“You should apply for that promotion, you’re an obvious choice”, said a colleague, quite casually. Yet it was only after three people encouraged me that I finally applied and was subsequently appointed to a bigger job. I was an ambitious 30-year-old, had experienced a successful and fast-tracked career but was plagued with self-doubt (which I later learned to be Imposter Syndrome), and felt I needed more experience to excel. I didn’t have a mentor to counsel me and didn’t know whether this role – a deviation from my career to date - would help or hinder me long term.
Fifteen odd years later, and with the benefit of having experienced many more career decisions, and career highs and lows, I wish I could speak with my 30-year-old self now and give her the following advice on navigating her career:
1. Be strategic about your career
Start with gaining those experiences that will set you up for later success. Particularly early in your career, experiences that broaden you are always helpful. Work in different functions, different countries or cities, and with different organisations. Take lateral moves as well as promotions. Experiences that give you visibility to senior stakeholders are critical. And experiences that take you outside your comfort zone are key to your professional growth.
2. Don’t wait until you’re ready
Here’s the thing – you’re never ready. I used to think if I had more experience, more skills, I would be more effective and less likely to fail. But over 20 years’ of working in HR and being on the inside of promotion decisions, I now see that rarely does a candidate meet all of the criteria. In fact, confidence and enthusiasm can count for a lot in securing your next role. In the words of Sara Blakely, “don’t be intimidated by what you don’t know - that can be your greatest strength and ensure that you do things differently from everyone else”.
3. Stop trying to figure out your purpose
Many big-name authors and Ted speakers would have us believe that once we figure out our ‘purpose’, everything else will fall into place and navigating our careers will be easy. The idea that each of us is born with a purpose for being is fundamentally flawed and doesn’t account for the ever-increasing pace of job change nor changes to one’s interests and passions as one grows and develops. Rather, do things that bring you joy. Even if this means taking the path less travelled from time to time. And as your interests and passions change over time, evolve your work and your career accordingly.
4. Back yourself
This applies in all manner of forms. Trust your instincts. Don’t be rail-roaded by those in more senior roles, or those with a different agenda, if in your heart you don’t think a course of action is right. Know your worth and value. Never just accept the package that goes with a new role – negotiate and make sure the terms reflect your worth. Finally, draw on the career wisdom of others. Carefully and proactively seek out one or more mentors, full of experience and wise counsel, who can back you and guide you through those challenging career junctures.
5. Be your best self, not someone else
Stop worrying about how to adapt to the leadership style that you think is required and define your own authentic style. Integrity, self-awareness, fairness, a genuine concern for others, and transparency and vulnerability are the foundations for great leadership. And when you encounter things that aren’t right, be the person who calls out bad behavior. The person who stands up for the underdog. Don’t do it for the recognition, do it because it’s the right thing to do.
Sharon Peake is a chartered occupational psychologist, career coach, gender diversity expert, and the founder of Shape Talent, a boutique consultancy established to help enable more women to step up into senior leadership roles in business.