Career growth is very often viewed as a term that’s synonymous with promotions and pay raises, but I’m here to tell you that that’s the wrong way to think about growth. To get to those milestones or even land a new job at your dream company, there’s a hell of a lot of growth involved on a personal level.
Sure, a promotion or a pay raise is a measure of success, but it’s not so wise to make it your only measure of success. Growth in your career stems from personal development, which is earned every single day as you strive towards your end goal.
You’re probably killing it doing all the things you’ve always been told to do to get ahead: work hard, be committed, go the extra mile…
But most people you work with are doing that too. What can you do to accelerate your career growth in an unconventional way? In other words, what’s going to make you stand out and position you as a cut above the rest?
1) Build a Name for Yourself by Writing
Writing regularly is one of the easiest ways to train yourself to become more articulate, as you’re practicing how to structure and present your ideas in the most coherent and impactful way possible. It’s also a life skill, and no matter what your current or future role might be, the ability to communicate effectively through the written word is invaluable. Even if you don’t consider yourself a natural writer, it’s something that I would always advocate tackling head-on.
Writing to build a name for yourself and to build a professional network is a great motivator and can be invaluable for career growth. Start with LinkedIn Pulse, Medium, and/or your current company’s blog; it’s an easy way to begin refining your writing skills, as well as your ideas. Get feedback from someone who works with content - whether that’s a colleague in your company or an acquaintance or friend from elsewhere - and learn from them what makes a great blog post.
What topics get the most engagement? How can you emulate other successful writers? Talking this through with someone else can really help you define what you’d like to achieve with your writing.
Need some inspiration? Check out these writers who are crushing it with their posts:
- Jon Westenberg on Medium - Jon has turned writing into his full-time job after his posts took off on Medium. He’s a great example of how knowing your audience and finding your niche can pay off.
- Olivia Barrow on LinkedIn - Olivia is a reporter who primarily uses LinkedIn Pulse to give readers a behind-the-scenes look into journalism. She’s a really good example of someone who has carved a niche based on having something different to offer that her readers might struggle to access elsewhere.
Once you’ve established your voice on LinkedIn, Medium or your company’s blog, expand your audience by creating content for other people’s sites. This is also referred to as a guest post, or guest blogging, and helps you get in front of a new audience (whilst also helping the blog owner publish even more high quality content for their readers).
In terms of what websites you write for, it all depends on the type of audience you want to expose yourself to. I’m a marketer who writes about topics that are of interest to other marketers. So, for me, marketing and advertising publications and bloggers are my sweet spot.
But wait, how do you even begin to contact these publications and bloggers and ask to write for them out of the blue? Good question - and this part is key. You’ve heard the phrase ‘fake it until you make it’, right? Well, unless you’ve built up a huge amount of influence beforehand, you’re going to have to sell yourself and your content whilst faking some confidence along the way, but not in the way you might think.
This is how I recommend conducting your outreach, and the template that I have used hundreds of times (it has about an 85% publish rate, which I’ve been told is pretty high). Try sending them an email using this template , but customise it for the publication or blogger you’re reaching out to.
In my experience, they won’t get back to you for a day or two. On the second or third day, I typically send them this email in reply to the previous email (it’s best to keep it all in the same thread):
85% of the time, they reply back to this email pretty quickly asking for a bio and headshot, so they can post it later that week. Voila! Now, when you send your next target publication an email, you can mention this publication by name, and link to the article. Boom, you’re on your way to climbing the career ladder and accelerating your personal development, and it doesn’t even feel like work.
2) Make LinkedIn Work Harder for You
Hands up if your LinkedIn profile is 100% up-to-date and reflective of how awesome you really are? Nobody?
Investing time and energy into getting a little more creative with LinkedIn is something most of us don’t bother with. Assuming you don’t live under a rock, you’ve probably already got the basics: profile photo, general description, job information, and recommendations (if you want to do a quick check on the basic items, read this blog post). Whilst having these things organized is a good start, it’s certainly not going to accelerate your career growth or build your network.
Here are two tried-and-tested tips to make LinkedIn work harder for you:
- Look over all of your previous jobs and find published content that was created by yourself or your team. Add them to your LinkedIn profile as projects under the relevant role.
For example, when I worked at Salesforce and we launched the Marketing Cloud, I had my team select our top 30 customers in Asia Pacific, and we invited the CMOs of those companies to “come to the cloud” and do indoor skydiving with the Salesforce team. We created a video to showcase some of our best customers having a little fun, and talking about their love for our product (you can watch it here). This video is something that I added as a ‘project’ on LinkedIn (picture below), meaning you can watch the video on my Linkedin profile, alongside several other things I achieved while I was there.
- Connect with people in your industry, regardless of whether you know them or not. Quick tip: you’ll need to use the mobile app to add people you don’t know to skip the verification process.
