We all spend way too much time at work to not be happy in our jobs. We also have more professional options available to us than any generation has ever had. Unquestionably, your parents, grandparents, and more distant ancestors had less choice in how they earned a living, particularly if they were women, under-represented minorities, or citizens of developing nations. That doesn’t mean you should just be happy that you’re living in the modern era and satisfied with whatever job you have. It does mean that you should get clear on what you want to do professionally and seek out a situation that is aligned with that. 

If you’re not clear on what you want to do, seek guidance from those you trust, such as family, friends, or mentors. As needed, there are also myriad assessments and career professionals available to help you, from PathWise and many others. To be clear, it’s almost impossible to be in a good place professionally if you don’t know yourself – your values, interests, strengths, and personality type. Focus on that first.

If you are clear on what you want to do but your work situation isn’t aligned, dig into what’s missing. Is it the company culture, the job content, the advancement potential, your manager, your colleagues, something else? Again, talk it through with those around you. You can also use our PathWise Location Check survey to evaluate your current situation in a structured way.

Bear in mind that very few of us are fortunate enough to have our “dream career” or even a “dream job.” You should be pragmatic, as every job includes good days and bad days, and every situation is going to have its pros and cons. The grass won’t necessarily be greener somewhere else. You should certainly consider what it would take to better align your current job with your ideal view and discuss that with your manager or with someone in your employer’s HR group. Some of the changes you’re seeking may be feasible in the near term, while others will require some patience. But if your current job is never going to align with your professional interests, you should be actively evaluating other options, whether with your current employer or elsewhere. Don’t just suffer in silence, because if you’re not happy at work, it will invariably negatively affect your personal life. It could have a modest effect or a more significant one. As just a few examples, work-related stress or dissatisfaction can be a major cause of mental health issues and relationship conflicts. Take ownership, get the help you need from family, friends, or career professionals, develop a plan, and get to it. Best of luck to you!

Career management takes work, and it’s not always easy. Sometimes you’ll make decisions or choose a course of action that those around you – even including family and friends – won’t fully support or understand. But if you’re owning your career, doing the work, focusing on learning and improving every day, and living your values, you’re putting yourself in the best position you can to achieve your career goals. It’s still possible that all of the pieces won’t fall into place exactly the way you want. Even superstar athletes don’t always get to play on championship caliber teams, and they themselves may have poor games or even “down” seasons. There is an up-and-down nature to every career and an element of luck involved in every success story (no matter what those successful people might have you believe).

It will undoubtedly be hard at times; it is for everyone. You’ll have self-doubt – we all do – but don’t lose faith. Don’t let yourself go to that dark place where a nagging doubt sparks a downward spiral. To avoid that risk, try one of these tips for maintaining your optimism and your resilience:

No matter which of these approach(es) you choose, they’ll help you keep the faith, particularly when you encounter obstacles, face difficult decisions, or encounter other challenges along the way. No matter what, keep believing in yourself and you will invariably put yourself in a better position to accomplish your career goals.

Sources and recommended further reading:

No matter how much you love and are succeeding in your current job, you should always have at least an inkling of a back-up plan. If you’ve been in the business world long enough, you already know that unforeseen events beyond your control can have a negative impact on your professional trajectory or even necessitate your having to make a job change. As examples, your company announces layoffs, gets acquired, or is forced to wind down operations. Your boss or a key sponsor with whom you have a great relationship moves to another part of the company or leaves for another firm. Alternatively, you aren’t happy, aren’t finding success, or aren’t feeling a sufficient sense of purpose in what you’re doing. You get injured or develop a serious illness. Or your spouse or partner is offered a great job in another city, and you agree to move without having a new job lined up for yourself. 

For these reasons, and many others, you should have a Plan B and ideally a Plan C. People talk about having “f*** you” money. That sounds great in practice, but let’s face it: the vast majority of us don’t have enough money in the bank to go a long stretch without an income. If you do, you should feel fortunate. 

Whether you realize it or not, your option set has been evolving since the day you were born. It’s affected by when you were born relative to macroeconomic and other global events, your family and (sadly) its ethnicity and socio-economic status, and what you make of your life opportunities from an early age. The level of education you pursue, the specialty you choose, your grades, and your early work experience all serve as a foundation for your longer-term professional success. Over time, your ongoing work experience, your performance, and your internal and external reputation play a greater and greater role. (Hopefully by the time you’re 30, no one is really all that interested in what you did in high school anymore.) As you progress in your career, new options emerge and others fall away. That’s inevitable, and it’s important that you put the work into keeping open the options that are most important to you. If you don’t, you put yourself at risk of having to stick with a job even if you’re not happy or, worse, putting yourself and your family in a tenuous financial position. 

