<small><small>By Denise Millard,
SVP of Global Alliances and Industries, Dell Technologies
Waiting for supportive managers to recognize your value, and meritocratic processes to move your career needle, are formulas for stagnation, frustration and disenchantment. If you know where you want to go, you need to take control of the journey.
You need to own it.
Career ownership is more than just having a conscious desire to rise and succeed. It means knowing in specific detail what your goals are, framing a path that will get you there, seeking out and seizing strategic opportunities for learning, growth, connection and advancement along that path, and strongly advocating for yourself every step of the way.
Taking an active, deliberate approach to your career is a must for anyone with serious professional ambitions. Whether you’re at the beginning of your career or well into it, you can take the reins and steer it in a more intentional, impactful and fulfilling direction. Here are three ways to get started.
Three keys to owning your career at any stage
#1 Understand the commitments your goals will require – and your willingness to make them
Any role worth striving for requires hard work. You need to be clear-eyed about the demands of the path you want to take, and weigh them against your temperament, energy levels and the other priorities—current and anticipated—in your life.
Reach out to people who are sitting in the type of job you want and ask them for the unvarnished truth about their journey to success. What have they loved? What has been hard? What has it given them? What have they given up? What would they do differently? Then, have an honest conversation with yourself. What are you prepared to commit to and compromise on—and what would make those trade-offs worth it? If you have a partner, is he or she willing to sign up for the same pros and cons, career impacts, and potential relationship burdens?
You may come through this assessment with your career objectives unchanged, or you may reevaluate. Either way, you’ll have a more holistic picture of what truly defines success for you. Pursue cultures and environments that will help you achieve success on your terms, instead of chasing titles that may take you somewhere you never wanted to be.
#2 Connect objectives to outcomes
Leaders in positions of influence want to help their team members achieve their goals. But they don’t always have the time or mental bandwidth to formulate the steps themselves. Nor should they—it’s your career! They’re much more likely to use their position to support you if you give them concrete, easily actionable guidance. People who succeed in achieving their career aspirations don’t just ask questions or make declarations about where they want to go. They connect objectives to a specific outcome: “I want to reach ‘X’ target and need ‘Y’ knowledge/experience/credential to get there.” Then they identify how their leader or sponsor can help them achieve “Y.”
Case in point: A member of my team once asked if he could sit in on our upcoming strategic planning sessions. The role he was aspiring to required experience with several aspects of business operations he had no previous visibility into. He believed the exposure would accelerate his path to the next level, and I knew he was right. It was an easy ask of me with a huge upside for him. I was happy to facilitate it.
#3 Invest in relationships
Few things will have a bigger impact on your career success than cultivating and nurturing strong personal relationships. The people you are connected to will support your rise and break your falls. They will be your champions and your refuge. Your network is everything, and you need to be very intentional about how you build and keep it. If you are in a remote role, make sure to create moments of authentic, impactful connection. Set up recurring one-on-ones with people. Establish group text threads. Pop into people’s chats to say hello and check in. Open lines of communication with key leaders and colleagues and keep them active and dynamic, so you’re top of mind and easily accessible when opportunities cross their radar that you’d be a good fit for.
Additionally, don’t discount the value your non-professional networks bring to your professional life. Whether it’s a book club, a running group, or the friends you meet for dinner once a month, having an external support system is essential for managing the stress and challenges work throws at you, maintaining perspective, and coming back to your job refreshed and refocused.
How—and why—leaders should foster a culture of career ownership
While the onus is absolutely on the team member to define their path, seek out opportunities and self-advocate, there’s a tremendous upside for organizations that provide an apparatus to support their team members in doing so. People who feel invested in by their employer tend to invest in that employer in return, in the form of dedication and loyalty. Over time, those team members may become leaders in the organization, who are themselves steeped in a development-minded, people-first approach to bring along the next generation of talent.
Don’t just sponsor team members—prepare them. Always look for opportunities to give high-potential, high-ownership team members on-the-job experience for the roles they aspire to so they can confidently step into their new responsibilities when promoted. Empower team members to lead a new initiative, manage a project or, as in the example earlier, provide exposure to high-level discussions. This lets them broaden their knowledge and test their capabilities in a relatively low-stakes scenario and enables you to provide air cover if they falter, coach them on what went wrong and demonstrate how to course correct moving forward.
People who feel invested in by their employer tend to invest in that employer in return, in the form of dedication and loyalty.
Build long-term goals into ongoing conversations. People often make the mistake of thinking their manager is aware of their goals because they were mentioned in the interview process or an annual review. Create the space in regular touchpoints to discuss their bigger picture objectives alongside KPIs and other immediate concerns. The value here cuts both ways: team members will reap the benefit of your experience and insight as they map out their path forward, and you will be able to more readily identify the right kinds of training and enrichment opportunities to help them get to the next step on that path.
Create and encourage opportunities for connection. From mentorship programs and employee resource groups (ERGs) to sponsoring volunteer activities and funding networking opportunities, there are countless ways companies of any size can support team members looking to build their professional relationships. Organizations should invest meaningful thought and time in building and internally promoting such programs, and managers should encourage their teams to take advantage of them. You can’t force team members to engage, but you can share the ways your own career has benefited from intentional connection.
Begin where you are—but begin
There is no match for a person who knows exactly what he or she wants and is actively, intentionally focused on achieving it. The sooner you start fully owning your career, the better, but it’s never too late, and the rewards will enrich your life in countless ways.