up their careers with sabbaticals and secondments

3. Personal brand

For opportunities to proactively come to you, people need to have good insight into who you are and what you do best. You can’t expect people to know this and the more control you can take over what people know and say about you the better. Start with your strengths. What is it you want to be known for? If you’ve not spent time thinking about this before, there are some useful online tools like the VIA Institute’s character test and my own Squiggly Careers podcast that could help.

Next, ensure your strengths are consistent everywhere your professional profile appears. If you have internal bios, update them so that these strengths come through. Also do this on your LinkedIn profile and CV. Tools like Manual of Me can help you to articulate your strengths in a unique way.

Finally, think about how you clearly and succinctly share a summary of your work with your manager and people of influence in your company. Find a way to do this that feels authentic to you, and interesting and helpful to others, rather than something that comes across as arrogant.

It’s a fine balance to strike, so get some feedback on people’s impressions. I really liked how we positioned success when I was at Microsoft so that you reflected on how you built on others work and enabled other people to be successful, as well as reflecting on your individual accomplishments.

The more we can invest in actions that enable us to have some control over our squiggly careers, the more likely we are to open up opportunities that make us happy and have the biggest impact for our employers.

Helen Tupper is the founder of Amazing If.