Career Advancement: Stop Waiting for a Gold Star

Career advancement for womenThere comes the moment in a woman’s career when you realize: being good isn’t good enough.

Maybe you get passed over. Or you discover that the departmental fool is earning as much as you. (I remember that one.) You’re feeling underappreciated, perhaps even invisible. Despite the outstanding outcomes, the extra miles, the collegial contributions, your career has stalled.

The thing is, there are job skills, and there are career skills. Being good—even great—at your job doesn’t guarantee that your career will advance. As a career coach for women, I see the same pattern over and over again: the smart woman learns very early in life to put her head down and earn her “A.” That strategy works well while we’re in school, and even for the first several years in the workplace.

But sooner or later, the “gold star” isn’t enough to distinguish you or advance your career. That’s when I receive the pained phone call from a rising star who doesn’t understand why she’s in career free-fall.

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As much as you’ve honed your job skills to a fine point, you need to do the same with your career advancement skills. After years helping smart, ambitious women get their careers back on the fast track, I’ve identified the five essential career accelerator skills. I’m sorry to say, there is no silver bullet. Career advancement is a matter of deploying these five basic capacities. But how hard can that be for the smartest woman in the room?

1. Manage your talent.

I begin with this one because it’s so obvious that it’s often overlooked. Talent development is like good grammar. No one notices it, or rewards you for it, but the moment it’s lacking . . . people take immediate notice.

Talent development doesn’t end with graduation. In fact, your talent needs to grow as quickly and constantly as your industry. Even more, you need to expand your talent beyond your core competency. One-trick ponies don’t go very far.

Careers are advanced as layers and domains of fresh skills, knowledge, and experiences expand your repertoire. Think cross-functional skills, industry expertise, and global experience. Figuring out how to acquire those skills, knowledge, and experiences is at the heart of your talent management strategy.

Consider “Meredith,” a current coaching client. She is a brilliant tech star and talented team leader. She’s just finishing up a three-year research project for a major Silicon Valley company, and she knows that she doesn’t want to repeat that experience by signing on for another research project, however challenging. And she’s not loving the idea of moving up through the R&D ranks. That feels too limiting to her: Meredith is a visionary. She wants to be named a GM, or launch her own start-up. Lacking any P&L experience, however, Meredith must answer a mission-critical question: “What are my best options for learning the skills/knowledge and gaining the experience I need to be hirable as a GM in two years?”

What is your talent management question? What are the formal or informal, straightforward or out-of-the-box options to build and expand your talent? And who is going to help you?

2. Build your social capital.

So, who is going to help you? No one pushes herself up the ladder. There is always someone above offering a hand up.

Are you at all concerned that you may not have built enough social capital to make the climb? Well, better that you discover that now. Because as the saying goes, “You don’t want to meet your neighbors the night your house is on fire.” Start intruding yourself today.

Social capital isn’t about accumulating 500+ connections on LinkedIn. Social capital is a lifelong practice of developing relationships defined by mutual trust and good will. To launch or refresh your practice, break it down into these three categories, which I’ve borrowed from Linda A. Hill and Kent L. Lineback, authors of Being the Boss: The 3 Imperatives for Becoming a Great Leader:

1. Operations
Who are the people you need to get your job done?

2. Strategy
Who are the people you need to understand the long-term and big-picture of your industry?

3. Career
Who are the people you need to advance your career?

Once you’ve identified your “neighbors”: Reach out to anyone you don’t know. Catch up with anyone you’ve lost touch with. And offer your help to anyone who needs it.

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3. Keep your brand fresh.

Granted, I’m assuming you have a brand. You do have a brand, right?

You have a brand if:

• You are the “go-to” person for a particular business issue, situation, or topic.

• You “own” a talent category.

• You are introduced with a tagline.

In short, you have a brand if other people can differentiate your unique contribution to the team, the company, or the industry. When you reach a level where talent is pretty much equal, brand will keep you visible and desirable. It will raise you above the level of an interchangeable commodity. If talent is the cake, brand is the icing.

Keep in mind the three “R’s” as you refresh your brand:

1. Keep it real

A brand isn’t what you think sets you apart. A brand is grounded in how others perceive your unique talents and contributions. Consider soliciting some informal 360-degree feedback.

2. Make it relevant

Your brand doesn’t matter unless it is valued by your employer. Take some time to reevaluate the connection between your company’s top objectives and your current brand.

3. Reinforce it

A brand is only as powerful as it is persistent. And sadly, people’s attention spans are brief, and fleeting: “Out of sight, out of mind.” To remain top-of-mind, reinforce your brand in everything you do and say.

4. Establish your executive presence.

You want more authority. It’s part of moving ahead at work. And you know you’re ready. But how does your boss know you’re ready? By that “aura of authority” that is executive presence.

Executive presence is how you assure people–before you even say or write a word—that you are capable of assuming responsibility, making good decisions, and directing a team for results. Executive presence inspires confidence in your ability to remain calm and clear-headed in a crisis. Executive presence makes you promotable.

So how do you express this “aura of authority”? Through your calm, focused, confident energy. Now, I don’t mean woo-woo energy. I mean the palpable energy we feel emanating from a person’s physicality. Some people are temperamentally built to radiate confidence and calm. For the rest of us, it’s a learned behavior.

What can you do if you don’t want to spend years, like a dancer, to train? Here are three bad habits you can eliminate to boost to your executive presence.

1. Distractions

We all have a tic or two that distract attention from our talents. Take stock: do you over-gesture, or cock your head, or shift from side to side?

2. Slouching

Nothing says “I’m confident!” like a strong, upright posture. If your desk life has left you without the muscular strength to keep from wilting, get yourself to a pilates studio.

3. The Bubble

People often describe charisma as a mysterious quality. It’s not. What we call “charisma” is the ability (and commitment) to reach across space to connect with other people where they live. At the other end of the spectrum are people who live in “the bubble.” They remain firmly ensconced in their own chair, so to speak. They may even shrink. Nothing ever penetrates, nothing ever connects. If you find yourself retreating to the safety of your bubble, take one giant step forward.

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5. Act like a leader.

At the end of the day, it’s leaders who get advanced. Not the doers. Too many women, encouraged and rewarded by a culture that wants to keep them in the trenches, get stuck in the doing and never progress to the leading. My shorthand with my coaching clients: “No more bake sales.”

What does it mean to be a leader?

First, it means you have a vision. Research has shown that, among all the qualities of leadership, women are perceived to possess them all equally to men but one. Turns out, the world believes that women don’t have “the vision thing.” Prove them wrong.

Second, it means you exercise your power. Power is simply the capacity to have impact. If you intend to lead, you need to use your power. Use it or lose it.

Third, it means you are a master communicator. Vision without communication is just whistling in the dark. And where there is no communication, there is no power. If you don’t know how to “win friends and influence people,” you’ll never realize your purpose in this life. Be mindful of how effectively you speak—and listen.

photo by SCA Svenska Cellulosa Aktiebolaget

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