As a few “acid test” questions, ask yourself:

Admittedly, this last question comes at the topic from a different angle, but it’s a quick way to test whether you are staying too long with a job or employer. If you wouldn’t be willing to take the job again if offered, you should probably be looking for a new role.

In terms of specific preparation for the need to implement a Plan B, ask yourself:

Again, even if you love your current job and feel an incredible sense of loyalty to your current organization and the people with whom you work, you should always view yourself as in the market for a better opportunity. You should always take calls from recruiters and at least hear them out. Who knows? Maybe they’re approaching you with a fantastic opportunity, one even better than the current role you love. You won’t know if you don’t take their call or respond to their email.

To be clear, this doesn’t mean you should be unfocused in your career strategy. You need a clear plan, and your back-up options need to fit as well as possible into that plan. It doesn’t mean you should take a new role just to escape your current one. As the adage goes, “Better to run to a job than to run from a job.” It doesn’t mean you should be a “job hopper.” Moving too quickly from job to job works against you, as no one is anxious to hire someone they believe won’t stay in a role for at least a few years.  Finally, it doesn’t mean that you should leap blindly into a new opportunity. The grass isn’t always greener on the other side of the street. New roles almost always sound more exciting than they really are when they’re being pitched to you by a recruiter or a prospective hiring manager. Do your homework. Check out sites like Glassdoor to see what people say about working in the company you’re considering. Ask people in your network who might be familiar with it. Read about the company – its financial situation, competitive positioning, funding (if it’s a start-up), ownership (public, PE-backed, family-owned, etc.), its growth plans and broader business strategy. Ask the questions that really matter to you in the interview process. Understand the compensation framework. For example, will a considerable part of your proposed compensation come from deferred cash or equity that would act as “golden handcuffs” that you would forgo if you wanted to leave the job?  Overall, it’s impossible to know from the outside exactly what a job will be like, but you can certainly develop a strong view if you do enough research.

By investing the time in keeping back-up options available to yourself, you are doing critical career planning. Think of it as career insurance. In an ideal world, you won’t need to act on any of these back-up plans – certainly not in an emergency situation, at least – but it’s critical to have thought them through and done the work in the instance you do.

Put simply, our values guide how we live and work. As author and speaker Ken Blanchard says, “The most important thing in life is to decide what’s most important.” It’s true: we all aspire to figure out what’s most important to us and to live our lives accordingly. Our values are an articulation of what’s important to us. Whether we are consciously aware of them, they shape our every day. As Louise Altman of Intentional Communication Consultants eloquently puts it, “Our values are one of the most potent forces in our lives. These intangibles motivate and drive us in our work.  They inform all of our decisions.  Along with our beliefs and feelings, values form our internal map of reality.  Our values are powerful because they supply our work (and everything else in our lives) with meaning.  Real meaning.  Meaning that has purpose and depth that reflects who we are in the world.”

Our values and our purpose are closely aligned. Think of values as providing the “how” for the “why” of your purpose. In their own way, both values and purpose provide us with an internal compass to guide our work and lives. We know – even if we’re not sure about the specifics – when our thoughts and actions are aligned with our values and purpose. We feel happy, energized, fulfilled, and inspired. Our lives have meaning. We also know when our thoughts and actions are not aligned – we feel unhappy, deflated, unfulfilled, tired, burned out, lost or rudderless. 

While most of us are acutely aware of when we’re happy and fulfilled and when we’re unhappy and deflated, not enough of us explore what’s behind those feelings. By conducting that exploration, and determining what’s most important to us, we open up a whole new world of meaning. As Altman describes, “When we become consciously aware of our values – when we make the connections to the feelings that they generate – and understand what behaviors reinforce them, we can experience that Eureka moment of striking gold.”

It’s important to understand that your values – and your purpose – are unique to you. They’re what fuel your ability to be your authentic self and to share your uniqueness with those around you. To paraphrase Altman, without a knowledge of your values and how they’re unique to you, you risk getting attached to external motivators and rewards and living your life on a form of auto-pilot. You also risk being swept up in the values of others, such as family, friends, or colleagues. When this happens, it’s possible – even likely – that you’ll lose sight of yourself and end up working / living too much in support of someone else’s purpose and values.

Some of us are fortunate enough to have a strong sense of our values without having to work at discovering them. Most of us, however, need to work at identifying them. One approach for doing so is to start with a long list of potential values (Brene Brown and others have published lists that will get you started). Another approach would have you develop your own list, writing down as many words as come to mind but also thinking specifically – perhaps over a matter of days or weeks – about what inspires you and makes you happy.  As Karen Kimsey-House, co-founder of the Coaches Training Institute (CTI, now Coactive), says, “To really dig deep into what’s most important to you, look out into the world at large, and ask what’s missing in the conduct of someone who challenges you the most, or what’s present in someone who’s inspires you. It’s these values, which are likely to be those you’ll be most willing to take a stand for.”

