Whether you’re looking to earn more money, take on a leadership role, or just secure a bit more personal freedom and flexibility, we’re all seeking ways to advance in our professional life. But for many of us, that advancement can also seem somewhat elusive. How can we secure that raise, get on the trajectory toward a promotion, become increasingly valuable and indispensable members of our teams and organizations?
Naturally, the answer looks a little bit different for everybody. Every profession has its own idiosyncrasies. What it takes to get to the next level on your career path may be entirely different from what is required in another type of profession. Leveling up as an educator probably looks quite different from leveling up as a corporate accountant, for instance. Some professions call for certification, others for full degree programs, and others still, just a good plan for strategic advancement. Every field is unique in this regard.
But there are certain skills, attitudes, and aptitudes that leaders in every profession tend to have in common. Our goal here is to identify a few general strategies for professional advancement that you can apply in your own career, no matter what that career might be.
If you’re thinking you’d like to pursue a new job altogether, we have tons of advice on securing a recession proof gig for these turbulent economic times.
If your top priority is to take steps forward in your existing role or organization, read on.
How to Level Up Your Career
These are strange times. Unemployment numbers are at near record lows and hiring remains robust at the time of writing in the Fall of 2023. Yet ominous reports about a recession looming on the horizon. Economists generally disagree on what’s actually coming, but it’s probable the robust employment numbers and strong wage growth we’re seeing today won’t last forever.
So what does that mean for you? Well, if you have designs on career advancement in the not too distant future, now is the time to get moving. Opportunities abound today. But what the future holds is anybody’s guess.
With that in mind, we offer a few tips on how you can kick your career into a higher gear.
1. Seek a Mentor
If your goal is to forge a career path with an upward trajectory, your first step should be to engage with somebody who has walked this path before. Seek out a trusted and experienced figure in your organization or in your field and work to build a meaningful collegial relationship. This person could become a source for invaluable knowledge, insight, and counsel.
Career development and hiring site Indeed.com advises, “Find someone who is successful in your industry or the industry you hope to work in and learn from them. If you can, meet with them and ask them questions, such as what helped them succeed and if they have any suggestions for someone hoping to follow a similar career path. Consider how they manage their time and tasks.”
Get a better sense of what it takes to succeed specifically within your industry. And perhaps even get a leg up on opportunities for new projects or positions. Indeed, if you succeed in establishing a truly meaningful relationship, this role model could also become one of your strongest advocates in your organization or the broader industry. (We’ll discuss internal “sponsorship” later in this article). If you can, start cultivating this mentor-mentee relationship early in your career. The right role model could put you on a much faster pace to new opportunities.
2. Prioritize Your Health
I know. You were expecting a whole bunch of tips about organization, time management, and office politics. And yes, there’s plenty of that here. But your health and wellness are absolutely foundational to your career success for a variety of reasons. A fit, healthy employee is generally a more productive professional. So if you aren’t already doing certain things in your personal life like exercising regularly, keeping a balanced and nutritious diet, drinking plenty of water and getting good sleep every night, these are all important parts of the broader strategy for career advancement.
This applies to your mental health as well. The energy and attitude that you bring to the workplace will have a direct bearing on how you impact those around you and how you approach your responsibilities. This means that your ability to cope with challenges, stay motivated, make thoughtful decisions, show empathy to others and generally contribute to positive morale around you will all figure into how you present yourself and how you are perceived by others at work.
According to an article from professional networking site LinkedIn, “When you’re stressed and overworked, it’s difficult to have a positive mindset and attitude. Make sure you’re taking care of yourself physically and mentally. Eat healthy foods, get enough sleep, and exercise regularly.”
Not only that, but the better you care for yourself, the less susceptible you are over the long run to illness, injury and repeated or prolonged absence from work. As a consequence, your productivity and output will be greater over time, which is something that organizational leaders tend to notice.
All of this to say that your physical and mental well being go hand in hand with your productivity and, even more importantly, your happiness at work. So if you’re looking for ways to take the next step in your career, make sure you’re also taking the next steps toward fitness, health and wellness.
3. Focus On Reliability
Few qualities carry more weight in the workplace than accountability. This is true in just about any workplace setting. This is where the concept of “soft skills” comes into play. On the surface, the phrase “soft skills” might actually undercut just how important these non-technical attributes are when it comes to organizational advancement.
Your ability to communicate effectively, delegate responsibilities to co workers where appropriate, integrate new responsibilities and existing daily tasks, and seize new learning opportunities all demonstrate the kind of reliability that is absolutely critical in future leadership. As an article from CGC Recruiting notes, demonstrating these leadership skills begins at the most basic level, with hard work, strong time management, and realistic goal setting.
