Look out for yourself – or look out!

It's easy for people to get so caught up in the day-to-day tasks of their jobs that they forget to pay attention to the future or their careers.

Many people diligently do their jobs and trust that they will automatically "get ahead" when the 'right position opens up. They have the misguided notion that the company will notice the good job they are doing and will manage their careers for them.

This myopic approach to career advancement is not only careless but dangerous. It's careless because you are the only person intensely interested in your own career, and dangerous because limited career vision can result in years of frustration, dissatisfaction and, during this technological evolution, it can even cost you your job.

Some companies are experiencing less turnover than ever before because employees are hesitant to try their luck in a tight market. Because of this, there is an increasing amount of internal competition for any available job within the organization. This adds to the frustration of a woman dead-ended in a stereotyped clerical role who has limited information on how to blast out of this corporate sandtrap.

Dear Joan:
I am not interested in looking for a new job outside my company. What I want to know is: How can I move up in the company I work for now?

I am a secretary (5 years)and I work for three managers in a medium-sized company. I like all of the people I work for, and they like me and my work. But I feel like I am at a dead end in my job.

Do you think I should go back to college? If so, what would be a good degree to get?

I would appreciate any advice you could give me.

There are a number of things you could do to get ahead, but I caution you that it will take real determination and tenacity to break out of the secretarial mold at your current company.

Unfortunately, no matter how skillful and qualified a secretary may be, corporations tend to look past them as if they were invisible when looking for new talents to fill management slots. Your task is to improve their vision.

To be successful, you will need to plan and organize your career strategy just as thoroughly as you do the projects you are given on the job.

The first strategic move involves your physical image. It determines, to a large degree, how other people perceive you. If you want your company's management to regard you as one of them, start looking the part right now. Study the dress, hairstyles, makeup and overall style of women in management that you respect and who seem to be going places in the organization.

Compare your appearance, and make easy changes you feel are necessary. This may sound extreme, but it will actually help upper management to visualize you in a management role. It also shows them you are serious about this.

Next, you need to find out what you want to do and would be successful at. You can't skip this part even though you may be tempted to. Many people I talk with seem to think there is an all-knowing corporate being who will figure this out for them. Not so. You will have to figure it out yourself and tell them.

No one will take you seriously until you prove to them you are goal-oriented. It is the corporate language. In other words, don't wait for other people to direct your course. You must do an analysis of your strengths and weaknesses, and you must decide on a role or plan.

Get some career counseling and/or testing, if necessary. (Call the Women's Development Center, 800 Main Street, Pewaukee, WI. 53072, for free occupational assessment and counseling; phone 548-5446.) Only then are you ready to take the first real steps.

If you haphazardly apply for any posted job that "looks interesting," you run the risk of landing another dead-end job - among other possible calamities.

Once you know where you can best apply your talents within the organization, the steps you take will depend on the politics, corporate culture and the kind of business your company is in. Keep your goal or goals firmly in your mind and look for any opportunity that will move you closer. Easy does it. A subtle, calculated approach will get you farther, faster.

First, the politics. Talk to your bosses and share your goals. Ask for any advice or support they can offer. If you are deficient in a skill required for your targeted job, ask them to help you figure out a way to acquire it on your current job.

For example, if it's writing skills you lack, ask them to let you try your hand at answering some correspondence. They'll probably love to let you do this one!) Or, if you need more exposure to math, offer to help with the budget or perhaps take a business math course. (Many companies have a tuition refund program that is underutilized.)

Ask your managers to suggest people for you to talk with in other departments. They can open doors you'd have to use a crowbar on. Exhibit some savvy when you talk to these people. Never bad-mouth your boss or current job. Don't ask them for a job.

Instead, ask them what their day-to-day responsibilities are, how they got their position, what the typical career paths are in the department, what kind of talent the department could benefit from and, finally, don't forget to ask them to suggest other people to talk with.

If your managers truly believe in your abilities, they will be happy to open these doors even though they realize they might lose you. They'd rather lose you to a promotion they sponsored than to a promotion from a different company.

Introduce yourself to women you admire, and seek their advice. Ask them to share their perceptions about getting ahead in the company.

If there are any women you hear about who have been secretaries and then moved up and out of that role, find out who they are and hear how they did it. This kind of informational networking will save you hours of blind searching and help you to learn from the mistakes, experience and wisdom of others.

Studying the "corporate culture" means analyzing the values the company holds. For example, if the company only seems to hire and promote college graduates to management, go back to school and finish your degree. (Most colleges and Universities cater to adults with full time jobs. Alverno College, for example, has a weekend college that is very good.)

One caution. This is not the time to let your performance slip in your current job. Your managers will only help you as long as you hold up your end. In fact, look for every opportunity on your current job to do and learn as many different things as possible and take on as much responsibility as you can get.

Look for tasks your managers put off or dislike. Take the initiative and offer to do them - or parts of them if possible. For example, you could offer to call people they keep putting off, or meet with others on their behalf.

I haven't answered your question regarding " a good degree to get." Even though getting a college degree may prove to be an important factor in your career goals, you may be surprised to find many opportunities for career advancement may be right under your nose.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616, mailto:info@joanlloyd.com, or www.JoanLloyd.com 
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