Whether you start with your own list or someone else’s, iteratively narrow it down to five or fewer values. It’s harder than it seems, because in all likelihood a number of values will resonate with you. Still, as writer and speaker Patrick Lencioni says, “If everything is important, nothing is.” The more you boil down the list of values to just a few – maybe even just one or two – the more you sharpen your understanding of what is truly most important to you.

Once you’ve identified your core values, write them down. Doing so is a form of commitment to them. It makes them more real. It elevates them above the many other thoughts passing through your brain. Then conduct a follow-on exercise, suggested by career coach and writer Jessica Dowches-Wheeler, by describing:

Identifying your values is a critical first step, but living your values is lifelong work. As Dowches-Wheeler says, “Living your values means to be the most authentic version of yourself in all aspects of your life. Not just at work, or with your family, but in all areas that matter to you…Just as your purpose is a compass leading you back into alignment with who you’re meant to be, your values guide you back to who you truly are.” Several approaches will help you stay true to your values:

  1. Most importantly, understand that you are the one accountable for living your values, in a similar spirit to the notion of owning your career. Others won’t defend your values for you, though hopefully you will have people in your life who will help.
  2. Regularly re-read the descriptions you developed above. Use this practice to recommit to your values and refine them as appropriate. Understand as well that your values may very well evolve over the course of your life as your work and life situations change – when you get married, have kids, have an accident or a serious illness, or have a family member with the same. Hence, it’s important that you come back to your values every so often to make sure they still reflect how you want to live your personal life and manage your work life
  3. Keep a journal to document how you lived (and didn’t live) your values that day or that week. Use these writings to sharpen your understanding of what triggers lead you to be on or off course.
  4. Share your values with others, maybe not overtly, but find ways to let them know what’s important to you. Make clear to them that you are willing to accept feedback when you’re not “walking the walk” or honoring what’s most important.
  5. Build in systems and practices that reinforce your values. For example, if gratitude is important to you, make it a habit to thank at least one person each day for what they are positively contributing to your life.
  6. Accept that you won’t always live your values, nor will others always live theirs. It’s possible you might do so without even realizing it. Not living them doesn’t make you (or the other person) “bad” or a hypocrite. It makes you human. What’s important in these situations, particularly as it relates to yourself, is to understand why you fell short and to consider how you will avoid doing so the next time. Just don’t accept not living by your values on a regular basis. Once you start accepting exceptions, you head down a slippery slope
  7. Acknowledge that living your values may require trade-offs. For example, if family is important to you, and you want to see your children off to school in the morning, you’ll need to find a role that gives you the flexibility to start later in the morning or work from home. However, if you’ve honed your list of values well, these trade-offs should feel “right” and shouldn’t leave you with regret.

Having a strong sense of self requires having a solid understanding of your values. Do the work to understand what’s most important to you and how you’ll live your life in alignment with these values. Doing so will put you in a much better position toward happiness and fulfillment, whether at work or in your personal life.

Sources and recommended further reading:

No matter how much excellence you have achieved in your professional life, you have undoubtedly made mistakes and had failures or setbacks along the way. The reality is that no one perfectly manages every aspect of their career – no one.

Consider, have you ever:

In all likelihood, you answered “yes” to at least one of these questions, and there are certainly a litany of other ways to experience a professional setback. It’s essential to realize, though, that failure is a pathway to success, in line with the adage, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”

Even so, too many people underappreciate the important role failures, setbacks, and mistakes can play in fueling their success. However, more accomplished people – across a range of professions – practice a number of principles as it relates to success and failure:

          o  What went well?

          o  What didn’t go well?

          o  What will I (or we) do differently next time?

If you practice these principles and embrace failure as a necessary pathway to success, you’ll experience more success in your life, day-to-day work, and career. Even in your darkest days, it pays to bear in mind this quote from Winston Churchill: “Success is not final. Failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts.”

Advocating is one of those invaluable professional skills, irrespective of what you do for a living. It’s something of a hybrid between influencing (where you’re usually making a softer push) and selling (where you’re making a harder push), and it’s an important blend of the two. Despite its importance, however, advocating is uncomfortable for many people, particularly when it comes to advocating for themselves. It feels boastful or self-serving or careerist. Still, it’s absolutely necessary, and trust us, most of your co-workers are making their own pitches, so if you don’t learn how to advocate for yourself, you’re going to get left behind.

