The Fortune 500 Insider Network is an online community where top executives from the Fortune 500 share ideas and offer leadership advice with Fortune’s global audience. Susan Schmitt, senior vice president of human resources at Rockwell Automation, has answered the question: What can 20-somethings do to set themselves up for success?
Throughout my human resources career, I’ve observed countless employees and leaders. I’ve seen underestimated people succeed beyond expectation and some very bright people fail to achieve their goals. So what do the more successful people have in common? Here are my observations:
Perform. Perform. Perform.
When you are so focused on getting to the next step of your career, you can lose sight of performing well now. Trust me: If you’re a great performer and always strive to exceed your manager’s expectations, you will get noticed. Focus on demonstrating that you can do more, but not at the expense of performing well in your current role.
People tend to be much better at describing what they don’t want vs. what they do want. Take time to clearly understand what success means to you. Do you want to do important, life-changing work? Work for fun people? Be an executive by the time you’re 40? Be a brilliant technical leader who doesn’t manage people, but manages complicated technical challenges?
These are important questions to ask, particularly as you think about future jobs. The answers become a compass to guide you. Too often I hear from employees that the company isn’t supporting their careers, yet they can’t tell me what success means for them. You need a compass to guide your career plan.
There is no such thing as a career path
Your career plan is not your career path. There is no one “best” way to get to a higher role. How you advance in a company is unique to you and to the opportunities that present themselves. Personally, I’ve seen that when employees are open to different opportunities and are flexible, they are more successful in advancing through the organization.
Be willing to take on a variety of roles—sometimes lateral, sometimes up, and sometimes in a direction that’s completely unexpected. I had a colleague who was great in sales and marketing. He was asked to take the role of a country manager of a very small country (not his home country). While this role was not part of his career plan, he realized he could gain experience about how the company operated from a totally different aspect. He accepted the role, and later on in his career was awarded a senior position because he had a better working knowledge of the company than others competing for that role.
The two most important role changes I made in my career happened to both be backward moves with smaller job titles and smaller scope. However, both gave me the experiences I needed for my role today. These turned out to be two of the most important career choices I made.
Build your personal board of directors
Don’t wait for your company to provide a mentor for you. Build your own support team. I call it a Personal Board of Directors (PBOD).
Your PBOD should include people you respect—potential mentors or coaches whose opinions you value. They should be people you can learn from. They don’t have to work in your company, or even in your field. And, don’t stack your PBOD with your biggest fans or people who always agree with you. These are people you trust to tell you the truth, even if the truth hurts.
This can be tough, so I rely on a tool called the Suitability Model, created over 60 years ago by a renowned researcher, Dr. Elliott Jaques. Like the title says, the model helps match an employee’s capability to a role. Anyone can use this tool. As you consider new job opportunities, you can use it to assess your own capability with the role.
Consider this: Have you ever had a job where you felt bored most of the time, or one that required skills you didn’t yet have? You probably weren’t a good match with that job. That can spell disaster for you, the company, and your career. With the Suitability Model, you’ll be able to assess your own capability to the requirements of a role, based on four things:
Skills, knowledge, experience, and education
It’s what your resume is all about: your skills (technical/functional expertise), knowledge (ability to apply the skills), experience, and education required to be successful in a job.
Information processing capability
This one is a little trickier, but helps measure your ability to handle the complexity requirements of a role. Generally, the higher you go in a company, complexity increases.
This one is all about behaviors that could impair your effectiveness or the effectiveness of others.
Accepts role requirements
This has to do with whether you accept the role demands and obligations of a role.
Seek jobs that match your ability to manage complexity. Information processing capability grows for everyone over time, just at different rates. If you’ve been bored in a role, it may be a symptom that your information processing capability exceeds the role’s complexity requirements. If you are overwhelmed and frustrated with the work, it could mean that you’re not in a role best suited to you.
Maybe temperament has been a stumbling block for you. If your job requires you to manage conflict regularly and you prefer to avoid conflict, you will most likely not be successful in that role. It doesn’t matter what the pattern of behavior is. If it’s impairing your effectiveness, the role is likely not a good match for you.
People who are self-aware—who really understand their strengths and weaknesses—and take accountability to self-manage their behaviors, will move much more smoothly into desired roles. I’ve seen very talented people derail their career goals because they were not willing to manage their behaviors.
Finally, it is important to understand the obligations and demands of the roles you desire. You may desire to be the CEO because of the pay, responsibility, and status that comes with the role. However, will you also value the significant demands and obligations that come with being the CEO—frequent travel, high pressure, and multiple stakeholders with conflicting requests and needs?
Define what success means to you. Be a high performer in every role. Be flexible about how you achieve your career plan and surround yourself with great support with a personal board of directors. And finally, understand yourself and understand your capability before accepting new roles. Creating your career takes time and work, but you’ll likely find more satisfaction with your career choices.