I mentor and coach a handful of students and young professionals, who recently asked, “What three things have gotten you to where you are in your career today?” In reflecting on this question, I have to first clarify that there are so many things, especially people, who have supported my career growth. What I want to focus on in this post are the specific, actionable things that I did in my career that helped me grow and get to the next level.
When I began my career, I made it a point to create high-quality deliverables and always meet deadlines. I thought that I would be recognized and promoted if I did the best job of what was asked of me, but that was not always the case. My mentor at the time told me, “You have to prove that you’re ready by already operating at the next level.” A light bulb inside of me clicked on and I realized that I needed to be more of a self-starter.
1. Be proactive and take initiative.
To do this, I constantly asked myself, “If I were leading this task/project/assignment, what would I do?” Being proactive and taking initiative is about recognizing the work that needs to be done and taking it upon yourself to be the one to start or complete it – rather than waiting for someone to ask you to do it. I began to shift my thinking from recommending ideas to initiating them. In meetings and when working with my teams, instead of proposing something like “we should consider …” or “we should do this,” I reframed these statements to “I can get started on …” or “I’ll do this next.” As time went on, I found myself saying “I can take a first stab at this and we can start from there” more regularly.
2. Anticipate needs and read between the lines.
Understanding how your work fits into the larger context of the organization is an important skill to develop. Once I started gaining confidence in the professional world, I realized how important it was that my manager trusted not only me, but also the work I delivered. Recognizing this helped me understand that my job was to make their job easier. When your manager asks you to complete an assignment, ask yourself, “What will they do with the work I produce? How can I finish the work in a way that helps take something off of their plate?” Taking on an additional responsibility will help you start performing at the next level.
3. Understand where you are and where you want to be.
Lastly, the career framework I love to reference the most is the Levels Framework from Org Design for Design Orgs by Peter Merholz and Kristin Skinner. While the framework mentioned in the book is specific to roles in design, I adapted the framework to make it applicable to all disciplines. I recommend referring to this framework to gain a sense of where you are in your career, where you want to go, and what skills you may need to get there. It should offer a baseline understanding of where to focus your skill development and insights for success at each level. I have found it helpful to use this framework in my career development conversations with my manager/supervisor.
|Level 1||Level 2||Level 3||Level 4||Level 5|
|Title||Junior / Analyst||Staff / Specialist||Senior / Manager||Lead / Director||Principal / Executive|
|Experience||Right out of school, roughly 0 – 2 years of experience||Contributed to a few projects, roughly 2 – 5 years of experience||Contributed to multiple projects, roughly 5 – 10 years of experience||Delivered successful projects, roughly 10 – 15 years of experience||Led teams in framing and solving hard problems, more than 15 years of experience|
|Responsibilities||Develop your craft and professionalism||Deepen your craft, talk about their work||Transition from doer to leader, understanding the context of your work||Establish the organization’s / department’s context, develop strategy||Articulate a compelling vision; help run the organization / department|
|Process skills||Work within an established process||Work within an established process||Develop the process/approach for tackling a problem||Develop the process/approach for tackling a problem||Establish a philosophy/mindset for how the team approaches its work|
|Team skills||Participating in a team that you’ve been assigned to||Participating in a team that you’ve been assigned to||Leading a team that’s been given to you; collaborating with cross-functional peers||Creating the team you need; defining the problem with cross-functional leads||Establishing the organizational structure, defining roles, opening headcount|
|Meeting skills||Attending the meeting||Contributing to the meeting||Driving the meeting||Driving the meeting||Stakeholder for whom the meeting exists|
|Soft skills||Professionalism||Communication and presentation||Facilitation, strategy, empathy||Confidence and mentorship||Leadership and vision|
Looking back on my career, I realized that these things aren’t necessarily taught to you as you enter the workforce, so I hope these three tips are helpful as you’re navigating your own career. Whenever I’m in doubt, I always go back to my why and my purpose for work and remind myself that a career is non-linear. It takes practice to start incorporating some of these actions, but eventually these things will become second nature. For folks who are a little more experienced, I’d be curious to hear if you feel like this framework does a good job of capturing your career journey.
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Jenn Noinaj is a social impact strategist, researcher, and designer passionate about using design to solve society’s most pressing challenges. She’s currently leading the Public Interest Technology Field Building portfolio at the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation where she works on creating solutions to make the public interest technology field more inclusive. Prior to this role, she worked in the federal government at the US Digital Service where she partnered with various agencies to transform digital services across government, building capacity in technology and design and championing a user-centric culture. You can find more about her on her website and can follow her on LinkedIn and Twitter.