As the article from CGC points out, “Reliability goes a long way. You need to show that you are capable of carrying out the job at hand and completing it on time, every time. So, don’t make agreements you can’t meet and don’t commit to something unless you are sure you can pull it off.”
Indeed, only when you demonstrate the ability to excel in the areas where you are already tasked will you be considered for more responsibility.
4. Cultivate a New Skill
Perhaps the best way to materially improve your value to your organization is to add relevant new skills to your arsenal. This can mean a great many different things depending on your industry. If you work in computer programming, you could master a new coding language or operating environment by completing a one week coding boot camp. As an educator, this may mean taking a six week online course for specialized certification in a particular area of learning such as literacy training or educational technology. Getting to the next level in many business settings will probably require you to at least consider earning a master’s degree in business administration (MBA), which is typically a two year commitment.
In other words, there are a lot of different pathways to enhancing your skills and just how long the pathway is will depend on your profession and how far you hope to advance. And of course, each of the pathways above comes with its own set of costs–in terms of both time and money.
This is why the article from Indeed.com recommends investing in one of your areas of greatest strength. Where do you already excel? Investing in enhancing your abilities and acumen in this area will likely bear the greatest fruit. The article suggests that “you may succeed more in your career if you specialize in an area that can add value to your team. This can be especially helpful if you have a skill that few others in your team have. For example, if you have always done well when giving presentations to customers or other businesses, you may take some classes in speech or sales to improve your technique.”
Take inventory of your greatest professional attributes and think about how these align with areas of need in your organization. This may help give you some clear direction on how to get the best return on investment in your own education and training.
5. Consider All of Your Options
Before you decide what you will do, decide what you actually can do. In other words, what are your options? What are all possible outcomes as you look to take the next steps, and how will you handle each of these prospective outcomes? Is it actually possible to get a promotion in your current organization? Could seeking a promotion actually jeopardize your current role? (Be careful. It happens!) Is it likely you’ll have to look outside of your current organization for opportunity?
Be fully aware of all the possibilities, and then take cautious steps forward. For instance, job search portal MichaelPage.com suggests “Perhaps you could ask your manager for more (or less) responsibility, request an internal transfer to learn new skills, or simply take a holiday to get the break you need. If you cannot improve your situation within the company, you should consider: A new position in the same industry; The same position in a new industry; [or] A new position in a new industry.”
Be sure that you have a realistic and well-informed sense of what you can realistically achieve within your organization, within your industry, or beyond. Once you’ve taken inventory of the actual possibilities and how you’ll respond to each potential outcome, you can begin to forge the best path forward.
6. Make Your Objectives Clear
It’s not enough to simply put your head down and work hard in hopes that somebody will notice.
If you have designs for advancement, long term leadership goals, and the desire to ultimately improve your earning potential, don’t beat around the bush. Make your objectives clear to those who have the ability to help you achieve them. Doing a really great job and showing up every day with a good attitude are both important. But you can’t simply assume others recognize this as an ambition for upward trajectory, nor that your company leadership knows precisely where you’d like that upward trajectory to take you.
It’s really on you to find tactful and appropriate ways to communicate these ambitions. As an article from Forbes advises, “Don’t assume that people know what you want next in your career. Don’t assume that people know you’re interested in a particular opportunity, area or role. You have to ask for the help you need. For sponsors who are willing and able to support you, be specific about what will be helpful — if you’re already interviewing for a new role, ask for a reference. If you haven’t yet interviewed, perhaps you need an introduction.”
Be both genuine and strategic about sharing your objectives with the right people, about respectfully asserting your candidacy for emergent opportunities, and persistent about putting yourself in front of the right people. Naturally, there is a fine line between persistence and pestering; between ambition and arrogance. But the risk of working hard in the shadow of others is even greater. Your excellence may go entirely unnoticed and your dedication to your career may go unrewarded if you don’t speak up at the right time.
Try to find a balance, one that makes you a visible, viable and–not to be overlooked– a likable candidate for new job opportunities.
7. Identify Areas of Need In Your Organization
But what do you do if you like your organization, you wish to advance, but you see no clear pathway forward or upward?
Well, one great way to seize new opportunities is to create them for yourself. But that doesn’t mean that you can just invent a position for yourself. What it really means is that you may be able to take the initiative of addressing unmet needs within your organization. Are there gaps in your company’s structure, operations, or organization that overlap with your area of focus? Are there ways that you can take ownership over filling these gaps with organizational improvements, redistribution of labor, or more hands-on oversight?
The article from CGC recruiting suggests that “All companies have gaps – such as management, recruitment or technical gaps – identify where these are and then look to fill them. Learn the skills you need to fill the gap and soon you’ll become the go-to person in that area.This needs to be done deftly, however, trying not to step on the toes of management or your colleagues. There may be a good reason why this gap exists and plans in place to fill it. Be a fixer, not a troublemaker.”
