• March 25, 2020
  • Career growth

For the first time in 24 years, Bill Gates is no longer the wealthiest living American. Jeff Bezos, the centibillionaire founder of Amazon, has ascended to that enviable position of power.

Bezos’ path was supported by a myriad of advisers. He was mentored by the legendary Bill Campbell, a former Columbia University football player, coach, and trustee who served as the CEO of Intuit. Campbell also counted Steve Jobs, Larry Page and Sergey Brin among his impressive cohort of mentees.

These mentor relationships demonstrate that these ultimately high-powered corporate leaders were not content to passively let their careers “happen.” Instead, they invested in developing themselves through coaching and other means outside their organizations — and they achieved paramount success.

In an age of frequent job hopping, where employers demonstrate hesitancy to invest in developing individual employees who are likely to leave before a return on learning is realized, self-career development is an increasingly important component of individuals’ success in the workplace. For ambitious employees, self-development is an effective way, and, in some cases the only way, to hasten progress along the career ladder. As an ardent advocate of professional learning, I recommend the following tactics to assume control of your development and accelerate your career: 

1. Put Strategy First

At photography stalwart Kodak, the median job tenure is approximately 20 years, according to a 2013 Payscale report. In stark contrast, at technology powerhouse Google, the tenure is slightly more than a year. Millennials are switching jobs at unprecedented rates and no longer depend on a pre-established career track to advance to higher level positions.

When combined with the fact that one third of employees report that their bosses do not assist with career development, it is apparent that today’s workers must be proactive. Rather than assuming ascent along a regimented career ladder – as prior generations may have done – employees today must be strategic about what can be gained from each position. Focus on attaining marketable skills, gaining experience with employers whose names stand out on a resume, and, most importantly, building a robust stable of supporters.

One way for professionals to supercharge their networks is to find a mentor—as many successful entrepreneurs have done. According to a survey by the Association for Talent Development (ATD), the top three benefits to mentees are professional development, a better understanding of organizational culture, and the development of new perspectives.

While more than half the mentees ATD surveyed credited formal mentoring programs for helping them meet their goals to a “high” or “very high” extent, fewer than one-third of the businesses actually offer formal mentoring programs. In the absence of workplace mentorship programs, rising employees, by necessity, must be the architects of their own futures.

Thinking expansively about mentorship can widen the pool of potential mentors, and diversify organizational experiences and perspectives, that comprise a mentee’s career. Mentors need not be senior leaders; a mentor can be a co-worker just a few years ahead on the career ladder, or even a peer or junior colleague. As long at the mentor has teachable skills and a willingness to partake in knowledge transfer and network building, mentorship can have profoundly positive career impacts.

2. Become Your Own CMO

Modern-day career trajectories are intricately tied to how we are represented in, and by, data—especially online. Human resources departments scan applicants’ resumes for keywords. Recruiters actively search for targeted matches on LinkedIn. Google searches are certainly the default mechanism for identifying potential hires. It is, therefore, vital for employees to make their data available — and to make it shine.

Today’s workers must become their own “Chief Marketing Officer,” constantly analyzing, refining and improving the way they appear in the job market. One of the best approaches to gain a competitive advantage and improve one’s market image is through education—and many options are available.

Shorter-term educational opportunities include informative webinars, weekend workshops, and MOOCs (massive open online courses). For those seeking more in-depth development opportunities, professionally-focused degree programs (such as the master’s degrees at the Columbia University School of Professional Studies) and corporate in-house programs (including BP’s) represent high quality options that provide valuable skills and knowledge as well as marketable credentials.

Further underscoring the importance of an employee’s online presence, credentialing is increasingly taking electronic form. Certified electronic transcripts of coursework completed — and even electronic versions of diplomas — are becoming more prevalent. For example, users who have completed a LinkedIn course can now opt to have the qualification appear on their profiles.

3. Ask for Feedback — Even If It’s Negative

It is indisputable that artificial intelligence, machine learning, and other technological advancements will revolutionize the employment market and recast jobs in unforeseen ways. Yet, even if certain jobs are upended or transformed, market trends indicate that employees with soft skills and emotional intelligence will be the most likely to succeed in the changing workplace.

A 2016 World Economic Forum report predicted that emotional intelligence will be one of the most vital job skills in 2020. Another study revealed that, of the eight most important qualities of successful Google employees, STEM ability ranked last after an array of soft skills, including coaching skills, empathy, and problem solving ability. 

Ascertaining strengths and weaknesses in soft skills is a critical first step to making improvements, and the best way for individuals to gauge their current proficiency is to ask others for feedback. My Columbia colleague, leading learning-agility researcher Dr. W. Warner Burke, recommends that “seeking feedback of how you’re doing — regardless of how threatening the action might be to one’s self-esteem” is vital to career development.

Gallup reports that only 15% of millennial employees routinely ask for such feedback consistently. The small percentage who are willing to have difficult conversations are likely those who are most receptive to changing their behaviors and, I predict, likely to demonstrate the most success in the coming decades.

In contrast to the 1950s ideal of the “company man”, where hard work and loyalty to one firm led to promotion over time, today’s workplace expects greater individuality, creativity, and flexibility from employees. Today, rising to leadership positions requires employees to craft their own self-career development strategies. The stories of Jeff Bezos and other corporate leaders illustrate the power of identifying suitable mentors, gaining feedback, shaping a public persona, and building key leadership skills to accelerate career growth.  These valuable lessons can be applied by all professionals who aspire to higher levels of leadership and will reliably fuel their career rise.