Some people aren’t a big fan of this, however, if you’re publishing content natively to LinkedIn (or elsewhere, and then just sharing to LinkedIn), you’re actually able to scale your influence and build credibility with people that didn’t know you previously. I’ve found this really effective for growing my network, to the point where I’ll be at a conference, and people will say hi to me like we know one another.
My iPhone then syncs all of my LinkedIn contacts’ details with my phonebook. So, whenever I arrive in a new place for work, I’ll type a city (e.g. San Francisco) or a keyword (e.g. Marketing Director) into my phonebook, and it’ll show me all those contacts from LinkedIn. I’ll choose one, send a quick SMS, and say ‘let’s catch up for coffee - want to hear all the things you’re doing around [topic X]’. Touching base with people in-person can make all the difference; you never know what you’ll learn from them, or what opportunities might come out of it further down the line.
3) Give Candid, Constructive and Caring Feedback
From childhood, we’re taught to not speak unless we have something nice to say. Somehow, this saying has meant people don’t feel comfortable giving constructive feedback, even if it’s coming from a good place.
Being able to give candid and constructive feedback without sounding like a jerk is a winning skill to have in the workplace. However, we need to be careful when doing so. The most important component here is that the feedback is a result of genuinely caring about someone’s development; this is what stops you being perceived as a jerk. Kim Scott has spoken a lot about this concept, and she recommends building trust and personal relationships with people before you start to give them this kind of radically candid feedback. You can view her talk about this in-depth in this video - it’s a great watch… trust me.
You don’t have to be a manager to do this; you could do it for a peer at work. Once they know you care about them, then it’s all about delivering candid and constructive feedback. If you get into a habit of giving positive feedback candidly throughout your day, then when you throw some constructive feedback also into the mix, it won’t be awkward. Here’s how you can action this:
- Build up trust between yourself and your colleagues by showing them you care personally. Kim’s boss showed her she cared by inviting her to her book club, being totally understanding when Kim had family issues, and by introducing her to new people.
- When delivering constructive feedback, be humble, helpful, and give the feedback immediately. Don’t save it for a formal setting or an official ‘review’.
- Strive for your feedback to fall into the framework of ‘radical candor’. That means caring personally, and challenging your colleagues directly.
Also make it clear to people that you love receiving feedback, and you also like to share it when the time is right. You’ll learn pretty quickly who is encouraged by constructive feedback and who isn’t; so, pick your battles accordingly.
4) Help Your Manager Help You Get Ahead
Have a very clear assessment of where you are today, what skills are needed to get to the next level, and map out the road between the two positions. Agree with your manager on what that road looks like and how long it might take, as well as outlining what you need to do to get there.
Now it’s your job to hit the gas, and it’s their job to keep to their word. You should be checking in with them throughout this process however, to ensure that the roadmap hasn’t changed, as well as regularly asking for their thoughts around your promotion.
One way I structure this is by framing my career progression using a ‘performance improvement plan’, also referred to as a PIP. These are typically used when someone is performing below the level they should be at, and if they don’t improve over the timeline of the PIP (typically 3 months), they and the company part ways.
I like to create a PIP with my boss, where I pretend that I’m already doing the job that I want to be promoted to doing. Since that job will typically be one level above where you’re at, you should use the rubric your team uses to categorize what responsibilities a manager, senior manager, director and vice president should be doing. On the marketing team at HubSpot, we have a detailed resource that outlines what the expectations are in various roles and across seniority levels. Most organizations will have rubrics like this available for employees and managers to set benchmarks and evaluate performance.
You then add the responsibilities for the new role you’re working towards, and map out the gap between where you’re currently at and the responsibilities that you need to be hitting to be actively fulfilling that role.
Once you know where those gaps are, I recommend identifying the key individuals that will be responsible for saying yes or no to your next promotion and agree with them on what they want to see you doing to improve. Always use SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound) goals here. Here’s a template you can use for identifying the key improvement areas.
And here's a template you can use for outlining those next step action items:
From here, not only should you have SMART goals that you’re working towards, but the executive (or lecturers, if you’re at uni) should also have them, and all parties need to stick to these. It’s worth checking in on a regular basis to make sure that the goals and timelines have not changed. When you’re consistently showing (for the period of time previously agreed upon) that you have filled in the gaps between where you were and when you need to be, there should be no excuse for your manager/seniors not to make that promotion public.
This is only the tip of the iceberg, but the key takeaway here is to not be a sheep when it comes to career growth; be unconventional in the way you think about your progression. Take a different approach to your career and stop relentlessly and meaninglessly chasing that promotion.
Instead, focus on personal development by thinking and acting differently from everyone else that’s currently in your shoes. Long story short - get your name out there, build a network, provide value to your industry, and learn how to be a remarkable colleague beyond simply delivering results. Nail all of that whilst continuing to work your ass off, and career growth in its conventional sense will come to you.