Don’t keep your career goals secret!

Don't Keep Your Career Goals Secret

One of the questions I hear most often is “How do I get the job I want?” We’ve all been there, working in a position when we know we can do more and are ready to take on more responsibility. What does it take to get to the next stage of your career? I’ve found first step is easier than you may think - tell someone!

Learning the hard way that I needed to advocate for myself

Early in my career, I thought that if I did what I was asked at work, I’d be rewarded with a promotion. Over the years, I’ve spoken with many women who believed that same thing. After all, this is how it worked in school - If you do your homework and study for the tests, you’ll get a good grade.

At first, I naively thought this was also how it worked in business. I believed that if I did a great job, my manager would recognize that and give me a promotion. Luckily, it only took me about a year to figure out that doing a great job was only a part of getting to the next level. I also had to make it known that I was interested and ready to make an impact.

How did I learn? The hard way.

I started at HP the same time as Bill. We were hired as the only two Systems Engineers on a new team, to do the same job. This was my first job out of college, and Bill’s second. As it turned out, Bill and I grew up in the same neighborhood but we didn’t know each other since he was a few years older than I was.

The two of us were responsible for providing technical support for a new computer that HP had just introduced. We shared solutions with each other as we discovered them, exchanged tips and tricks, and co-created new processes to make the work more effective. We enjoyed an excellent working relationship.

One day about a year after starting there, we were leaving work. “See you tomorrow, Bill.”

“No you won’t,” he replied. “I just got a promotion and they want me to go to training class in Colorado. I leave tomorrow morning.”  

I should have been happy for him, but I wasn’t even able to muster a lukewarm “Congratulations.” Instead I was frustrated I had been passed over. I marched straight into our manager’s office to ask him why he promoted Bill and not me, and why he never even told me about the opening on our team.  

“It’s simple,” our manager said to me, “Bill told me he wanted to be promoted and you never did.”

It takes more than hard work to get ahead

This was a blow to me, and I went home that night mad at Bill, mad at my manager, and mostly mad at myself. I didn’t know the rules of the game and I was frustrated.

Did I really have to explicitly tell my manager I wanted a promotion? Wasn’t that obvious based on how hard I was working? Didn’t everyone want to be promoted as soon as possible?

I had grown up being taught and believing that hard work paid off. This was reinforced throughout school and all the way through college where if you did the all work assigned you could trust in the process that you would get a good grade, and at the end of the year you’d be promoted to the next level.  

I assumed the same system worked in business, but that couldn’t have been farther from the truth. In school, your hard work naturally results in sending you to the next level. In business, you need to work hard and let people know what your goals and intentions are.

I had taken for granted that our manager knew I wanted a promotion. But by assuming my manager could read my mind, I had done myself a major disservice.

So, the next day I asked my manager for a meeting to tell him I was interested in the next promotional opportunity on the team. He asked me questions that made me think more deeply about why I wanted a promotion and what I wanted to do.

All of this better prepared me for the next step I took. And I never forgot the lesson that no one can read our minds. You have to say what you want.

This is a common story for women

I tell this story often, and am always approached afterward by women who’ve shared this exact experience of waiting to be tapped on the shoulder for that promotion, a raise, or to be selected for a special project.

This is definitely a case where being in good company doesn’t feel good.  

What will you ask for?

You need to make your interests known in all aspects of work.  

Do you want to get more involved in the business?

Ask to be put on special projects, “Tiger Teams”, task forces, crisis responses, or new product launches. Let your manager know you are interested in in being a part of the initiative. After you both are convinced that you can still do your “day job” and have time and energy for a special project, approach the team leader with why you are interested and what you can offer.  

These special projects are typically a lot of extra work, but the rewards are also usually high.  You polish new skills, meet new people, and are a part of putting your thumbprint on an important part of the business.

Do you want to explore work another department at your company?

Ask for informational interviews with people across your organization. This will give you an opportunity to see where you might fit, what work sounds interesting, which team culture and leaders excite you, and a better understanding of how the various departments fit together.

It will also give others a chance to get to know you. You might discover a gap you can fill right away, or a longer term career direction you hadn’t thought about before.

Do you want to travel to one of your offices in another country?

Ask about exchange programs, temporary assignments, or inter-country projects. Some businesses have formal programs, others may have more grass-roots efforts.

Find people who have done this in your company and figure out how they make it happen. Prepare a business case on how this will help your manager, team, or organization. Get the support you need in order to take this to all levels of approval.

Do you want to be noticed more at work?

This could be a matter of letting others know what you’re contributing, or it could be asking for more responsibility.

Put your accomplishments in terms of how you’re helping your organization or team. Be sure to focus on results, not just actions. This shows that you understand the mission of the team, and that you are actively contributing to it.

If you’re looking for more responsibility, come prepared with a few ideas that are relevant to your manager. This could be presenting a paper or a talk at an industry event. It might be applying for a grant or an award on behalf of your department. It could be suggesting a new customer experience to simplify a common pain point you’ve uncovered.

Give your manager rationale and a solid business case on how what you are asking for can help move the business forward. Again this shows that you are conscientious and thoughtful.

The bottom line: Share your goals with your manager and mentors

Let your manager and mentors know your interests and short term and long term goals.

Taking the initiative to have this conversation can be the difference between looking at your job as a grind and viewing it as an environment where you can grow intellectually and personally. It can be the difference between a job you slog through and an enjoyable career where you thrive.

Telling people what you want is the first step to making it your reality.

For further reading:

10 Ways to Get Noticed by Execs: Caroline Kaufman of Monster offers tips on how to make an impact at work.  

Hanging Back as an Introvert? How to Stand Out at Work: Stephanie Peterson of offers suggestions for reserved personalities.

Are you a Unicorn? How to Stand Out at Work: Author Lisa Quast talks about standing out as a unique employee.