What do you need to develop for your career?

By Wanda T. Wallace Ph.D.


In a recent webinar (embedded below), I was asked what I thought women and men need to do to advance their careers.

First, let’s change the question to “What do people need to do to enhance their impact and thrive?”


Advancing is not the most important criteria to evaluate a career; having impact and thriving is. Second, my answer is no different for women than it is for men. Third, my answer is based on years of observation across a range of industries and cultures. I notice 5 capabilities that I think are critically important. The list is not in any particular order.


1. Can you sell change?

Whether you lead a team of 1000’s or just a team of 1, you achieve results by convincing others who don’t have to follow you that they want to come along with you. That means, you are convincing people to stop doing what they were doing and do something different. If you can’t sell change, it’s hard to lead anyone to get better results. When I say “selling”, I do not mean the image most people have of a used car salesman. I mean instead a modern approach to selling that is relationship centric, authentic, needs focused rather an approach that pushes a product, idea or service. If you want a description of what this looks like, see Daniel Pink “To Sell Is Human”.


The question to ask yourself is how well can you sell your ideas to your peers, to stakeholders and to those who will execute, particularly when your idea requires a big change? Remember that in selling your idea you are always selling yourself in part. If people do not trust you, your idea will be discounted.


2. Who is in your camp?

We always say that you should build your network and that’s true. I want to make this a more targeted effort. Ask instead where are your allies? Who is backing you? Who believes in you? Who is willing to take a risk with you? Who gives you input and feedback? How diverse are their perspectives? How broadly placed are they in the organization? Think down and sideways in the organization, not just up. Sometimes the best allies are the ones who have the ear of a senior leader. That person may not be high in the hierarchy, but that person has influence. Sometimes the best allies are the ones below you who see the need for change.


3. Once You Have Expertise Seek Breadth.

Expertise establishes your credibility. You need expertise in something that is relevant to your organization. You need to show you can execute in the area. However, acquiring more content knowledge is not all you need and it’s the mistake I see more often than not in careers. To have bigger impact, senior leaders want to see that you can lead when you don’t have all the answers and when people who work for you actually know more than you. This is where we can see your ability to create “leverage”.


Breadth of exposure gets you out of your comfort zone and into seeing how the parts of the organization impact each other. Breadth builds a broader base of allies and it hones your ability to lead without knowing it all. If you stay just within the zone of your expertise, you will eventually run out of opportunity to have more impact. There will be less to learn and there will be fewer roles to take. Don’t be afraid of stepping out of your area, but don’t move too soon either. For more advice see, Wanda Wallace, “You Can’t Know It All”.


4. Develop agility and resilience

Call it anything you want: flexibility, versatility, grit or adaptability.  Over the course of a career, many times what you thought was going to happen will not happen. The world may shift around you, the strategy may change, priorities can alter, you may be deemed to be “not ready yet”, markets decline, leadership changes, someone else is better positioned one way or the other than you and yes, mistakes happen. Things will not go to plan fairly regularly. The only question is how well will you deal with the situation?


I have recently been reading and talking with researchers who study resilience and leadership in crisis (e.g. Eric McNulty, “You’re It” and Andrew Zolli, “Resilience”). I have concluded that resilience for an individual requires four practices: 1) a belief that you will see a better future than you see today, 2) a sense of agency meaning you see an action to take to move things forward even a tiny bit, 3) a deep network of support in combination with a broad network to expand your ideas and therefore your actions, and 4) a willingness to adapt – sometimes persistence creates resilience, sometimes it doesn’t.


Probably the best advice comes from Eric McNulty (https://www.voiceamerica.com/promo/episode/123444): “You develop resilience by facing adversity.” Go do, when it doesn’t work as planned, focus on the resiliency you are developing.


5. Set the “right” kinds of goals.

Goals help us focus, track progress and work harder. It’s good to have goals. However, setting any goal that can only be met through someone else’s judgment of success is terribly demotivating. Goals like getting a particular title or a particular grading or even a particular bonus require that someone else somewhere often far removed from you in the organization decide that you have done enough.


Success is subject to so many things you can’t influence like market dynamics. If these are your only goals, I can promise you that you will eventually be saying that you don’t know what is next in your career and that you are demotivated. Don’t get me wrong, title and pay are good but they shouldn’t define your goals – not if you want to have impact and thrive.


Instead, focus on intrinsic goals – ones largely under your control, ones where you decide whether you have met the goal or not. For example, learning to sell change, to give better feedback or to broaden your set of allies can be great intrinsic goals. They don’t necessarily require someone to approve a budget or even agree with the goal. Hopefully, your intrinsic goals align with the capabilities and outcomes that your company values.


In Summary

You may notice that some of your favorite competencies are not listed. There are many like strategic thinking, delivering results and leading people, to name three, that are of course important. My intent here is not to give an exhaustive review of core competencies, many leadership gurus have already written about these. Instead, my intention is to give you a few places to challenge your development in skills that I think are critical to having impact and thriving in your career.

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