You’re likely already advocating much more than you think, whether it’s for yourself, your team, your manager, or your company. Want to convince someone to do a task the way you believe it should be done? Advocating. Aiming to work on a corporate project for your boss’ boss? Advocating. Seeking a pay raise or a promotion? Advocating. Pitching a new business idea? Advocating. You get the idea.

Obviously, you have to know what you want to be able to advocate for it. Let’s assume here that you do. And as much as you might believe that your manager, his or her manager, your co-workers, or HR know what you want professionally, odds are they don’t. They have their own interests – which may or may not be aligned with your own – as well as many other things on their minds. Even if they do know what you want, they often need to be reminded or nudged to act.

Yes, it’s possible to advocate too much for yourself and develop a negative reputation as a consequence, but most of you should almost certainly be advocating for yourselves more than you are right now. To a degree, even when managers complain about someone being overly aggressive in asking for what they want, they respect that person for their ambition, and they are more likely than not to take action as a result. As the saying goes, “The squeaky wheel gets oiled,” at least in part because most managers want to be liked. When you don’t get what you’re seeking – assuming you’re not asking for too much or being too impatient about it – you get a good sense of where you stand (or don’t) in the eyes of your manager or employer. That’s always helpful intel, even if it’s not the kind of intel you wanted, because it indicates you either need to change others’ perceptions of you to better align with your own self-perception, or it suggests a larger issue that might necessitate making a change. In this sense, you gain, whether you get what you’re seeking or not.

You can advocate for yourself during 1x1s with your manager, if you have such meetings. (If you don't, that's a separate issue.) You can set up an ad hoc meeting for the discussion – or suggest you and your manager go to lunch or have a drink after work, where they’re more likely to be relaxed and open to hearing you out. You can have the discussion with your skip-level manager – and if your direct manager is made uncomfortable by your having such a discussion with his or her boss, it’s an indication that you work for an insecure manager. You can have an advocating discussion in the context of a performance review or career discussion. The point is – there are many opportunities to have these discussions. You just have to do it – it goes back to the notion of being in the business of you, and to owning your own career.

As a simple exercise, consider something you want in your current job situation for which you feel you need to advocate, ideally something you’ve been hesitant to raise.  Then write down the following:

Come back to what you’ve written down in a day or a few days later. Polish it a bit. Make sure you’ve thought through how you want to have the conversation on this topic, with whom, and when, because recipient and timing definitely matter. As an extreme example, you generally don’t want to be asking your boss for a pay raise when the company has just announced layoffs. In any case, don’t go into the discussion half-cocked. Be thoughtful. Test it on a family member or mentor or a co-worker who won’t be threatened by what you’re seeking. Be especially clear on why giving you what you want is in the interest of the person with whom you’re going to have the discussion. Remember that they have their own interests and you’re advocating for yours. And be persistent. It often takes asking for something several times for your manager (or whoever) to realize that you’re serious about it and that it’s important to you.

Once you’ve had the discussion, reflect on how it went. Did you articulate your message as planned? Did you convey why it was important to you? Were you able to address the other individual’s concerns? Did you agree on a concrete set of next steps, even if it was just to continue the discussion within a certain timeframe? Few conversations go perfectly, and you can almost always learn something even when they go well.  Take the time to reflect after these important discussions, so that you are better prepared the next time. 

The more often you do this (within reason), the more comfortable it will become for you, and the more comfortable your manager or employer will become with hearing you out. It will become an inherent and expected part of your relationship, and if managed well, that can be incredibly powerful. Remember as well – to quote the Rolling Stones – you can’t always get what you want. Prioritize what’s most important to you and focus on that. But once you’ve narrowed in on what’s most important, don’t be afraid to ask for it. Unless you ask, you’re probably not going to get what it is you’re seeking.

“What did you learn today?” Do you remember when you were a child, and your parents asked you that question? It was their way of making sure you were paying attention in school and – hopefully – giving you an opportunity to show off some newfound knowledge.

Now as an adult, you may be done with formal schooling (or maybe not!), but you are never done learning. Make a commitment to be a lifelong learner. Doing so will benefit you both professionally and personally. Learning new skills, staying up on industry developments, understanding the competition – they’re all essential to remaining valuable in your line of work. On a more personal level, learning gives you mental stimulation, and there’s plenty of research available to suggest that learning is a form of “exercise” for your brain.

Every situation you’re in, and everything you do well or not well, creates a learning opportunity. You can learn actively or passively, the easy way or the hard way. Even professional athletes or artists at the top of their profession continue to improve by evaluating what they could do even better. Take some time each day to reflect on what you’ve learned. Write it in a journal if that’s your thing. Ask (and suggest) what went well and what could have gone better after a key presentation or project at work. You don’t have to go crazy – like asking for feedback all the time – but get in the habit of maximizing the opportunities to learn in the moment rather than waiting for your annual or semi-annual performance review. It will make you a better colleague and – in all likelihood – a more fulfilled one as well.

