Navigating Career Transitions: From Beginning to End
Through the years I have helped countless women and men navigate important career transitions. This post gives tips to enable continued career success at each transition.
I have many interests, but perhaps none compares to my deep desire to help others reach their fullest potential. As a human resources leader with responsibilities for designing career development programs, I receive calls from individuals seeking advice at different stages in their careers. I receive calls from high school students, from those completing college and entering the workforce, and even from those who have been in their careers for a while. Sometimes they just need me to listen and affirm their career choices, but other times they are stuck and not sure how to get to the next step in their careers. I’ve learned that the stages of a career are much like a good book. It has a preface, a beginning, a middle and an ending.
In reading this post, jump to the place that reflects where you are in your career journey. I also ask you to share with others who may need these tips. Okay, let’s start.
The time to begin thinking about your career is while you are still in high school. There are seven things you can do to prepare.
- Explore your interests through coursework, employment, volunteerism, and networking. Yes! It’s never too early to begin establishing your network, which should include a mentor who can advise and coach you. Select someone who has traveled the road you aspire to travel and can help you navigate your educational and career journey.
- Select challenging courses, such as advanced placement and international baccalaureate courses. These courses will give you a better sense of what college level courses may require of you and where you can begin earning college credit.
- Take a foreign language and build proficiency. Language options I recommend are Latin, English and Spanish as starters. Half of the English vocabulary is made up of Latin words and roots. English is the universal language of business around the world. Hispanics are the largest minority in the U.S. and Spanish the second most spoken language here. All of these will make you more marketable and boost your resume. Speaking a second language used to be a nice to have. In today’s multicultural, multilingual society, I would argue that it is now a necessity.
- Take on leadership roles in school and community organizations. Consider starting something new in your school or community that addresses a need. Become the captain of your sports team, an officer in student government, a leader in the arts and entertainment, editor of a school paper or blog, or community organizer for a local or national charity. The point is for you to build leadership skills and differentiate yourself while also making a difference in your school and community.
- Study for the college entrance exams. Start studying beginning your freshman year (if not earlier) and continue throughout your high school career. Learning happens over time and it’s better to figure out your strengths and weaknesses while you still have plenty of time to acquire the knowledge you need for those entrance exams. Take plenty of timed practice tests and monitor your progress over time. If you find you are not great with standardized tests, research universities that de-emphasize or do not require the SAT or ACT as part of the admissions decision. For a list of those universities, click here.
- Travel. I realize there are costs to this so not everyone will be able to physically travel to different places. If you can, do. Take the time to study abroad and learn about the world, other regions, cultures and people. If you can’t travel, you can still develop a global mindset by meeting and interacting with people from different places, reading about those places and selecting places of interest for your social science, geography or citizenship research projects.
- Apply to a minimum of 5 schools and apply early. Apply to highly selective, as well as lesser selective schools. The quality of your application will be contingent on how well you mastered the previous 6 steps. I know there are application fees, but apply for waivers if you have a financial hardship. Do not let money become the reason you do not pursue higher education.
Congratulations, you made it. You obviously mastered many of the steps listed above. The great thing is that those same actions will also help you make the best of your college years with just a few minor tweaks.
- Explore courses early but also narrow early. While you don’t have to walk into college with your major already selected, you want to have a good sense of the one or two areas where you have the most interest. This will allow you to be efficient in your course selection and ultimately your financial expenses.
- Research and apply for various grants and scholarships. I’m told millions of scholarship dollars go unused because there are not enough applicants. Let that be someone else’s missed opportunity, not yours. Apply for scholarships that target race/ethnic, gender and regional diversity, students with financial need, first generation college student and high demand job fields (e.g., STEM). Renew your search and applications annually.
- Study abroad. Build it into your college career plan even if it means you will have to extend your graduation date by an additional semester or even a year. It will be well worth the experience, will add to your resume and increase your marketability.
- Take advantage of the resources available at your university. Most universities have free tutoring. Use that resource early and often. Get to know your university’s career resource center and career advisers. They will help you with summer jobs, resume writing and interviewing skills.
- Develop a portfolio of your best work. Add to it each semester so that by the time you graduate, you have more than enough work samples to complement your resume. Create your own website or blog that future employers can access to learn more about you and your academic and professional accomplishments.
- Say yes to internships. Internships give you job skills and experiences that will become the first examples of your employability. The more internships you complete, the better. I recommend completing an internship every year starting your sophomore year. At the end of your junior year, if you have found work that interests you, talk to the human resources leader or recruiter at the company and let them know you would like to be considered for a full-time, permanent position upon graduating. While you are interning, network with other interns, business leaders at the company and with human resources (HR).