Indeed, this is a strategy that is not without risk. Volunteering yourself to address a problem which proves intractable or placing yourself at odds with a prevailing culture can put you in a perilous position if your efforts are ultimately derailed for one reason or another. But, it’s also worth pointing out that taking the next step in your career may well carry risk no matter how you approach it. Risk takers are often the same people who manage to work their way to the front of the line when promotions and new leadership opportunities emerge.
So be sure that any effort you make to address a gap in your company’s organizational structure is a calculated risk, one that comes with some understanding of company culture, the attitude of your leadership, and just how receptive this leadership is to input from those within the organization. And once you’ve ensured that you are likely to have a receptive ear in your company’s leadership, make sure that you come well organized with a realistic and actionable plan for addressing the problem you’ve identified. Do all of your homework on the solution before you start pointing out problems.
8. Consider An Organizational Change
Of course, if you find that your ideas of what your organization needs contrast sharply with what the company’s top decision makers believe, it may be time for a change. This could be a reflection of some cultural or ideological incompatibility between you and your company.
If this is true, it could really place a ceiling on how high you can go with your current employer. As an article from Harvard Business Review suggests, “Finding an employer and role that are value-aligned can reveal opportunities that you might not have thought about or even noticed before. You might consider taking a job with a different title than you’ve had before because of the contributions you would be making and the expertise you would gain, as well as the quality of teammates and opportunities for advancement toward where you truly want to be in life. This is how you seize opportunities that otherwise would have passed you by unnoticed.”
Indeed, even armed with all the skills and knowledge that you need to lead, you may find that your current environment does not necessarily offer the greatest space for either your personal or career growth. Find yourself a team that matches your ambition and professional orientation, then find a way to politely, professionally and with proper advance notice, tell your current employer, “It’s not me. It’s you.”
9. Build Your Brand
This is one item that prospective hires didn’t really have to worry about back in the day. But now, it’s pretty much essential. These days, when you apply for a job, your prospective employer will almost inevitably do a cursory Google search for a look at your online presence.
This will include anything you’ve posted on social media, highlighted on LinkedIn, or published through personal or public blogs. In other words, everything you put out there into the online world helps to establish the impression you’ll present to both current and prospective employers, whether you intend for it to be seen or not.
Make sure you control that impression. Establish consistent messaging and presentation. Make your experience, accomplishments and goals clear in everything you put out into the world.
The reality is that, today, your branding is as important–perhaps even more so–than your resume. While the resume presents a one dimensional look at your professional background, your branding can tell employers a great deal more about who you really are. This, in turn, can play a major role in determining whether or not you’re a good cultural fit for an organization or a good personality fit for a new role.
For this reason, says an article from Medium, “Building a brand is not optional. It is a strategy for survival. Personal branding, also referred to as personal marketing, helps you to: Establish your reputation in your industry; Promote your experience; Stand apart from your competitors; and Attract new employers, clients, or fans.”
And while you’re at it, make sure you tidy up your social media accounts. We were all young once, but that doesn’t mean we have to display our indiscretions for the hiring world to see. Make sure there’s nothing in your past that might cast you in a less than professional light. Employers have pretty easy access to Google and Instagram. It’s not hard to do a quick background check and eliminate candidates who display poor judgment on social media.
Building your brand is equal parts protection of your image and control of your personal presentation. Do both effectively and it could significantly enhance the way employers view you when it comes time for promotion into a new role.
10. Hire a Career Coach
If you’re not sure where to begin or how to strategize for both the short- and long-term, you may be a good candidate for career coaching. There are countless career counseling agencies that offer a wide variety of both low and high touch services from simple resume improvement and brand management all the way up to regular and ongoing consultation as you advance in your career. It all depends on how much you are willing and able to invest.
The right service can help you to either be better at your current job, to prepare for and pursue a new role, or both. As the article from Indeed points out, “Everyone can benefit from an outside perspective, particularly when they need advice on their strengths or weaknesses. You may not always see what you do well or what could use improvement. When you ask an expert, you may learn a different method or skill that improves the way you complete your tasks. For example, if you struggle with managing the volume of emails you receive in a day, a career coach may have some tips for streamlining this process. They may also have insight into what a supervisor is looking for if you want a promotion into a leadership position.”
Career coaching can be a great way to help kick start your path forward, and an invaluable resource as you continue to level up. Not sure career coaching is right for you? Jump to our list of eight reasons a career coach might be well worth it for those looking to take the next step in their career.
Are you looking for ways to level up without spending tens of thousands (or more) to earn a college degree? While some high paying careers absolutely require you to earn at least a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university, there are actually quite a few excellent career paths with competitive salaries that you can pursue without an undergraduate degree.
For a look at some of the best options, check out our list of jobs with six-figure salaries that you can get without going to college!