In committing to being a lifelong learner, consider these principles as well:

         1. A set of questions addressing critical knowledge gaps,

         2. A set of associated activities to answer them, and

         3. Products aimed at disseminating findings and designed with usage and application in mind.”

While this definition may have the ring of your high school science lab, its key points are that a learning agenda should be structured, relevant, and output oriented.

Professionally oriented learning agendas aren’t just for when you’re early in your career or when you start a new job. A former manager who was an Executive Vice President in our firm used to discuss his own learning agenda at Town Halls. And he wasn’t the bookish type either. He grew up in a working-class family in a rough neighborhood and was – by his own admission – something of a punk as a young man. But he worked hard early in his career and dug into mastering each new assignment and role he was given. He was a committed lifelong learner, and in his time as a senior leader, his organization absolutely loved hearing about what he was still focused on learning at that point in his career. It made clear to them that they needed to keep learning as well.

         o  Do you just need to be taught how to do something or are you a visual learner, i.e., someone who needs to see it done?

         o  Do you learn from books, videos, some other source?

         o  Do you prefer to learn in bite-sized pieces over time or by “binging” new material all at once?

         o  Do you learn formally or informally?

         o  And if you’re a manager, how do your team members each learn most effectively?

         o  70% of people’s learning is through their own experience,

         o  20% comes through exposure to others, and

         o  10% comes through some form of education or training

The problem with this framework is that it ignores the principle that we all learn differently, and it’s never really been proved empirically. Hence you should take it as a frame of reference. More recently, learning professionals have also added the notion of environment, the systems and tools that help you master a job or skill, and the notion that learning should be viewed as a set of processes and not just as a set of assets such as classes or e-learning modules.

Examples of each of these elements of learning are as follows:

         o  Experience includes day-to-day practice and on-the-job training. This is “learning by doing.” Experience can be supplemented or accelerated through stretch assignments, job rotations, or special projects. Beneficially, volunteering for these activities conveys not just that you want to learn, but that you’re committed and want to stand out as well.

         o  Exposure includes what you learn from managers, co-workers, mentors or your external network. Related activities include coaching, feedback, networking, and job shadowing. Outside of your direct work group, you can look to join “communities of practice” – informal or semi-formal groups of people who do similar work – or the more formal professional organizations or trade associations.

         o  Education, apart from whatever level of schooling you completed prior to joining the work force, can include graduate programs, executive education (programs built around the schedules and needs of working professionals), the more topic-specific continuing education offered by local colleges and universities, and online options like YouTube, Coursera, Udemy, or LinkedIn Learning. Undoubtedly, your employer offers formal training as well, whether delivered as in-person / instructor-led, e-learning, virtual classrooms, or simulations. These workplace learning programs are often a great – and underutilized – option, as mentioned earlier.

         o  Environment includes the tools, systems, and infrastructure that support you in a job. It also includes the culture and processes that facilitate or hinder learning. Many organizations aspire to be “learning organizations” but they often ignore how the workplace environment affects learning. As an example, if people get yelled at when they take a calculated risk at work and it doesn’t go as planned, they’ll soon decide to just not take any risks in the first place. That has the potential to stagnate an organization. Learning organizations are beyond the scope of this article, but if you want a provocative read on the topic, you should consider The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge.

         o  Now for success in your current role or at the moment

         o  Soon for growth in your role or readiness for the next role

         o  Long-term to meet your career objectives

In summary, get out there, be curious, and ask questions. Consider “why?” Having an intellectual curiosity, and demonstrating a willingness to learn and take coaching, can play a key role in helping you progress in your career and stay engaged. Commit to being a lifelong learner, and maybe your children will be able to ask you, “What did you learn today?”

How we help. We offer assessments to help you determine your strengths and development needs, coaching to help you accentuate your strengths and improve your weak spots, tools to help you develop a learning agenda, and content to help you learn more about mastering career management.

Networking is absolutely essential to career success. To paraphrase poet John Donne’s famous line from almost 400 years ago, “No one is an island.”  Equivalently, no one’s professional success is truly self-made.  Everyone gets at least some help along the way. While very few of us will have the opportunity to stand on the stage of a major awards show “thanking our team,” we should all be intentional about having a team.

At the beginning of your career, your team likely includes your parents, siblings, school friends, and others with whom you were close growing up. As time goes on, you’ll find managers you like and mentors who are committed to you. You’ll build your professional network, which is essential, as networks are far-and-away the #1 means for finding a new job, according to a study by Right Management. As the adage goes, “It’s not what you know. It’s who you know.”

