Gone are the days when a company would dictate your career path. Now, with employers more focused on their business plans than on employees' career plans, career development is another item all workers need to have on their to-do lists.
What does this imply for professionals seeking meaningful career trajectories, now that the paternalistic corporation is history? It means setting broad career goals and constantly sniffing out opportunities to move closer to what you uniquely can offer, and to move up while doing so. Plus, it means consistently choosing tactics and strategies that boost your own success while being loyal to your current employer -- but only as long as your respective interests coincide.
To look at how some people are setting their own career paths, we spoke with two professionals who have made significant contributions at multiple companies, while consistently branching out and gaining greater responsibilities.
Tech-Savvy Marketer Gravitates to the Best Opportunities
“I’ve been in fast-growing, dynamic companies where there are a lot of opportunities,” says Gail Freeman, senior director of corporate marketing at RSA, the security division of EMC. Over the last couple of decades, Freeman has exploited these opportunities to gain broad experience in technology and marketing, a killer combination in the job market.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in an unrelated field, Freeman got her start in high tech with an admin job at Chronos in the 1980s. “In three months, I was doing tech support and carrying a repair kit and soldering iron, and in five years I was running their tech support and training,” she says. “I realized I had an aptitude for technology products and translating that for customers.”
In the 1990s, Freeman landed at Interchange, a proprietary online service. “I built the first customer-support bulletin boards for Microsoft, Intel and others, which led me into developing business relationships, and that in turn led me to marketing,” Freeman says.
Now at RSA, Freeman has broad responsibilities for corporate marketing in a major division of a $38 billion company.
Many Steps Up to Tech Executive
Like Freeman, Tom Blackburn started his career wearing a number of hats at a small technology company.
“[In 1991], I…landed at a small company where I did all kinds of things, from programming to sysadmin,” says Blackburn, now chief technical officer at e-commerce services provider 2Checkout.com.
From there, Blackburn moved on to positions as network administrator, systems engineer, systems manager and then systems architect -- each at a different company -- before taking his first job at 2Checkout.com as IT director in 2004. For years, Blackburn was continuously looking out for his next position, seeking to broaden his technical expertise while taking on higher managerial duties. The perpetual job search “is an ingrained habit,” he says.
Nicholas Aretakis, author of No More Ramen: The 20-Something’s Real World Survival Guide, advises caution here. “Don’t assume that it’s OK to jump to another employer every couple of years,” he says. “Employers may question your judgment in picking opportunities -- although the very best candidates do get away with this.”
Blackburn’s career-planning strategy has matured as he has taken on more responsible roles. “At a certain point, I started identifying positions that included opportunities in both technology and in management and leadership,” he says. “I started targeting companies where I could grow in more areas than just technology.”
Own Your Career Development
With these examples in mind, what concrete steps can you take to start owning your own career development? Experts offer these tips:
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- Measure Your Progress: As you move along in your career, assess your progress periodically. “Every six months you have to reevaluate your short-term and long-term professional objectives,” Aretakis says. Use your own metrics, which could include additions to your portfolio of responsibilities and regular contact with high executives in your company.
- Take Over Your Professional Development: “It behooves the employee to go after the company’s career-development opportunities, to show how development would serve the organization and the individual,” says career coach Janine Moon of CompassPoint Coaching in Columbus, Ohio. However, the bottom line on professional development is that you own it. “You’ll always have to take care of skills and knowledge and make sure they’re current,” Moon says. “Build a pool of money to ensure your own development over the course of your career.”
- Work with Your Mentors: Check in with your long-term professional allies and mentors, many of whom won’t be your bosses. “You always need to have mentors inside and outside your employer, experienced people with an interest in your personal and professional well-being,” Aretakis says.
- Know When to Move On: Don’t stick with a company that lacks the opportunities or culture to empower your career progress. “If you have a core set of skills, good companies will let you go places with them,” Freeman says. “I’m on teams that have nothing to do with my daily job. You can get involved with new business or with transforming a business process.”