Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Breakout Career Moves: Are you ready for a big leap forward?

By Jo Miller

I’m reminded of the phrase, “mind the gap.”

Many of us know those words as a note of caution, telling us to watch for the empty, potentially treacherous space between station platform and train. But when you think about it, “mind the gap” is also a great metaphor for the responsibility you need to take while journeying from where you are to where you’re going. Your chances of moving forward (and as an emerging leader, upward) increase when you know what that gap is while you’re crossing it.

Our latest webinar shared the insights of two emerging women leaders who made their own breakout career moves to get where they are today. Listening to Nehal Mehta, Director of Quality Assurance at NetApp, and Sara Sperling, Facebook’s Manager of Diversity and Inclusion, it’s easy to see that their approaches differ as much as their roles, but the care and passion they invested in evolving as leaders is a common factor.

Sara had come to Facebook in a learning and development role, and became known for her interest in diversity, even building their first employee resource group. Executives would come to her with diversity-related questions despite her official role and training in a completely different area.

“I was a Math and Economics major,” said Sara, acknowledging that there is “no direct link to that and leading and starting the diversity and inclusion at a company like Facebook. So, as Sheryl Sandberg says in her book, I “leaned in” and I went for it. And here I am.”

Nehal had been laid off during a time of re-organization. When a job showed up for which she had many skills, but not all, she was able to negotiate a consulting role while they searched for another candidate. “It was a win-win because, for them, I could come in with some core skills that they needed to grow the small company while they may have continued to look for this other candidate.” From there, she moved onto her current role at NetApp.
For both women, creating their own opportunities was a necessary step. Nehal views any current job as having a job description, an established path, and emerging leadership needs to show willingness to go further. “You need to do your job well. You need to do it really well… but then see what else you’re interested in and go seek that out.”

Sara agreed. “I really think that people want to wake up excited about where they’re going to go for most of the day.”

That excitement is exactly what might fill the gap separating you from professional fulfillment – and one way to define your best career opportunities is to identify your ideal career niche, by answering these three questions:

• What are you passionate about?
• What are your skills and talents?
• What does your company/industry need and value?

Don’t assume you know what your company needs. Your best bet is to constantly stay in the loop. “I feel you should network, network, network,” says Nehal. “You have to network inside your company and outside your company. You will find opportunity through your network.”

Sara agrees, emphasizing the opportunities that truly resonate and the people willing to offer support. “What would you do if you weren’t afraid? Do that! And then, let others pull you up. Find those people. Let them pull you up.”

“Those people” are often mentors, coaches, sponsors, and connectors such as recruiters and good friends, what Nehal calls her “personal board of directors.”

Making the leap
Now, I’m about to share with you quite a checklist of criteria, but I guarantee your career advancement goals will be well-served (and possibly shaped) by considering each of these factors before taking on new, forward-thinking responsibilities.

Say “yes” to projects, roles and assignments that…
• Fit your “ideal career niche” – because you’re more successful when you’re in your sweet spot.
• Allow you to demonstrate your ability to deliver results – because value is heightened with visibility.
• Are in a business that is growing, and not shrinking – because you’ll see greater opportunities for growth.
• Are in a revenue center, not a cost center – because doing something that makes money for a company, rather than spends it, invites greater opportunities.
• Directly support the organization’s strategic plan and goals – because you’ll be moving in the same direction as the company.

Where you get to…
• Improve the ‘bottom line.’
• Perform a specific, not general, role (if you’re on a Technical track).
• Broaden exposure to a new department, function or area (if you’re on a Management track).
• Push the cutting edge in your field of expertise
• Make your work visible to key leaders
• Grow your business acumen and leadership skills.

There’s a definite symmetry to this list, a balance designed to show your strengths while addressing the needs that you can fill. I also want to add that this checklist comes from me, as a coach. During our session, Sara and Nehal offered their own criteria for assessing new career opportunities, sharing different ways to mind the professional gap that worked for them.

Sara’s method is simple and heartfelt. “Am I going to be excited to walk in the door every day? And can I make an impact on somebody?”

Nehal takes an analytical approach, starting with a “state of the union” assessment of the organization or product, knowing the strengths you can leverage for the opportunity, then asking yourself, “what are the areas that I'm going to need to grow in? What are the areas that I'm going to need to learn? Are they go-to people? Who are my go-to people? You also need to assess:  Am I going to be set up for success?”

Whichever approach, and whatever route you take, remember that you are the one stepping onto that train.

“It is your career,” says Nehal. “You would have to own, build, grow, reinvent, reposition, manage, and steer it to be successful.

“Take gigs that feed your soul,” adds Sara. “Don't worry about going straight up the path. Go to the sides like it's a jungle gym. Don't worry about taking the straight path to your career. Enjoy it.”

Your next stop, whatever it is, awaits you. Step up, mind the gap, and you’ll get there.

Listen to the entire conversation with Nehal Mehta and Sara Sperling in the webinar “Breakout Career Moves”.

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