- Get ready for your first job. At the beginning of your senior year, refine your resume and portfolio, practice your interviewing skills and take advantage of campus and regional career fairs. Reach out to your mentor and network and ask for their help. This is not the time to be shy. The job market is extremely competitive and you must have your game plan ready to land your first job.
Starting Your Career
Yay! You’ve landed your first job. Now what? Well, continue to build on what got you to this point. Moving from your educational pursuits to the workforce adds a new dimension to your career journey. Here are tips to help you excel in your first job and early career.
- Acknowledge those who help you succeed. Send a thank you note to all of those people who helped you get to this point (teachers, college counselors, mentor, references, and even your parents). Expressing gratitude to those who have helped you keeps the pathway open for even more blessings to come your way. Plus, these people will likely feel their own sense of gratification knowing they have helped you get to such an important place in your journey.
- Build your business acumen. Perhaps you researched your new place of employment during the interview process. Great! Continue learning about the company you’ve joined. Learn how the company is organized, policies, who the leaders are, how the company makes money, its priorities, competitors, and brand.
- Observe the culture. Your cultural acuity will play a big role in how well you are able to get things done, influence others and advance your career. Take notice of language, dress, company values (expressed and lived out), how decisions get made and what behaviors get rewarded. Understanding the culture and learning how to navigate and adapt to the culture will enable your success. Trust me on this one, for sure.
- Build and nurture relationships. Having good relationships helps to build your social and political capital, which in turn, provides access to information, resources and more job opportunities. The old adage of putting your head down and doing good work is just that – old. Competence and driving results are important, but it’s also who you know and how well you know them. Take time to invest in relationships.
- Bloom where you’re planted. Before you start asking about and lobbying for a promotion or new job, make sure you’ve been in your current position long enough to have some signature wins. You need a track record of success before you can credibly lobby for expanded responsibilities. Also, consider moving laterally and even backward temporarily to move you closer to where you want to go in your career. Organizations are flatter and more matrixed now and it’s more common that a career path resembles a lattice than a ladder.
- Continue learning. Skills change and the skills that got you the job may become outdated. Consider an advanced degree by tapping into your company’s tuition reimbursement program if it has one. If it doesn’t have one, don’t assume that your manager would not provide some support to help you further your education, particularly if your skills are in high demand and you’ve demonstrated high potential for long-term value to the organization. Also, if your company provides leadership development, job shadow or rotation experiences, special projects, international assignments, raise your hand or advocate for your inclusion into such programs. It’s a good practice to learn as much as you can on the company’s dime.
- Know when it’s time to move on. When you are no longer learning and feeling stretched in your current role, that may be a sign it’s time to look for something new that will give you more of a challenge. If you have a great relationship with you manager, let him/her know you would like to explore a different role or expanded responsibilities. If there are opportunities within the department or company, your manager can be your biggest advocate. Always seek candid feedback from your manager on how you are performing and how you can continue to develop. Entering into a partnership with your manager can make things easier when it’s time to move on. I realize not every manager-employee relationship is a healthy one. If you are dealing with a toxic relationship or environment, you still need to be respectful but you don’t owe the same level of transparency. Instead tap into your mentor for advice and support. How you leave a job can impact your reputation and can either open up or shut down future opportunities. Always think steps ahead in your career and don’t react in ways that can impair your career success. I want to add a bit of advice I received from one of my former managers. She told me, you can leave jobs even when things are good. Wise. Sometimes the right opportunity comes along and it doesn’t mean your present position is awful; it just means you have a window of opportunity for something better. Be loyal, but not to a fault. Sometimes your cheese moves unexpectedly. Know the signs when it’s time to move on and then Go.
You have staying power. By now you have amassed competence, experience, and relationships that have enabled you to succeed. You are likely leading others formally or informally. I found a great article fom Aleschia Hyde on LinkedIn about transitioning from early to mid-career. In addition, here are my tips to help you lead effectively and continue to move your career forward.
- Continue learning. As you build tenure and experience, it’s more likely that formal learning opportunities will decrease and informal and experiential learning will increase. You may even find yourself speaking to junior employees, which enables them to learn but also allows you to develop skills such as public speaking, mentoring and coaching. Take on additional responsibilities or stretch assignments. This is a safe way for you to explore opportunities or different job functions you may find interesting.
- Leaders make others better. Spend time meeting with others and learning to manage up, sideways and down – all three directions. No one appreciates a leader who manages up well but has poor relationships with his peers and direct reports. Spend time on 360-degree relationships. Interpersonal skills and the ability to delegate and empower others effectively will be important for your continued growth as a leader. Don’t lead from the ivory tower, but also stay out of the weeds. Let your direct reports have the autonomy they need for their growth and development.