With all of this in mind, let’s cover the different forms your “team” can take, as well as the role and importance of each.

Family and friends – Invariably, we all look to family and friends for professional and life guidance. Family and friends have our interests in mind and will be “in our corner.” That said, it’s important to consider a few potential downsides of relying on family and friends for professional guidance. Family members – particularly our parents – can push their belief set and aspirations rather than guiding us to form our own. Consider all the parents who wanted their children to be doctors or lawyers or some other pre-chosen profession. Remember, it’s your life and your career. You need to own it. Second, family and friends may feel that they need to tell us what we want to hear rather than telling us what we need to hear. Good career guidance relies on being willing to deliver a tough message when needed, and not all of our family and friends are going to be willing to do so. For these reasons, the importance of family and friends in providing professional guidance best diminishes as you continue in your career.

Network – In this day and age, it’s almost irresponsible not to maintain a professional network given the value you can draw from it. With LinkedIn, MeetUp, Clubhouse, other social media sites, and email and cell phone numbers we keep for our adult lives, it’s also easier than ever to build and maintain a network. You can build your network through a variety of means, including:

Be purposeful about building your network, and start on it as early into your career as possible.

Mentors – Too few of us have mentors to whom we look, though even 1-2 good mentors can be invaluable to us in our careers. Mentors with whom we work can create opportunities for us. Mentors of all types can give us career guidance. So what makes a good mentor? Several factors:

When pursued thoughtfully and nurtured over time, mentoring relationships can have a huge impact on your professional success and happiness. Don’t under-estimate their importance.

Champions or sponsors. These are typically more senior individuals with whom you work who can reach down and pull you up. Such people may also be mentors, but their relationships with you don’t necessarily need to be as close or deep as a mentoring relationship. What’s important about a champion or sponsor is that they are able to create opportunities for you. At points in our careers, many of us follow a manager we like or take an opportunity with someone who has shown a particular interest in us. Such situations can absolutely help accelerate our careers. However, it can sometimes be risky to be too closely associated with someone, as your stock will more likely rise and fall with theirs. Consider the case of a new head coach for a professional sports coach “cleaning house” and replacing all of the assistant coaches who had worked with the prior coach. Invariably some good assistants lose their jobs in these situations, just because they were seen as too connected to the prior coach. The same thing can – and does – happen in the corporate world, in government, and in other professional settings. For this reason, you should always consider the potential downside of overly “hitching your wagon to someone else’s star,” as written by Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Followers. As we progress through our careers, we invariably work alongside people with whom we would like to work again. These individuals can be managers, peers, subordinates, or more distant work colleagues. Make sure you keep a running list of who could play such a following role as you progress in your career. They’re the people you want to bring with you when you change roles or employers. You know each other. You know how to work with each other. You know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Bringing these people with you when you’re in a new role can often help you make a better, faster start and create growth opportunities for them. The option of having these people alongside you can provide enormous benefit. Just ensure that they are legitimately the right people for the roles in which you’re placing them. Forcing them into roles for which they’re not qualified quickly will be seen as nepotism, and that will ultimately hurt you. 

Personal boards of directors. Following from the construct of companies having boards of directors, some people form their own personal boards of directors. Paraphrasing an article on The Muse, think of these individuals as unpaid career coaches. As with a good corporate board of directors, you need to be intentional in considering who you consider as members of your personal board.  Seek a diversity of experience and perspectives. Rely on people who will “tell it like it is” or tell you when they see you as being “off course.” Consider subject matter expertise that will be relevant to you in your current role or chosen career path. Identify people who can help you build your network or otherwise serve as a “connector” for you. Accept that board members will come and go as your situation, interests, aspirations and needs change throughout your career. And while your board members are unlikely to ever meet as a group and may not even know that you consider them as board members, you can still derive immeasurable value through your discussions with them as individuals.

Peer exchange groups. A somewhat rarer form of “team” is the peer exchange group (PEG). The Forum construct created by the Young Presidents Organization (YPO) is probably the best-known example of a PEG. New members of YPO are grouped into Forums, typically including 8-10 individuals. YPO’s organizers take great care in selecting the groups, to avoid situations where two members might know each other socially or have a professional relationship such as supplier-customer. Most members of YPO would describe Forum as the single most important part of their YPO experience. They will often describe their fellow Forum members as being their closest confidantes, sometimes even closer than their spouses or partners. All types of topics are covered in forum, whether work-related or personal. Confidentiality is essential. Even minor breaches can lead to a group deciding to remove a member. Another “golden rule” of Forum is the notion of experience sharing rather than the giving of advice. When a member of the group presents an issue with which they’re wrestling, other members are only able to ask clarifying questions and share relevant experience, the idea being that the presenting member needs to come to their own view of how to address the situation they’re facing. Given the widespread acclaim among YPO members for Forum, the concept has been replicated with varying degrees of success by professional groups and alumni associations. If you are interested in learning more about this topic, information is available online, or you can read a great summary of the PEG construct in Mo Fathelbab’s book Forum: The Secret Advantage of Successful Leaders.

