Why women need to take control of their career progression & seven actions that pay off

woman going through a career change
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Hard work gets us to the starting line of career progression but unfortunately not much further, unless we have exceptional line managers or work for organisations with extraordinary career infrastructure.

For most of us, we will have to take our careers into our hands to ensure that we achieve our goals.

Interviews with senior HR leaders across the world, conducted for my new book Accelerated Leadership Development. How to Turn Your Top Talent into Leaders, confirm that organisations regard career management as the responsibility of their employees while organisations see their primary purpose in managing performance. This new research highlights seven career actions that are critical for women’s career progression:

Look for breadth and critical roles (and let go of the notion of being an expert)

In the VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world, we need to learn how to add value in fast changing environments. We are increasingly likely to encounter situations in our career where radical disruption has changed the rules of the game as we know them. To prepare ourselves for this VUCA career, we must strive for a breadth of leadership experiences. Being very good at just one thing makes us more liable to being disrupted ourselves. Experiences that have helped leaders thrive in uncertainty are challenges such as leading organisational change projects, being responsible for operational delivery or working abroad. And even if we want to hold on to our expertise, we become better experts if we have worked in different environments, have led other people or set something new up from scratch. If we want to stay within our area of expertise, we also benefit from broader experiences.

Build a strategic network and keep your career stakeholders up to date

Other people play a big role in our career success. Organisations are social structures and we won’t get to more senior roles on our own. There are two routes to getting ahead, both of which play a role:  hard work, also sometimes called contest mobility and other people, referred to as sponsored mobility. Irrespective of how hard we work, without the right people aligned to our career aspirations, we won’t succeed. It pays to invest time in building a network that gives us access to senior decision-makers in the organisation. We need people who can open opportunities for us and advocate on our behalf. People value knowledge and connections. How can you use your own knowledge or connections to add value to potential new contact? Block out time each week to network.

Develop a support network

We also need people who can lift us up or even catch us when the going gets tough; people who can provide crucial support in difficult moments. This is not only about moral support. We need access to the right information when we are working in new parts of the organisation, access to the right contacts when we are taking on a new challenge or practical support when we are going abroad; another reason to make time each week to build and maintain relationships.

Find the most influential mentor possible

It pays to be choosey about mentors. Admittedly, we are often not in a position to choose our mentors, however, when given a choice, aim for the most senior and influential mentor you can find. The more senior our mentors are, the more likely our careers are to benefit. We must also ask for the right type of mentoring support. While all we sometimes need is reassurance and a bit of emotional support, we should remember that it is career-focused mentoring that pays career dividends: having someone advocate on our behalf, being encouraged to try new roles, and being introduced to powerful people in the organisation.

Move at pace and accept that you will never feel ready to move to a new role

Moving at pace is not about moving at speed for the sake of moving at speed, but about ensuring that we maximise our learning. If we are interested in progressing our careers, we should move to a new challenge once we are no longer learning in our current role. It is always difficult to give precise figures, and numbers should only ever be used as high-level guidance as every role is different. However, for junior roles, 12-18 months seem a good time in role. This increase to two to three years at professional and mid management level and from there to four to five years for senior roles. Also, it’s important to remember that nobody is ever ready for a new role. And nor should we fully ready as stretch is what develops us. We simply need to be ready enough.

Make time for reflective learning

With exposure to new a new role, we must remember that it is not the role itself but the learning we extract from the role that leads to development. Making time for reflective thinking and regularly reviewing what has gone well and less well in a situation and what we would do if a similar situation arose again, will help us maximise our learning, avoid making the same mistake twice and allow us to get up to speed faster in unfamiliar environments. We mustn’t however fall into the trap of letting insights from reflective learning holding us back because we believe that we are not yet ready to move to the next challenge.

Take risks and help others take a risk on you

After we have conducted some due diligence about whether a role is a good development opportunity for us, we can help others take a risk on us by demonstrating our willingness to give new challenges a go and say ‘yes’. The earlier we start looking for additional experiences outside of our area of technical specialisation, the better. If we can prove that we can transfer our skills to new areas, the more likely we are to be given the opportunity to try our hand at something new. An early track record of being able to move to a different area successfully will make us a less risky appointment in future.

Accelerated Leadership Development – How to Turn Your Top Talent into Leaders (Kogan Page), by Dr Ines Wichert, is out now.

About the author

Dr Ines Wichert is an Occupational Psychologist and a managing director at TalUpp, the leadership development consultancy. She works with organisations and individuals to develop talent and build high-performance teams. Her new book Accelerated Leadership Development – How to Turn your Top Talent into Leaders is published by Kogan Page in July 2018.

Ines has a special interest in diversity and inclusion. Her last book Where Have All the Senior Women Gone? Nine Critical Job Assignments for Women Leaders was published by Palgrave Macmillan. Previously, Ines ran the Diversity & Inclusion Centre of Excellence for IBM’s Smarter Workforce in Europe and led the Women in Leadership research hub at the IBM Smarter Workforce Institute.

Ines has appeared on BBC News talking about her work, and has written and been interviewed for, amongst others, the Financial Times, Wall Street Journal Europe, the Sunday Times and various leading HR publications in the UK and abroad. She regularly speaks at events on the topic of talent management and leadership development.

Before joining IBM, Ines worked for many years as a management consultant at SHL (later CEB and then Gartner) advising global organizations on their talent issues.

She has a Doctorate in Organisational Psychology from the University of Cambridge and is a chartered, HCPC registered Occupational Psychologist.

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