Regardless of where you are on your current career path, there are certain steps that every career-minded professional should take to grow their career:
Check your current career goals. What companies do you want to work for? What is your ideal job description? What is your perfect day? What is the legacy you wish to leave professionally and personally? Now, how does your current job match up with these answers? You want to do an annual check-up of your career goals because your assumptions, ideals, and needs change. Make sure that you are on track with where you want to go now, not where you thought you wanted to go ten years ago.
Update your resume. Does your resume reflect your most recent accomplishments, title, and responsibilities? Is it still tailored to your career objectives? Are there items that are no longer relevant? Do other items need to be highlighted as your career goals have changed? Even if you are not in job search mode, updating your resume forces you to take an inventory of your career to date.
Maintain your existing network. The best time to network is when you don’t need to network. Block the next few months of the year to call and/or email everyone in your database to update contact information, catch up on summer vacations, and wish happy holidays in November/ December.
Grow your network. The easiest time to network is when you don’t need to network. Block one lunch per week to meet someone new. Join a professional organization, or ask friends and colleagues for introductions. Have fun. Focus on the relationship. Go with the intention of just making a connection (not achieving some grandstanding professional goal), so there is no pressure.
We all know how important networking is. For job search and career advancement, networking enables you to hear about the unadvertised jobs or the plum projects that could propel your career forward. But a strong network is beneficial for day-to-day personal needs as well – finding a good doctor, checking on a contractor, discovering a good place for Mexican food.
How do you know if your network is strong enough to support you professionally and personally? Every few months, you should test the strength of your network:
If you had to contact someone for professional reasons – e.g., “do you know anyone at Pfizer? They posted a job that may be right for me and I want to learn more about that group” – how many people would you feel comfortable calling right now?
If you have fewer than 25 strong professional contacts you could reach out to now, your network is too small. You might have deep connections with a small number, and this is a good start.
But you also need quantity in your network. You should prioritize meeting new professional contacts. If you have the quality and the quantity but you don’t feel like you could reach out today, then you have an issue with maintaining your network. You should prioritize following up with people you already know. A bonus test is how many people you could contact for personal needs. Look at the quantity, but also the variety in your personal network.
When was the last time you had lunch or a Starbucks with a contact outside your day-to-day colleagues or closest friends?
If it is more than a month or you can’t remember, this is a danger sign that your networking is too insular. You are not exposing yourself to diverse perspectives. Remember the above point about how important it is to maintain your network. Setting aside some lunch hours is a great way to follow up with your network.
Do you have mentors and supporters?
When you need some off-the-record advice or candid feedback, do you have people that you can go to who understand your role, your company and your industry? If not, then you’re not taking advantage of mentorship in your career. Mentors are not just very senior people who can move you to the next level by sheer influence.
There is a place for that type of powerful mentor. But mentors can also be at your peer-level. They can be colleagues who have an insight you don’t have and are willing to share it with you – maybe they’ve been at the company longer and have a great sense of the politics, maybe they are super strong presenters and can be your practice audience before you have a big meeting.
Networking is not something that you can cram last-minute. A strong network is built over time and with deliberate attention to both quantity and quality of the contacts. Ask yourself the above three simple questions on a regular basis (set your Outlook to remind you quarterly!), so that you consciously tend to your network before it becomes a crisis situation.
No one likes the person who only reaches out when they need something. No one wants to be the person who needs something but feels all alone. Build a strong network so that you can make requests without imposing. Build a network that is strong enough so you don’t have to go it alone.
This post also appeared at my Work In Progress blog on Forbes.com:
While I’m a big fan of starting something on the side, while keeping your day job (see Part 1 of this series), it’s a time-consuming strategy and not suitable for everyone. Another strategy is to switch day jobs to where you can maintain some aspects of the day job you like but also move closer to your ideal career/ business idea (thus trying you’re your idea without starting a new business outright).
Tony asks: I am considering leaving my career that I have been doing for the past 15 years and starting a coaching business. Should I get a job related to consulting and training first?
If Tony were to migrate to a training job first and then start a coaching business, it makes the leap from day job to a full-fledged business a two-step process. Instead of quitting your job for a business, you first migrate the job closer to your business interest and then you start the business presumably once you have some credibility and contacts in the new area. This may seem like a compromise move or a less risky step, but there are still some major considerations:
You will need to launch this job search around your current day job, so it is very similar to starting a side business while balancing a job. In this competitive market, the branding and networking required to land a good job is similar to the activity you need to expend to start a business.
Your job search will have a heavy sales component because you will not be doing exactly what you did before. You are a career changer who will have to convince the marketplace (of prospective employers) to buy your services (hire you) amidst alternative offerings (from candidates who have already done the job).
There is risk in making a career change if you decide to go back to your first job. Yes, going from entrepreneur to employee is a big return trip if you start a business and decide you want to go back to your day job. But, making a career change and then going back is also tough. There is still a risk that your skills, experience, expertise and contacts will migrate enough when you change jobs that re-entry to your former position is not guaranteed.
There are good reasons to change jobs in preparation for a move to entrepreneurship. It does enable you to develop your skills, backed by the resources of an established company. It enables you to have a ready network of contacts that could be helpful to your business later on. It does keep one anchor constant (you are still an employee) while you shift other things (your industry or functional focus). But if you are relying on a job change to be easier or less risky than starting a business, that’s not true and not a good enough reason to go this route.
This post also appeared at my Work In Progress blog for Forbes.com:
The beginning of November marks the beginning of shopping, parties, and family get-togethers. I also recommend we mark the beginning of November as the kick-off of next year’s goals. That’s right: outline your 2011 resolutions and start working on them in November. This is not to add more pressure, responsibility, or expectation to what can already be a stressful season. Rather, beginning your goals now will contribute hope, empowerment, and anticipation to what should be a joyful time of year.
By outlining your 2011 goals in November 2010 you can piggyback off of holiday inspiration. During Thanksgiving, we are reminded to be grateful. During the winter holidays, we are reminded to be giving. We are surrounded by family and friends, and the giving and the gratitude remind us of the true meaning of our lives. Even at our jobs, we are working on year-end summaries and reminded of what contributions have impact. This time of reflection is a great time for reflecting on what we’d like our next year to be.
By starting your 2011 goals in November 2010 you have two extra months to start new habits. In January, you’ll be too exhausted by the festivities that just passed to start something new. Instead, use the adrenaline kicked up from holiday shopping to kick off now. Start that exercise routine with extra laps around the mall. Start that balanced budget with a sensible gift-buying strategy. By January, you’ll already be established in a routine.
In this season of giving, we also have to give to ourselves. Making time for our goals now is one way to carve out that personal time. Making time for our goals now (rather than the revered January start) also reminds us that our goals are within our grasp today. Change can start right now.