Six Keys to Career Development

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By Raluca Manolache

While women in leadership is an ongoing hot topic, the career challenges and opportunities of the present moment are shared by women and men alike in the workforce. The way forward is nowhere near as clear as it once was and, in many ways, the old adage, “the only way is up” simply no longer applies.

Fortunately, the paths for personal and professional fulfillment remain marked by some traditional wisdoms.

1. Think Develop vs. Advance
In speaking with three strong female leaders in their own right—all in very different places with their careers—one thing became apparent; the term “career advancement” has become an anachronism. Instead, in a world of constant change and sideways shifts, career development is key and has become indispensable for individuals and organizations alike.

More importantly, while there is no one path to developing career success, six helpful hints did emerge over the course of our conversations.

With over 20 years’ HR experience prior to joining Knightsbridge Consulting in Vancouver, Wendy Knight, CHRP, CMA is a senior consultant in the career solutions practice. She has also been heavily involved with both the HRMA and as a mentor with Minerva Foundation’s Women Helping Women program.

Knight points out that the path to success is always personal. “It is very much unique to each individual, their strengths, and their goals. Your career is a journey rather than a destination; it is about engaging and enriching experiences,” says Knight. “Everybody has their own unique way of defining career success. However, your goals need to be aligned with your own skills, your own values, your own interests.”

2. Let Go of the Ladder
Moreover, rarely do individuals work for the same company for their entire career as once occurred, adding greater complexity to the traditional depiction of the career ladder.

“Career progression has changed so much. It used to be a career ladder, a vertical progression. The world has changed hugely in terms of the types of jobs and experiences, and how people move to get different experiences and knowledge and building your tool kit,” says Meg Burrows, CHRP, HR manager, Western Financial Group.

Burrows’ journey is a direct reflection of her assessment. Holding a degree in psychology and a diploma in human resources management, Burrows captured the HRMA Rising Star award in 2009 and been heavily invested in helping others develop their HR careers from her earliest involvement with the association. A mentor and prior chair on many committees, she is currently incoming chair for the Coastal Vancouver Advisory Council.

3. Define Your Differentiators
In a world where opportunity is everything, she is a firm believer in creating those opportunities. According to Burrows, opportunities are the “true differentiators” that expose us to experiences and skills that we may not otherwise be able acquire.

“It is often a competitive market; what are you bringing to the table that differentiates you from other people, what experiences do you have that are unique to help you be a stronger candidate?” asks Burrows.

Knight concurs and strongly believes that the key step in career development is knowing yourself and being able to talk about your accomplishments. “You need to very realistic about what your value is to an organization. You need to be able to articulate your strengths and weaknesses and look at the opportunities. Do a personal SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis,” she recommends.

4. Remain Open to the Atypical
Helping others find that uniqueness is something Kyla Nicholson, CHRP has taken to heart throughout her career for over a decade. From curriculum design and teaching to consulting and training and development, it was during her time with HRMA that Nicholson helped develop the Career Path Tool for the HR profession.

“My career is a bit atypical because I haven’t worked in an HR department specifically. I started out in education, teaching. The entire time that I was working in that field I did a lot of volunteering. I met the acting executive director for an agency that I was volunteering for. He also managed a consultancy company and he had a position for me,” says Nicholson. “I think what the really important thing is—regardless of what your role is and what your expectations are—that you need to work hard enough to increase your opportunity to get noticed.”

Both Nicholson and Knight speak strongly about the importance of checking in with yourself and being open to opportunity. ”The opportunity to work on special projects might be more in line with what you are looking for. It is about working hard and letting people know about what your interests are and letting opportunities come to you,” says Nicholson.

Burrows agrees: “There is a lot of work done within organizations for mapping career paths. However I think a career is always personal—it’s somebody’s own.”

5. Build and Be Your Own Brand
While exploring new opportunities undoubtedly develops experience and toolkits, it also develops and evolves our personal brand. “Everybody has a brand. We may not think of it that way, but it’s really our reputation. It’s less about a role or a title and more about who you are as an individual—what do you want to be known for? What are the things you can be doing to support and develop that brand,” asks Knight, reiterating the importance that brand showcasing is what makes each person unique.

However, making the most of that brand, Nicholson stresses, requires a strong network and a perpetually open mind. “Movement is much more fluid in today’s workplace,” she says.

Knight emphasizes the importance of learning to draw on your network for information and insight in order to add depth to your career. “Ultimately—if you are setting goals, keeping it flexible, knowing where you want to go, and being able to communicate that to other people—that leads to your own flexible but unique career plans,” says Knight.

6. Find Feedback and Support
Such flexibility is essential, as is the importance of constant learning. In this regard, having multiple mentors across industries is invaluable, providing critical and varied feedback along with knowledge and shared experience.

It is also important to have mentors in a variety of business areas, so that you can get as much varied feedback and insight as possible. As to whether that mentor being male or female makes a difference, the variety of learning experiences is the key, making a mix invaluable.

Finding that same support network within an organization is equally important. Knight describes a three-pillar approach as best practice wherein “the organization supports the individual, the manager enables the individual, and the employee ultimately is accountable.”

“The key to everything is to be inclusive with everyone who is interested in growing and being involved,” says Nicholson.

Ultimately, male or female, young, old or in between, when it comes to career development—what counts most is what makes you uniquely you.

7. Defy Glass Ceilings and Gendered Thinking
As to whether there are career development opportunities follow different paths for women and men, the future is more open than ever.

“It would be interesting to know if there is any research related to those perceptions of a glass ceiling and how they impact the behaviour of women and men in the workplace,” says Nicholson. “Certainly it is an area that we need to look at and be aware of in the business community. On the other hand, although there is a high female population within HR, HR is not a gendered profession.”

Knight sees ongoing change for the better. “I think historically we’ve come a long way but there’s still probably room for improvement,” she says. “Different industries, union and non-union corporate cultures, will obviously create different career opportunities for people and have different skill requirements. There are initiatives to try to ensure that there is more female representation at the board level and in the boardroom such as the Canadian Board Diversity Council which I am involved in— broadening what has historically been a bit of an old boys network.”

Burrows agrees and believes the past decade has seen a greater awareness of women in leadership—both as a society and within the business community. Burrows points to the tagline of the Minerva Foundation, “Changing the face of leadership in BC,“ as an example and an indication of how the gender debate has changed; it is less a matter of gender than an openness to create new connections and advance new thinking.

Though gender imbalances remain as evidenced by various statistics and individual experiences, where career development is concerned and where the working world is headed, women in leadership is less of a debate than a growing reality.

Raluca Manolache is a passionate writer and HR professional who has worked with CBC/Radio, Service Canada and S.U.C.C.E.S.S.

(PeopleTalk Fall 2014)

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  1. Great points! There’s definitely shift in process toward the idea of “developing” rather than “advancing” – and the key is that the former approach opens up so many more paths to individuals and organizations alike, in part because with a traditional organizational hierarchy, positions toward the top are limited. The more we challenge our thinking about what development is and what development organizations should offer, the more we open the door to growth and possibility – again, for both individuals and organizations. Here’s some more thoughts around these lines: http://blog.insala.com/2014/02/its-not-ceiling-you-should-be-worried.html#.VDVer_l4pqs

  2. I think that these days personal branding is more important than ever before. Whether you’re talking about your overall reputation or what others can find out about you online (both good and bad!), personal branding should be considered an active, rather than a passive, exercise.

    Consciously cultivating the right brand can do wonders when it comes to furthering your career.

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