How do you reach the next level in your career? I hear this question every time I present to a group of professionals, regardless of industry or functional area. Of course, it makes sense that an engaged, ambitious professional will want to know how to improve. However, people start out with different strengths and deficiencies so the best advice for getting to that next level is always customized to you. That said, there is a general process that most everyone looking to grow their career should undertake. Here are ten steps to reach the next level in your career:
1 – Decide how you will decide
First and foremost, clearly define what “next” means – i.e., how will you decide whether an opportunity is the right next step for you? One of my clients was a talented marketing executive with increasing responsibilities, measured in terms of people of budget under her scope. She wanted to be a CMO, and her career progress matched accordingly. However, for her industry (fashion, retail) she would need international exposure, ideally working abroad or at least having regional responsibility that included international areas. Given where she was in her career, her next level should prioritize this international scope. For another marketing executive who already had international exposure, that person’s next level might instead prioritize managing a bigger team or getting cross-functional experience in a financial or operational role. What do you need to prioritize for your next role?
2 – Keep big moves to yourself
As you think through potential moves, keep your plans to yourself. Your boss may be supportive and make introductions for you or help you fill in skill or expertise gaps. Or s/he may worry you will leave and not be helpful. Unless you’re 100% certain how your boss will react, seek counsel from a mentor or coach, rather than anyone who works with you directly. Confide in friends who are natural cheerleaders – people who encourage you and lift you up. Don’t share your burgeoning plans with friends who are devil’s advocates – these friends can be useful later on when your plans are more fully developed and you need their brutal honesty. But in the beginning, keep big moves confidential, and share only with trusted advisers and cheerleaders. Talking things through can be a good way to get ideas, but sometimes you want to do things that are counterintuitive to reaching your goal.
3 – Run a “pre-mortem”
In their terrific management book, Scaling Up Excellence, Stanford professors Bob Sutton and Huggy Rao talk about using a pre-mortem to identify how projects might go better or worse than expected. In a pre-mortem, you assume that a project (in this case, your next career move) is wildly successful. Then you brainstorm on all the conditions (e.g., people who helped, skills you relied on) that made this possible. You can also do a pre-mortem as if a project went horribly wrong and look for why this happened to identify risks. By running a pre-mortem on your next career role, you anticipate what you need and can arrange to get these resources or mitigate these risks before they happen. This would be a good time to elicit the help of your devil’s advocate friends!
4 – Start before you start
Even before you reach that next career level – where you manage a team or absorb financial responsibilities – you can do some of this now, right where you are. Look for opportunities to work on cross-functional projects without leaving your current role. Volunteer for an affinity group or ERG and manage a project or budget for the group. Take a class in a skill you are missing. Join a Meet-up or professional association in the area of expertise you want to learn. You don’t need to formally be in a role before you take on the responsibilities in that role. In fact, by starting before you start, you build up a track record of skills and results that will make you attractive for that next level.
5 – Check your executive presence
The higher up you go, the more senior and executive-level your interactions will be. Make sure you can interact at senior levels. Check your executive presence to identify and address any gaps.
6 – Check your executive potential
Similarly, you want to identify and address gaps in your executive potential. Your work should impact the bottom line. Your responsibilities should focus on initiatives that current management prioritizes. You should have a vision that engages and motivates people. You should be someone that other executives find credible and want to work with.
7 – Identify potential sponsors
Given that you need the buy-in and support of other executives, you want to have supportive relationships that can propel you to the next level. A sponsor is someone who will speak up on your behalf and help you get increased exposure and opportunities. When you have identified what the right next move is, identify who are the people who can help sponsor you for that area and role. These are the people who are making hiring and promotion decisions in that area and for roles you would be interested in.
8 – Get an introduction (or make one yourself)
The best way to meet your potential sponsor is to get an introduction. However, if you don’t know anyone well enough to give you an introduction, be prepared to make one yourself. Learn more about the person/ people you are looking to meet, and make contact based on something that interests them. For example, if they spoke at a company town hall or were recently quoted in the media, acknowledge what they said specifically and share an insight to show that you are listening and have something intelligent to add.
9 – Follow-up to expand the relationship
One introduction is not going to be enough to turn a stranger into a supporter. You will need to follow up over time and expand the relationship. Share a results update – if your initial interactions included sharing insights, let the person know what you did with what they said. Make a recommendation – if your initial interactions revealed that the person has a particular interest, share an article or resource related to that interest. Solve a business problem – you should be following this person’s area of expertise because you want to work there, so as you get ideas that might be helpful to problems they have, share these!
10 – Make your ask
Don’t assume that people know what you want next in your career. Don’t assume that people know you’re interested in a particular opportunity, area or role. You have to ask for the help you need. For sponsors who are willing and able to support you, be specific about what will be helpful – if you’re already interviewing for a new role, ask for a reference. If you haven’t yet interviewed, perhaps you need an introduction. For people who are supporters but perhaps not in a position to advocate for you for that particular role, figure out how else they can be helpful. You don’t know who or what people know – think about smaller requests, such as information on a group or a person or even a trend, that can help you be a more competitive candidate but might not be as big an ask as an outright reference. For people who could be sponsors but you haven’t yet developed that close a relationship, then continue the intelligent follow-up and focus on developing that relationship.
Getting to the right next level in your career depends on where you are coming from, so the best plan is always an individualized plan. However, by following the ten steps above, you have a general strategy that you can customize based on where you are starting from and what you particularly need. Where do you still have questions – leave a comment! Have you recently gotten a promotion – what worked for you?
This post originally appeared in my leadership column at Forbes.com.