The search for purpose and growth is universally human, but moments of stagnation and overwhelm are just as common. To advance your career, you need a plan; one that is ideally infused with the support of allies and advocates. Global marketing technology company, NextRoll Inc., moderated a panel discussion where accomplished employees offered valuable insights on their own career advancement, not withholding the tough lessons they learned along the way.
Here are the five key takeaways to be gained about how to stimulate professional growth and drive forward movement in your career.
You don’t have to know where you’re going. You don’t have to know what you want to do. You don’t even have to know what you like or dislike. You just have to be relentlessly open to your own sense of curiosity.
Engage with repetitive moments of stillness and give yourself the space to really ask:
What was the most exciting thing that happened to me in my work this week?
What projects or areas of business do I wish I knew more about?
What are the salient business problems in my purview?
Have I noticed an inspiring synergy with any colleagues or teams?
For Product Manager Sam Kelly, curiosity meant different things at different stages of his journey. At the start of his career he knew he wanted to travel and live abroad so he pursued relationships and opportunities that would allow him to do just that. He reached out to Managing Directors of international offices to express interest in advance of formal conversations. After a year in Tokyo, his curiosity led him to a new personal area of interest, which happened to be a new area of the business. Sam’s agile attunement to his own sense of curiosity gave him the foundation he needed to move toward changing opportunities for fulfillment and growth.
Noting evolutionary etiology, it makes sense that our human response to uncertainty is to freeze. But with less literal wilderness and more spiritual wilderness these days, that biological instinct can keep us stuck.
Want to get unstuck? Get curious. Director of Mid-Market Sales Caroline French agrees, “Being curious about how things work, not only in your role but in other people’s roles, is going to make your job way more interesting.”
Uncertainty is an integral part of the human condition, but curiosity is our touchstone for growth. Answer any of the above questions and you’ll find yourself holding a blueprint for forward movement. Think of every answer informed by curiosity as data. You have more control than you think.
Build Meaningful Relationships
I know what I’m curious about. Where is my access point?
Sam grants permission we forget we already have, “It’s totally ok to reach out and introduce yourself and say that you’re curious”.
Relationships are a timeless currency. That said, relationships where there is a clear power differential can be overwhelming to initiate. In the context of a hierarchical system like our workplace, it can be easy to look up the ladder or down the timeline of years on the job and discount our ability to add value. When considering reaching out you might hear an internal narrative that sounds like, “They’re probably too busy”, “I’m sure they won’t respond”, or “Why would they care what I have to say?”
They might be too busy.
They might not respond.
Their reaction is not your responsibility, but your initiative is.
Manager of New Business Sales Iain McNamara blows our mind with a long-kept secret, “Managers aren’t mind readers”. Iain challenges us to engage managers in dynamic conversations about our goals and our needs. “Tell us what you’re thinking and where you want to be. Tell us what upsets you and what motivates you”. Sam Kelly adds, “It’s definitely a two way street. People will give you opportunities, but no one is just going to hand it to you. You have to be willing to roll up your sleeves and make it happen”.
Every single person has a right to pursue growth. Be confident in your own ability to add value. Ask questions for which you truly want answers. Join meetings that represent the scope of your interest. Schedule recurring check-ins with mentors and decision-makers who can advocate on your behalf with key stakeholders. Ask to get your hands dirty. Request feedback on what you’re doing well and on what skill sets need further dedication. These are the building blocks for thriving professional relationships.
As for those outliers who don’t have the time or decency to respond? Those likely would not have been the substantive and meaningful relationships you’re looking for anyway.
Be Real About Your Priorities
I don’t have time.
Woof, that’s a big one.
How am I supposed to juggle the current responsibilities of my role to learn skills relevant to a hypothetical future role?
You might not like the answer.
Time is a zero sum game. It is finite. There is only so much of it. And yet, those who say “I don’t have time for that” are woefully miscommunicating. What you are saying is not that you don’t have the time, but that the activity or relationship for which time is required is not a priority to you. THIS IS OK. But it’s important to be real with yourself about that choice.
Prioritization is a critical executive function. It requires making use of limited resources, including time, in the face of seemingly limitless demands. In the process of mindful prioritization, some line items will lose time. Thus is the nature of this finite principle. But if you are real with yourself about what is important to you; about areas you are driven to focus on, you will have time.
It may be an hour that used to be spent sleeping in the morning or an extra hour at the office blocked off for skill building; perhaps lunch goes down with a side of internal professional development offerings for a while, but if it is of priority importance to you, you have time for it. And if you feel like you still don’t, think of that as a big-time invitation for self-reflection. Have you checked in on what is actually important to you lately? Go ahead and do that for yourself.
This is the right path and this is how you achieve success.
These words have no basis in our human experience.
The idea that there are objectively correct choices for a career path that is uniquely yours is a dangerous fallacy. Still, in fast-paced, high intensity organizations it can sometimes feel like your trajectory is predestined; out of your hands. Sure, there are elements of the process over which you have no control, but there are so many that are yours to take into your hands and lead. Intentionality is the antidote to chaos.
For Caroline French, intentional decision-making meant the hard-learned lesson of “Taking The Should Out of It”. After years spent in roles that felt limiting and frustrating, roles where she felt bored and quite frankly not very good at what she was spending all of her time doing, Caroline took stock of her choices and reconfigured her approach. If you’re making decisions informed by a narrative that sounds like, “I should be going for this role”, “I should be moving in this direction”, or “I should have this title” you’re going to hit a dead end. Release “The Shoulds” and start asking yourself purposeful questions, pivoting toward not just advancement, but growth.
What am I good at?
What is interesting to me?
What do I really want?
Iain recognizes that climbing the ladder in a Sales vertical with concrete revenue targets can offer a unique set of challenges. Instead he credits the ambition that backed his success to one simple realization: he had joined a workplace in which he genuinely wanted to build a career. His success was not sweeping. He made small and intentional moves rooted in genuine interest and built a case for his successive promotions.
Where can I add value to the business?
As important as it is to move with intention toward roles and opportunities that are of personal interest, it is of equal importance to take a step back and assess the organizational ecosystem holistically. Consider the ways in which every role, every team, or every product interacts with the entire system and find a place where your skill set is valuable. You likely won’t have all the skills from the start, but if you make choices with intention you will find the foundation on which you can acquire additional skills and build a powerful business case for purposeful movement.
The right job likely isn’t going to fall into your lap. Be flexible with yourself. Move with purpose. Grow with intention.
Get Comfortable Being Uncomfortable
If it has the potential to offer you meaning and purpose, it is going to require vulnerability. Get comfortable being uncomfortable. Be compassionate your whole self, even the parts that ask what feel like stupid questions or just plain get the answer wrong. Make mistakes and don’t just brush them aside; self-reflect and ask for feedback on your errors. Get friendly with your fears and your failures because they’re not going anywhere. We are lifelong learners, after all.
Advocate for yourself. Ask for help. Caroline assures, “Asking for help is not a sign of not knowing how to do your job, it’s a sign of being vulnerable in the right ways and wanting to really learn things and develop your skill set”.
As he looks back, Sam notes that his journey was not an easy path. He was turned down for opportunities he really wanted and he had to face sobering feedback on skills he still needed to build.
“‘No’ is not ‘no’, it’s just ‘not now’”, Sam says. Trust the timing of your path. Be patient with yourself. Growth is a constant integration of things we can control and things we can’t. It is our imperative to focus on the parts in our power and move with grace through the unexpected challenges along the way.