- Give credit to those who deserve it. If you are leading a team, give your team credit for success. Leaders who hog credit for themselves misunderstand a simple principle: as the leader of a team, you will naturally receive the credit. No need for self-promotion. Be gracious and allow your team’s hard work to shine. Likewise, if there is a failure, hold individuals accountable but also accept responsibility for the performance of your team.
- Stay in touch with your professional associations and internal and external networks. You should stay knowledgeable about the marketplace and what you can demand for your skills and experience.
- Reassess your career goals. It’s likely that your priorities have changed since you landed your first job. Reflect on what’s most important to you now and whether you are still doing what it takes to achieve your goals. Perhaps you are ready for different responsibilities, a promotion, or even a second career. The point is to take time to evaluate where you are and where you would like to go next. Modify your plan, if necessary. Seek advice from your mentor, family members or a life coach, and then go for it. Successful careerists take smart risks. Staying in your comfort zone does not guarantee security, so don’t let fear of change keep you in a place or position where you no longer feel you are growing and contributing as you would like.
- Look toward the end. If you haven’t started, now is the time to put your retirement plan into place. Seek advice from a financial planner. Invest in your company’s 401k or equivalent investment fund, especially if your company matches your contributions. If your Company does not have a 401k plan, consult your bank or private investment firm to help you start or increase your investments and savings. Part of having a successful career is preparing for a successful retirement. Start early and stay disciplined. Even a little will add up to a lot over time.
- Move from competence to significance. Along your career journey, you’ve worked hard to build competence. You have it now and through continuous learning, you have that covered. When you reach mid-career, it’s about making a difference. Now it’s time for you to mentor and sponsor junior talent, even if you have a few more rungs to climb yourself. It’s not just about you – never really was. Identify and develop your successor. It is said that a person isn’t really ready for the next position until she has developed a successor for her current position. This is really about paying it forward. Part of getting to the next level is establishing a reputation as a good talent manager – your ability to attract, hire, develop, reward and retain top talent for your organization. Bob Buford’s book, Halftime: Moving from Success to Significance, and his organization, The Halftime Institute, help mid- and late-career professionals build on success as you pursue significance. Click here to find out more about The Halftime Institute.
Late Career to Retirement
By now you are wondering where the time went. You can barely remember when you had to cobble together enough words to eke out a one-page resume. Now you have to edit several times to get everything to fit on two or even three pages. That’s called a career, my friend, and you should be proud of what you’ve been able to achieve. As you begin to move toward the homestretch, here are a few tips to help you top off a stellar career.
- Continue to perform at a high level. Even if you are planning to retire or exit the company in the near future, continue to contribute your best ideas and work for the benefit of the company.
- Mentor rising leaders. You have a lot to offer junior talent. Using some of your time to speak at leadership conferences, mentor and sponsor rising leaders, and teach new hires about the business and the culture will help ensure the longer-term success of employees and the company.
- Join a non-profit board. Becoming a board member of a local or national non-profit is another way to apply your leadership, knowledge and skills to a worthy cause. At this point in your career, you are likely more interested in moving from developing competence to creating lasting significance. Giving your time and talent to a cause or charity you believe in can re-energize and fulfill you. Click here to learn what to do if you are interested in serving on a non-profit board.
- Assess and secure your legacy. What difference have you made? What are your signature wins? How do you want to be remembered? Now is the time to solidify your legacy. Perhaps your retirement or exit from your current job is the gateway to another career. If so, your legacy in your current career can provide the fuel for your next career. And, if your plan is to retire, how satisfying will it be to know you left your company and its people better than you found them.
- Transfer your knowledge. By now you know more than you even think you know. When you leave, the knowledge and wisdom shouldn’t leave with you. Schedule time to meet with those who will need to know what you know. Create transition logs of relationships, critical business colleagues in your network, milestones in the company’s history during your tenure, lessons learned from successes and failures, etc. Share who and what you know with as many people as possible who will benefit from your knowledge when you’ve moved on.
- Update your investment and savings plan. Consult with your banker or financial advisor at least three years before your retirement to ensure your plan is on track and you will have what you need to transition. You may need to downsize your living arrangements and pay off financial obligations to get your monthly budget to a place that is doable with a lower monthly income.
- Have fun. This is really my advice for the entire career journey, but especially now. You’ve worked hard and accomplished a lot. Celebrate your achievements and look to the future with anticipation. Perhaps your decision to retire from your current job is so that you can begin a new journey. If so, take what you’ve learned along the way and apply it to your new adventure. If you truly look to retire so you can enjoy family, travel and all the other things that interest you, that is awesome as well. Best of luck to you and congratulations.
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When we know better, we do better.