Irrespective of how you build your network and form your team, you should adhere to several principles:

Quality over quantity. Unless you are intentionally aiming to maximize the size of your followership or audience, focus on populating your network and team with people whose backgrounds, perspectives, experience and skills are relevant to your professional path. Don’t just go for big numbers.

Be authentic. You always want to put your best foot forward, particularly when you meet someone new, but don’t be someone you’re not. In the end, doing so isn’t going to serve your true interests, and you’ll eventually be found out as a phony.

Give more than you get. This won’t be possible with everyone, but it’s a good aspiration to bear in mind. If you look at your network too much as, “What can they do for me?” it’s going to catch up to you sooner or later. People will realize you’re in the relationship more for yourself than for mutual benefit, and they’ll stop returning your calls, emails, and texts. Set a goal of being a net “giver.”

Give before you receive. Again, this won’t always be possible, particularly when you reach out for help from someone who you don’t know (such as an informational interview), but again, it’s a good aspiration. Even in situations where you initially ask for help, you should at least ask the other person if there is anything you can do to help them. They’ll appreciate the offer, even if they don’t need your help at that moment.

Think win/win. Consistent with the prior two points, make a real effort to find mutual benefit in the situations you discuss with your network or team.

Keep up contact. Too often, we reach out to people only when we need something from them. It’s always better to regularly maintain relationships that are important to you. Show genuine interest in the other person, their work and life details, what’s new, what they’re passionate about, and what their challenges are. Help them along the way as you can. Then when you need help, it won’t feel so “out of the blue” or awkward.

One final point. Introverts often express discomfort in doing what’s needed to build their network and supporting team. Bear in mind, though, that 25-40% of the population is estimated to be introverts, so you’re in good company. Also remember – quality over quantity – so focus on building a smaller number of meaningful relationships with the people who know you best.

How we help. We can review your key relationships to help you identify potential mentors and champions, structure a personal board of advisors, build your network, and develop an action plan to strengthen it over time.

Sources and Recommended Further Reading:








No matter what you do for work, you need to master some foundational career skills. Consider them as the “10 essentials”, a reference to the items you should always have with you when you go camping or hiking, especially in backcountry areas.  These 10 career skills won’t be equally important in every role, but if you master them, you will position yourself well for a broad range of career situations.

