Much of your satisfaction with your life — or lack thereof — derives from your career. Some people hate their jobs. Some love them. At the end of the day, a huge driving factor behind the people who succeed in their professional spheres and find contentment is whether they have the motivation to constantly seek out opportunities to build on and enhance their careers. This can mean the difference between having an actual career and having just a job.
Career development is a broad term that describes the ways you manage and nurture your career. It’s about more than just your current job or organization; it involves the entire series of actions and steps you take throughout your career, from before even your first job into your retirement.
Both you and your employer(s) play a role in career development. While it’s ultimately your responsibility to take charge of your professional life and seek out opportunities to enhance it, many employers offer these opportunities to employees because when they learn and enhance their skills, everyone benefits. It’s also a useful way of retaining and recruiting employees because it demonstrates that employers have a vested interest in their success — not to mention the fact that employees benefit from the experiences themselves.
Your personality and unique characteristics can have an enormous impact on your career development. For example, if you’re a highly confident person, you’ll likely find that this will serve you well in seeking out career development opportunities and experiences. Meanwhile, a less secure person may have trouble putting themselves out there and believing that they’re capable of moving forward in their career — no matter how true or untrue it may be.
That doesn’t mean you can’t overcome hurdles like self-esteem problems; it just means you should put in the work to understand yourself and recognize when you’re holding back because you’re feeling insecure, not because you actually lack the skills or qualifications.
Most jobs have minimum levels of education you need to complete before you can even secure an entry-level position in the field. You’ll also find that advancing in your career will require new skills and in some cases additional certifications or degrees. Even if this education isn’t a prerequisite for career development in your profession, many employers look favorably upon employees who attain new, measurable skills and advanced certificates or degrees. They could also open up doors to new opportunities in or outside of your current employer.
You don’t necessarily need to learn in a formal way, either. Learning and honing your skills will also contribute to and affect your career development.
As you probably know, your personal life also affects your career life and trajectory. You may not be able to take advantage of certain opportunities, for instance, if you have financial constraints that limit your ability to pay for courses or programs. If you have family obligations, meanwhile, this will affect your ability to work late hours.
Unfortunately, personal and outside commitments rarely impact your career development in a positive way. During the pandemic, they can present even more of a burden.
How do you act at work? Are you generally polite, courteous and professional? Do you try to keep your personal problems out of the office (sure, we all have our moments, as long as they’re not the norm for you)? Or, do you let your issues affect your attitude and performance and not really try to hide it when you dislike a colleague?
Your behavior in professional contexts will influence other people’s perception of you and your ability to advance in your career. If your behavior is work appropriate, it won’t hold you back and will solidify your positive reputation. But if it’s not, it will limit you.
This may sound pretty obvious, but it’s notable nonetheless: how you do in your job has a direct effect on your career development. That doesn’t mean it’s the only factor, but it’s an extremely important one nonetheless.
Job performance involves how well you actually do your job, of course, but it’s more than that. It’s also about your relationships with your manager and colleagues, your ability to collaborate and your capacity to meet expectations. Much of this is within your control — you can, after all, put forth as much effort as you want — although some of it is more difficult to manipulate. If your manager is generally difficult to please, for instance, there’s not much you can do about it other than continue to work to meet their expectations.
Your own sense of motivation is critical when it comes to career development. There are some people who are satisfied where they are and don’t feel motivated to go anywhere, and that’s fine. These people, however, will have a very different career trajectory from those who are highly motivated to keep looking for and seizing opportunities.
In order to know what you need to improve, you’ll have to examine what you already have. Your strengths and weaknesses will lay the groundwork for you to build your career. Write them down, making a physical list. In one column, write down your top strengths, and in another, write down your top weaknesses.
Be honest and genuinely reflective (i.e. don’t just decide that you have no strengths because that’s not true — and also means “low self-esteem” belongs in your weaknesses column). Don’t limit it to strictly professional strengths and weaknesses. Many of them may overlap with several spheres of your life.
If you’re not already using the SMART method to create your goals, it’s time to start. The acronym stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-bound (with slight variations depending on whom you ask), and it’s an ideal way of developing actionable aspirations and ensuring that you have a solid plan to achieve them. This system will be especially useful in your career development because you’ll be able to and measure and see tangible progress.
Learning experiences can be formal or informal. Either way, they’re bound to enhance your career, even if they aren’t directly tied to your current job. Take classes, read books and peruse industry publications. If you don’t know something, ask someone who does.
You should always be looking for opportunities to upskill, even if you’re happy in your role right now. This will allow you to put new skills on your resume and may qualify you for more senior roles at your present organization or elsewhere.
Not everyone has managed to find a mentor over the course of their career, but the ones who do have an indispensable career-development resource at their fingertips. A great mentor will answer your questions, give you guidance and advice and offer an example to follow.
How do you secure a mentor? You could start with higher-up professionals at your company. While it’s a little uncomfortable for both of you) to outright ask for mentoring, start with something small, like lunch (when this is safe and feasible) or asking them a specific question about their role. LinkedIn and networking are good resources, too. The best mentoring relationships evolve organically, so be patient and don’t expect too much too soon.
Subscribe to industry publications. Set Google news alerts. Watch webinars. Participate in forums and discussions. These and other means of following the news, events and goings-on in your field will help you stay informed and get to know the people within it. It will also give you talking points for interviews and allow you to become familiar with the inner-workings of the industry. You may even learn about job openings.
One of the advantages of working full-time at a company, especially a big one, is that there are often plenty of opportunities for learning and career-development available for free or at a discount to employees. For example, you might have access to online courses through LinkedIn or be able to engage in seminars intended to help you develop certain skills or competencies. Some organizations have mentoring or career-development programs. Many also subsidize external educational courses or degrees.
No matter how long you want or plan to stay at the organization, it’s always a good idea to participate in the company-sponsored programs that interest you. This can have an enormous impact on your career in the short- and long-term. You never know when these skills will prove useful or enable you to advance.
Network, network, network. It can’t be repeated enough. Networking is a tool you should always have in your back pocket. Go to company- or industry-sponsored events — virtually or in person. Attend conferences — virtually or in person. Reach out to people you admire, via email, LinkedIn or another means. The more you widen your network, the likelier you are to get noticed and become an important name in your field, one people think of when they’re looking to hire, promote or otherwise call upon in a professional capacity.
Asking for feedback is central to improving and moving up in your industry.
Be prepared for constructive criticism in addition to praise. Constructive criticism is where you can really identify ways to grow. Try not to take it personally (although we all have egos, so it’s understandable). Instead, look for ways to act on it. If it’s not obvious, you can always ask how you can improve.
As you gain experience and exposure to different paths and ideas, your plans could very well change. That’s okay! In fact, it’s expected. Nobody is exactly the same at age 31 as they were at 21, and it’s natural for your aspirations and goals to evolve and even change course entirely. Perhaps you want to try out a new industry after 10 years in your original one. Or maybe you’d like to try your hand at freelancing or starting your own business.
People change, and plans change. Give yourself space to update and overhaul your goals as new factors, circumstances and perceptions emerge.
Career development is your responsibility, not other people’s. While your employer, boss, colleagues, mentor, partner, friends and family may have a vested interest in seeing you succeed and will often help you along the way, ultimately, this is your path, and you need to own it. Don’t just think about career development when you have to write something down on a performance evaluation. Take responsibility for your career and success — this is your journey.