Here's How To Kick Your Career Up a Notch
‘How can I achieve success in my career?’, “How can I take my career to the next level?’ These are just a few of the questions that have been filling my inbox the last few months. Though these questions related mainly to a career in Monitoring and Evaluation, I feel my answers will resonate with persons working in other professions and hence my motivation for writing this article.
Persons asked me these questions mainly because of the success of my articles on LinkedIn. There is also a curiosity surrounding how I went from humble beginnings in Jamaica, to a consultant based in Europe with clients from all corners of the globe.
My first answer is that one of the crucial elements to having a successful career (and life!) is to be open to new experiences and take risks. I am yet to hear of a person who has great accomplishments by playing it safe all the time.
I vividly remember the look of shock on the faces of my friends when at age 26 I announced that I would be pursuing a Master’s degree in Development at Ewha Womans University in South Korea. ‘You are going where? They don’t even speak English there?!’
They could not understand why I would give up a secure and (fairly) decent job. At the time I had a permanent employment contract with a government agency in Jamaica. In other words I was giving up a job in the civil service that was ‘guaranteed for life’ to go to a country that is so geographically, linguistically and culturally distant from my own. Why not the US, Canada or the UK where everyone else went to study?
However, after nearly 5 years on a job with little possibility of upward mobility, I was at the point in my career where I was ready for radical shift. I was eager to learn about international aid and development but could not afford the tuition to study abroad in this field. As such, when the opportunity for a full scholarship at a reputable university appeared, I did not let the geographical location stand in the way.
It was a pivotal moment that launched my career in International Development. As a result of that study and my experience collaborating with multicultural teams while in Korea, I was able to land a job with the United Nations. I have been taking calculated risks ever since.
“The biggest risk is not taking any risk... In a world that changes really quickly, the only strategy that is guaranteed to fail is not taking risks”.
- Mark Zuckerberg
This leads me to my second piece of advice for having a successful career. Be in charge of your own career and manage it as you would a business. Don’t leave your career solely in the hands of others such as your line supervisor; sitting around hoping that the company has enough money in the training budget to send you on a course or a vacancy opens up in the company.
Develop a Career Plan and invest in yourself as you would a business. This Plan should have a vision of where you see yourself in five to ten years. As a vision without action is just a dream, your Plan should also have concrete actions to achieve your goal.
For me, one of my career goals was to become an internationally recognized expert in the field of Planning, Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning (PMEL). In order to achieve this I decided that one of the concrete actions to take is to periodically update my skill set and invest in continuous learning. This is the only way for me to remain relevant and abreast of industry trends. Never be afraid to learn new skills that can complement (or replace) your core business.
"Develop a passion for learning. If you do, you will never cease to grow."
-Anthony J. D'Angelo
My ‘day job’ is conducting evaluations, but I learnt how to develop and maintain my own website, produce videos from scratch, creative writing and how to sketch some of the cartoons that you see in my articles. These are all skills I did not possess 3 years ago.
Most successful people I know are versatile. Challenge yourself to acquire at least one new skill every year. This year I hope to learn about participatory evaluations through the use of theatre.
Additionally, when you are in charge of your own career, you take the wheel and make things happen.
For example, last year I was interested in learning more about a particular evaluation method. However I could not find an institute with a workshop planned in the coming 12 months.
As such, I contacted one of the trainers in this technique on LinkedIn. He told me that he was willing to conduct a workshop in Amsterdam but only if there were enough participants. It would not be financially viable to travel from Australia just for me. In the end, in order to increase the number of participants I marketed and organized the training. I got enough persons from different parts of the world to enroll. All the trainer had to do was turn up and facilitate the workshop. Acquiring this new skill was so important to me that I was not afraid to contact someone whom I had never met before with an audacious request. In my mind the worse thing he could have said was ‘no’.
If you want to be successful in your career, you have to be bold.
“Fortune befriends the bold.” - Emily Dickinson
Along the way I have also had good mentors. Now, it may not be easy to find someone that is willing (or even available) to take the time to coach you. After all, successful people lead busy lives and are constantly sought after. However, you may be able to find someone in your direct environment that you emulate. You can pattern their behavior.
During my tenure at the United Nations, my supervisor, Minh Pham (who was then Resident Coordinator of the UN System) was very adept at facilitating groups. He led meetings with such clinical precision that there was always a succinct agenda, everyone got to speak but discussions were kept on track and the meetings always resulted in clear actionable points. Nobody ever felt their time was wasted after attending a session chaired by him. I don’t think Minh knew that I was observing him and taking notes on how to run a productive meeting. To this day I still use his formula.
Another supervisor of mine, Nenita La Rose is truly a transformational leader that brings out the best in her staff. It dawned on me that it was her high emotional intelligence that made her adored by her colleagues who in turn became more committed to the company’s mission. I have tried to adopt Nenita’s approach in my interactions with persons.