  1. Authenticity. Though this list is arranged alphabetically, it’s also appropriate for authenticity to come first among our list of career skills because it is arguably the most important trait of all. Whoever you are, be yourself. You should always work on being your best self, particularly in professional settings, but be your best self, not someone else’s. If you try to be someone else, or to mimic their style, it won’t feel natural, and it will come across as phony. Accept as well that you won’t always be at your best. It’s part of the human experience. In this context, it’s ok to admit your mistakes and acknowledge your flaws and weaknesses, especially if you talk about them with candor, show humility and vulnerability in doing so, and demonstrate that you are learning from them and working to be better every day.
  2. Collaboration. Very few, if any of us, literally work alone all the time. We depend on others to accomplish our day-to-day work and our broader professional objectives, including the people with whom we regularly work, those in our companies more broadly, and people outside our firms. For these reasons, it’s essential to work well in team situations and to be a good colleague. You’ll need to accept the “give and take” and to compromise at times. But no one wants to work with someone who is difficult, who doesn’t carry their share of the load, who’s a “lone wolf”, or who hogs all the glory. We win – and we lose – together. Be someone whose co-workers appreciate as a colleague.
  3. Communication. Whole books have been written about communication as a core career skill, and we won’t try to summarize them all here. Suffice it to say that your written and oral communications should, at a minimum, be clear, concise, and complete. When speaking, your tone and body language should reinforce the message you are delivering. Remember that research consistently indicates that 90%+ of your communication is not in what you’re saying itself. As you become a stronger communicator, you should also work on being compelling. Appropriately use tone, emotion, gestures, movement, and repetition to amplify your message without taking away from it. Draw on stories and anecdotes in addition to facts – our brains are wired to remember stories in particular. And to loosely quote Maya Angelou, bear in mind that people may not remember what you said, but they’ll remember how you made them feel.  
  4. Conviction. Conviction is ultimately a measure of whether you believe in yourself and in your point of view. It doesn’t mean that you’re always right, but it does mean indicate you’re capable of being more than just a follower. For example, are you willing to make a bold move or an unpopular decision? Are you comfortable taking calculated risks? Do you have the courage to speak your truth or to take a contrarian viewpoint? Are you an independent thinker and worker? Are you willing to give constructive feedback when it needs to be provided, even when it might not be well-received?  In all of these situations, having conviction is critical.
  5. Drive. Drive is a measure of your aspirations. You demonstrate it in a number of ways. Are you self-motivated? Are you intellectually curious? Do you seek continuous improvement – in yourself, in others, and in the organizations of which you’re a part? Are you open to feedback, even when it’s uncomfortable to receive?  Do you balance your drive by not truly expecting perfection, by celebrating small wins, and by saying, “Thank you” along the way? Remember as well that drive is also an indicator that your activities are aligned with your passions and interests. If this alignment exists, it will be evident, in your energy and in your enthusiasm for what you do. If the alignment is lacking, you won’t be able to bring your best every day, and that’s something you’ll need to address.
  6. Empathy. Empathy is about being able to envision yourself in someone else’s place, to understand their life context, their worldview, and their perspective. This doesn’t mean you have to agree with them or let them have their way. It does mean that you understand and are taking into account how they will see what you’re saying to them, what you’re asking of them, or what you’re expecting of them.  Empathy can’t be taught. Some people are naturally empathetic, while others eventually discover for themselves how to be empathetic.  Still others never achieve this self-discovery, and they are less effective leaders and colleagues as a result. Work at unlocking your empathetic self.
  7. Execution. Put simply, execution is about being able to get things done, about achieving results. Do you have strong problem-solving ability? Are you able to see the steps needed to achieve a goal? Can you clearly communicate those steps to those whose help you will need in accomplishing them? Do you create the right kind of environment for personal and team success? Are you able to see risks and mitigate them, and to overcome obstacles when they present themselves? Do you achieve your results in the right way? Work is ultimately about execution. Hence it’s critical that you have a strong reputation for being able to get things done right.
  8. Influence. The importance of influencing skills cannot be overstated. They are useful in so very many situations, because no one is always in charge. Influencing is about getting someone to see your point of view, to come to your way of thinking, or to do what you would like them to do, even if it’s not what they wanted or not in their self-interest. You exercise your influencing skills when you lack absolute positional authority (i.e., you’re not the boss) and often even when you have such authority. Particularly in today’s heavily matrixed large corporations, influencing skills are a must. They’re also useful when you need to advocate for yourself (in and of itself an important skill) and when you’re negotiating for something or trying to resolve a conflict. Having strong influencing skills will broaden the range of situations in which you can be effective.
  9. Judgment. The strength of your judgment is revealed by the quality of your decisions.  Are you thoughtful about the actions you take? Do you take into account the pros and cons of potential courses of action? Do you make an effort to see a situation from different vantage points, such as the perspective of different stakeholders? Do you make ethical choices, ones you would not be embarrassed to see made public in some fashion? Some people lack good judgment. Some never develop a good moral compass. Putting such people in leadership or other decision-making roles leads to bad outcomes, for themselves, their teams, and their organizations. Be known for your judgment and your sense of ethics.
  10. Resilience – Wrapping up the list with resilience is appropriate, because work is hard. (Otherwise, it wouldn’t be work, right?). Not everything about it is ever fully in your control. Changes will take place, and they won’t always be good for you. Along the way, you will make mistakes, experience failure, and come up short relative to goals or expectations. Work and other aspects of your life won’t always be in perfect harmony. At times, the burden of it all will seem like too much. This is natural, and we all feel this way. Being able to weather these times – to learn from them, to move past them, and to draw strength from them – is what resilience is about. This doesn’t mean putting up with a work (or life) situation that is leaving you miserable or unfulfilled. If you feel that way, you need to work to understand why, and to do something about it. But it’s important to realize that everyone has tough days, and that the resilient are those who learn to adapt, to maintain a positive outlook, and to stand tall, even when things are challenging for them.

Work at mastering these 10 essential career skills. Look for them in your colleagues. Incorporate them into your line of questioning when you are interviewing prospective new hires – and ask candidates to walk you through real examples.

To be clear, these "soft" career skills aren’t a substitute for technical competence - so called "hard" skills. You have to know how to do your job if you want to be successful. But strength in these areas will be a massive force multiplier on your technical competence, because if you have both the technical skills and these foundational traits as well, you are destined for greatness.

How we help. We offer tools for you to self-assess your capability levels in each of these areas and to gather input on them from those around you. We offer skill-building content and events, and we provide access to coaches who can help you work on a personalized course of action to improve in areas that are holding you back.

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