Think about this for a moment: You’ve just set yourself a significant goal; you’re going to climb a mountain. And you’re feeling daring, so you decide to climb the highest mountain in the country. Ambitious? Yes. Daring? Absolutely. Easily attainable? Definitely not. You will need to build endurance, improve your hiking technique, brush up on survival tips, and get the proper gear before even attempting to tackle a small mountain, let alone reach the tallest one around. All of this will require you to be patient, practice a lot, allow yourself to make plenty of mistakes, and, most importantly, have the proper resources (i.e., a Sherpa guide and safety rope) that can keep you from falling as you chase success. Now imagine for a moment that, instead of climbing a mountain, you are an entry-level employee, fresh out of college, set on climbing the corporate mountain and becoming a vice president. Ambitious? Yep. Daring? Absolutely. Attainable overnight? Definitely not.
As a training specialist, I have had plenty of conversations about career growth with a great many people, from individuals ready to take on the challenges of a first job to those poised to embrace broader horizons and enter the executive suite. Irrespective of trajectory and path, to reach their destination most people need just a few things. As I always put it when introducing the MJH Training Academy, before you climb to the top of the mountain, you need the right training and tools. Let’s discuss what some of them are.
First, however, I should point out that although the topics will be discussed in an orderly fashion, no one should expect to follow a formula as they try to advance professionally. Sometimes, it’s a case of one step forward, two steps back, three leaps forward, and one headlong tumble right on your face. Learning is messy because life is messy.
Step 1: Assess where you are, Decide where you want to be
There can be many ways to travel between any two points. Maybe you want to take the scenic route, concentrating more on the journey than on the destination. Or perhaps you want to get there fast and don’t mind paying the tolls. Either way, figuring out where you are and where you want to be is the vital first step that channels your energies and sets your focus. You can look at the long term, the Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG) will take between 10 and 25 years to achieve. As an example, the BHAG at our organization is to become the Google of healthcare, and every action we take is in service of this lofty objective. On the other hand, the goal of the MJH Training Academy is to help associates grow their knowledge base, which in turn affects everything else we do, from the white-glove service we provide customers to the levels of sales we see from a financial standpoint. Thus, creating a figurative roadmap can help you manifest your goal. It directs your time and efforts and elucidates the purpose behind your actions, which can lead you to formulate smaller objectives that must be achieved on the way to the BHAG. This approach helps eliminate the noise that can otherwise obfuscate priorities. Rather than getting bogged down in the minutiae, the mind can concentrate on what matters most. One way we do this at MJH Life Sciences is to have associates create an individual development plan with input from their supervisor during their first six months at the company, outlining how they want to develop and what avenues of growth they want to pursue. The supervisor can also bring up the associate’s strengths and opportunities for improvement (let’s face it, we can all improve). That way, associates have a preview and a plan toward which to work: they know what success is and how it is quantified. Another way we outline trajectories is via career ladders that offer not only a pathway for growth but also the training that provides them with the skills and behavioral competencies they need. With all of the planning in place, now it’s time to…
Step 2: Make the Time to Grow
My high school culinary arts teacher would often say that “a watched pot never boils.” And the adage also applies at work. Just as watching water bubbles begin to form does not make the dish any more complete, saying you want to develop does not mean that it will happen instantaneously. Growth requires more than a plan and a set of goals. It requires the ability to make a purposeful effort, and it takes two: individuals must obviously work on self-improvement, but managers must also make time for their direct reports. Whether this means active mentoring or setting time on the employees’ calendars to let them explore how they want to grow, managers share in the success of associates.
Speaking of calendars, there is something you yourself can do to promote professional growth. You can block out two hours—maybe every Thursday from 2 PM to 4 PM?—to work toward completing your plan. Or maybe you want to spread out those hours over the course of the week and spend 30 minutes a day on career development. No matter how you organize your time, having a structured routine can help make growth an integral part of your workday. It’s the same as scheduling time to walk or go to the gym to improve your health.
Step 3: Find Your Sherpa
Another key ingredient to this formula for career development is finding yourself a person to reach out to for advice. I call that someone your “Sherpa” to fit in with my mountaineering theme. These are people you trust to give you honest advice. It can be a family friend, a lifelong mentor, an experienced colleague, or your direct supervisor. Finding this person can be life-changing because we learn the most when we make mistakes. And remember that as you race to reach the summit, you will stumble. A lot. But with the right support, opportunities you might not see yourself can open up. And when something inevitably goes wrong, you have a sense of security and can allow yourself to fall—and then pick yourself right back up. Sometimes we can get lost in the day-to-day shuffle and allow unimportant work problems to obscure the big picture. When zeroing in on your career growth, don’t let small obstacles hold you back. As Vince Lombardi put it, “Perfection is not attainable but if we chase perfection, we can catch excellence.”
At MJH, we offer associates the chance to pair up with a subject matter expert at the company who will act as their mentor in a topic area of their choosing. This is part of our career development framework, which consists of everything from formal onboarding to leadership development. We want to make sure that employees have the time and resources necessary to thrive in the ever-evolving workplace we inhabit day-to-day.
As an aside, for supervisors reading this, if you take nothing else from this article, please make sure you take away this: your words and actions carry weight. Fostering an environment in which associates can expect reliable support and feel psychologically safe to think outside the box (lookout for next month’s article!) will make them feel valued and will improve their performance. This correlates with lower levels of attrition on your teams, so its importance cannot be understated.
In closing, I want to tell you that by reading this article, you have demonstrated a desire to reach your career aspirations. In some respects, you’ve fought half the battle. You are making intentional time for your growth. Combine this with an assessment of where you are versus where you want to be, quantifying success, finding those who will support you, and being patient with yourself, and you’ll have the tools you need to climb to the top, whether on a literal mountain or atop Mt. Career Development.