This brings me to my next key ingredient for success. Be respectful and having a genuine appreciation for other people. No matter how competent you are, if you don’t play well with others and are abrasive, you will soon develop a reputation of someone who is hard to work with. Be nice to everyone and not just to people who you think you can gain something from. I once met this young man who was so unassuming and modest. I only found out his 'status' a couple weeks afterwards when he called me for an assignment within his company.
“ I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”.
- Maya Angelou
Additionally, a successful career hinges on your ability to create and produce. What if Google or the LinkedIn were not created? You probably would not be reading this article now. These two creations started as an idea in someone’s minds. Maybe the stroke of inspiration came one day sitting in a train or at the beach. I don’t know. The point is that the creators translated this idea into a tangible product.
We spend a lot of time consuming what other people have created; watching movies, listening to music etc. Successful people are constantly creating.
It is not solely a capitalist mentality why music artistes consistently ‘drop’ a new album or produce a fragrance line to go along with their clothing line. They know that the secret to long lasting success is to constantly produce. This is what separates the ‘flash in a pan’ artistes from the ones with legendary status. If you want to add value to your profession, find ways to innovate, create new content and new ways of working that will distinguish you the marketplace.
I started to create my own blog articles, techniques and instructional videos. These actions propelled my career internationally. I greatly admire practitioners in the evaluation field that develop and test new evaluation methods. I also have respect for the entrepreneurs among us. They are the ones that push the industry forward because they create value.
“Write it. Shoot it. Publish it. Crochet it, sauté it, whatever. MAKE.” ― Joss Whedon
Once you have created something, feel free to share your knowledge and expertise. When I started to write on LinkedIn, a few persons tried to discourage me as they felt that people would steal my ideas and profit from my expertise. I am not going to lie, people did plagiarize my work and I am not saying that you share the prototype of an invention you are working on (that would just be silly ;-)).
However, I have reaped more success from sharing my knowledge than if I had kept the information to myself. My professional network has grown and I have also gotten consultancy assignments as a result.
Think of someone with a clenched fist. The person wants to grab something new while still tightly holding on to something. He or she would have to first open their hand (and in so do doing reveal its contents) before they are able to receive. In the same way, you have to first be willing to share and give of yourself so that you are in a position to truly receive from others. This holds true in love, life and your career.
"It is every man's obligation to put back into the world at least the equivalent of what he takes out of it." - Albert Einstein
Lastly, to be successful you have to be tenacious. I cannot recall the number of times in my career where I have been rejected. Job interviews that did not materialize and bids for consultancy assignments that were lost to the competition. Success rarely happens on the first, second or hundredth attempt. However, you just have to keep picking yourself up. If a figurative door is slammed in your face, find a window, if there is none, try the chimney. If that fails, go build your own house. Let people come and knock on your door!
"Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time." – Thomas Edison
Did you know that Usain Bolt, the fastest man in the world was ridiculed by some of his fellow Jamaicans at the start of his career? Crowds would boo and jeer him after his poor performances at track meets. The local newspapers back then were also brutal in their commentary on him.
There is a story behind why Usain remains loyal to Puma (as opposed to Nike and Adidas) to this day. Every other major sponsor rejected him early in his career as a man of his towering stature was never supposed to be successful at the 100 meter sprint. Furthermore, his failure to shine at the 2004 Olympics only served to reinforce the belief that his physique would hamper his results on the track.
The lesson to take from this is to persevere and pay little attention to your naysayers. Don’t waste time on people who don’t value your skill set or what you have to offer. So what if you if your last employer fired you? Or you were not hired for a job?
With the 7 billion people on this earth and thousands of companies, surely at least one of those people can appreciate your talents! Many opportunities abound so go out there and seize yours.
“Let me tell you the secret that has led to my goal. My strength lies solely in my tenacity”. -Louis Pasteur
In conclusion, I have derived success from; being open to new experiences and taking risks, managing my career as a business,being committed to lifelong learning, being versatile, being bold, having mentors, being respectful, constantly creating, sharing my knowledge/expertise and being tenacious.
Since I started to engage in all these things opportunities just naturally flowed my direction. I encourage you to do the same. You will find out that after a time you have created so much value that the jobs find you (and in case you reach out for a job or opportunity, you increase your chances of being successful).
One day I hope to achieve the level of success as my mentors as well as of the persons who I admire for the great things they are doing in their specific industries.
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor, catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” — Mark Twain
As we are all successful in our own right, please share some of the things that have contributed to your success in the ‘Comments’ section below. Additionally, is there any new skill you wish to acquire this year? Feel free to share that as well and let’s check in a year from now (via the Comments section) to see if we achieved that goal.