Recently I was having coffee with a young man (well, young to me) who I met a few years ago on a project. He sought me out to chat about my career and navigating the corporate ladder. Flattered though I was, I quickly turned the tables on him and, like any good coach, made the conversation about him and his aspirations.

I knew I’d hit a few nerves when we got up to leave, as he was a bit tongue-tied with swirling thoughts and ideas. I was happy to hit those nerves. That is what I do. That is part of the process in helping people become unstuck.

The details of our conversation shall stay between he and I. What I was reminded of as we talked are two concepts that are critical if you have aspirations to move ahead, manage and lead.

They are the things so many young career-minded people don’t typically get:

  1. the responsibility for your career is yours alone
  2. the best leaders I know make it a priority to develop their personal and professional character

Let’s tackle the first concept. I can’t tell you the number of staff I recall who bemoan the fact they can’t seem to get ahead, and why isn’t the organization seeing their greatness and promoting them? I admit there were times early in my career that I thought that way. It didn’t take me long to figure out that no one was going to miraculously pluck me from a cast of thousands and give me my dream job. Moving ahead needs to be backed up with a strategic plan designed by and put into action by you.

The second concept is about investing in you. I don’t necessarily mean monetarily; this is about self-reflection, asking and receiving feedback, mentoring, coaching, reading, training and whatever else it takes to develop your self-knowledge. I call this your “practice”. This is about developing your private and public self-awareness. The private awareness is about knowing how you react internally to things, like the tight chest you might feel when you run into an old flame.

Public awareness is knowing how others see you and the effects – positive and negative – you may have on them. Having this self-awareness helps you navigate situations and adhere to social standards of behavior. This doesn’t mean changing yourself to fit the context; it means understanding how you show up in the world and your ability to adjust to the situation appropriately. If you think about a leader you know who is able to read a room and say the right thing at the right time, chances are their self-awareness is highly developed.

Your professional character also needs the ability to see things from multiple perspectives. It starts with lifting your head and developing organizational awareness. You’ve become an expert, or you have a bag full of relevant operational skills –it’s now time to learn about formal and informal structures, culture and climate, relationships and organizational issues. Understanding the bigger picture is critical and developing this part of your practice may be the single most important step toward the C-Suite.

As my young coffee guest walked away, I remembered how, when I was his age, I had an imaginary playbook that I would refer to as my road-map for moving ahead in my career. My playbook was rewritten many times as I navigated up various ladders. The most important thing I learned from it was that the only way to move ahead was by taking personal responsibility for my career and my personal and professional development.

Are you taking responsibility for your career? How focused are you on your own development? What would it take for you create your practice?

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