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The Key to Career Success

by Sarah Wilkinson, Class of ’17

In this post, part three of my blog series based on Lindsey Pollak’s Becoming the Boss, I’ll be talking about five key ways to prep yourself to be a great leader. Pollak’s theory is that you have to be a leader on the inside before you can be an effective leader on the outside. By that she means, “How well you are capable of leading other people begins, first and foremost, with how well you lead yourself.”

Quick recap: In part two of this blog series, I wrote about leadership and career-related books you should know about (and preferably read) if you want to be the best leader you can be. Leadership is a skill that is honed, not a trait you are necessarily born with. Even “natural” leaders have things to learn, because there is always more to learn. And leaders know that.

Let’s dig in to the five key ways to get yourself ready for any career.

Key #1: Don’t Fear the Fear

If you’re anything like the rest of us, you’re afraid of what might or might not happen next. If you’ve started your career, you might be worried about what comes next. If you haven’t gotten your first job yet, you’re probably wondering what your first career step will be, and where you’ll end up down the road. Everyone is afraid of what they can’t know, but the key in terms of your career is to not let your fear keep you from pursuing your goals. As Pollak says, you have to decide that you want it – whatever it is – more than you are afraid of it (or of it not working out).

Deciding that you want it – a leadership position, a promotion, a bylined column, a Kickstarter-backed start-up, an elected office – more than you are afraid of it is not just about moving past fear; it’s also about committing 100 percent to what you want.

You can be afraid. Leaders are afraid because they’re human. But don’t let it keep you from trying.

Key #2: Fill the Tanks

Part of your education and ongoing task as a professional, is to fill your tanks. Picture a new sponge filling and expanding with water; that’s what you need to do. Absorb everything you possibly can, and not just things that you’d normally be interested in. Watch a new TV show on History channel, go to a museum two towns over, read a book in a genre you claim you don’t like but have never actually read. Do this in addition to watching the shows you love, reading books in genres you know you enjoy, and going to museums you’ve been visiting since you were young. The point is to absorb as many different ideas and perspectives as you possibility can, because this is the key to making new connections. A whole world opens up before you as your understanding of things expands. And all of it becomes fodder for your work and growing leadership ability.

To grow as a leader or professional, you must grow as a person. Here are some things Pollak recommends doing to fill your tanks:

  • Read a blog or magazine that has nothing to do with your industry. Skimming is enough.
  • Ask your friends questions about their jobs, about their challenges and what it’s like working in their industry.
  • Subscribe to the “editor’s picks” list of your favorite publication, and read about all the various things they post about.

Filling the Gaps

As you fill the tanks,  you may come to realize you don’t have all the skills you need or want to move forward in your chosen career. You can change that by first assessing your current skill set (be honest with yourself) and compare it to what skill set you need. Take action to fill in the gaps you identify by reading books, taking online courses (some of which may be free), subscribing to blogs or industry newsletters, downloading the iTunes U app and registering for a free class, or taking an actual college course if you can squeeze it into your schedule. The key is to practice daily the skills you want to have. This is more straightforward for some skills than others. If you want to be a writer, write in some capacity everyday. Find a way to practice, because that is how you grow.

Key #3: The Confidence Factor

One thing I’ve learned from my four internships is that most people you encounter who seem proficient and knowledgeable had to, at first, “fake it until they made it.” Most people at various stages in their careers feel “impostor syndrome.” They wonder who gave them any authority over other people, or who decided they knew what they were doing. If you’ve felt this way before, you know it can kill your confidence. You want to feel like you are right for the job, capable and competent. One way to combat “impostor syndrome” is to fill you tanks and work to fill the gaps in your skill set. Pollak writes:

If you’ve been steadily filling your gaps and practicing your skills daily, you’ll be able to brush aside your insecurities and focus on wowing the crowd with all the knowledge and brilliance you’ve worked so hard to obtain.

Key #4: Make New Friends

Whether your goal is to become a business owner, a leader, or something else, making friends who understand your goals and support you is key. The friends and family you already have may or may not fit this role; either way, keep them in your life. There’s always room for new people who do support and understand you and your goals. The difficult part is finding them. As you get deeper into the industry you want to work in, you’ll meet new people. Networking events are another place to connect with new people. Other groups you can join include:

  • non-profit organizations, committees and advisory boards
  • book clubs or other clubs relating to your industry
  • local sports leagues
  • LinkedIn groups
  • Meetup groups
  • Champlain’s alumni groups and gatherings
  • young professional groups, often part of your own company or local chamber of commerce
  • professional industry associations
  • political clubs
  • religious organizations
  • Rotary or Kiwanis clubs

Key #5: Develop Global Competence

Understanding how the world functions in other countries is key to career success and adaptability. Your world literally expands when travel and absorb other cultures. One of Champlain’s core goals is to produce graduates who are globally competent. The best way to achieve global competence is to study abroad to Montreal, Dublin, or through a third-party program in your junior year. If you’re a business major, studying abroad in China for an internship over the summer might be ideal. If you’re a film major, going to Montreal for a film intensive program over the summer might be a good option.

But if you can’t make it abroad, there are still ways to bolster your global knowledge.

  • Talk to people from other countries
  • Read the Economist, which is globally focused, based in the UK
  • Volunteer for an internationally-focused nonprofit organization
  • Take a trip on YouTube or Netflix by watching foreign films, documentaries, and videos from people in other countries

Those are the five key things to focus on when prepping for your career, whether in leadership or something else. It essentially comes down to taking the initiative to educate yourself in what you don’t already know. Seek to continue your education long after college ends in any way you can. Your career will be the better for it, and so will you as a person. You’ll also be more interesting at parties!

Look out for part four of this blog series, which will focus on building your personal brand.

Sources: Becoming the Boss by Lindsey Pollak; find more information about Pollak here.