how to tell if you’re managing your career well … or not

usnewsThe way you manage your career has an enormous impact on your day-to-day quality of life, your earning potential, and your overall happiness when it comes to work.

But how can you know if you’re managing your career effectively? At U.S. News & World Report today, I talk about the signs that will help you figure it out. (For example: If you were laid off tomorrow, do you know who you’d call to talk about a job?) You can read it here.

{ 73 comments… read them below }

      1. CC

        Indeed.

        Maybe if I had known these were things to work toward when I had a job I liked, I wouldn’t be stuck in my current dead end crap job whose hours make networking in the field I actually like literally impossible unless I take an entire work day off to go to a 2-hr networking event that may or may not be useful to my job hunt. Because I didn’t build up a network when I had a job in the field.

        Noted for the future.

    1. Sas

      Same here. After I was assaulted by a relative, was asked to leave where I lived (with other relatives) right after this situation, I was basically without a home for months, my life got turned upside down. I was 19. My career has struggled to ever get back on it’s proper feet. My emotional life and “rest of my life” was forever impacted as well. Friends disappeared and my ex took advantage of what little I had left. Not to mention the Oh , man!! It looks so bad in print. School at the time, did not help me fix my grades. I now have to answer to everyone why I am not a better person, as an adult. (Answer, there’s not as much help out there as you would think.) I am talking ironically about the email I had sent to the local Dept. of Rehab services and career counseling services that I have been “receiving for months now” without getting far at all, and being yelled at because I think that school continuation/confusion ties in to job prospects in some way. Or volunteering questions. Their answer: It doesn’t really. My response to that? Tears and frustration. It follows you around for real. (I was yelled at by a college admissions counselor the other week (( She was a bi–h and apparently the manager knew this.) More tears and cursing. My relatives, oblivious. Sorry, to comment this on your comment BC, I can relate though.
      My father, the only close relative I had, thinks I can figure this out on my own!! Off to that disappointment.

      I applied to a retail job the other week and might have gotten it. Not because I want that, not because I am not good around strangers anymore, but because there isn’t better help out there, I am tired of applying on line (barf bag, please) and there isn’t something really better for me out there. I am tired. Is there a magic fairy career services person who could wave their wand and say, “She has been through enough confusion!” This makes me so sad to write. Getting onto something else. Long story: There isn’t What tops when I was sexually assaulted in a hospital by a worker there?, not much. Oh , that my life in kind of in shambles. Possibly that.

      1. Not So NewReader

        My wise friend used to say, “When our lives are in total chaos, the thing to do is take control over one part of our lives. Get that under control. Then look around and see where that puts everything else. One or two other things might have calmed down a bit because of fixing this first thing so check for that. After you survey the situation pick one more thing, get that thing under control. Keep going like this until things start to settle down and make sense.”

        I am not sure what this would mean for you. But I do know that we intuitively tend to pick well when we try to regain control like this.

    2. CanadianKat

      No. No. Meh. Sort of. Yes. Yes.

      Another indicator could be how many times in a day you mutter to yourself: “I hate this job”, “I hate my life” or simply “F this S.” Failing badly on this one.

  1. jm

    @AAM, can you recommend wording/script to use for reaching out to professional contacts to check on openings in their organizations? My boss is retiring in June, and I hope to move into a different role in this organization. If that plan fails, I’d like to reach out to leaders I’ve worked with in other organizations to see if they might have openings that fit my skill set.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Something like this: “I’m starting to think about my next step professionally, and I’m interested in roles that combine teapot painting and rice sculptures. I really admire the work ABC Co. does in those areas, and I wondered if my background might be a match for the X roles I know you sometimes hire for. If so, I’d love to talk more with you or whoever there might be the right person to connect with.”

      (But I wouldn’t just ask “do you have openings that would fit me?” — you want to do some research first if possible.)

  2. Terra

    If having all of these things is the standard for “managing your career well” I can’t imagine that many people qualify and the ones that do are probably all extremely senior.

    1. Honeybee

      I think the first one is something that’s the hardest for junior people to attain – it requires staying in a field long enough to know people who have moved on from your current team or to have attended networking events, conferences, summits, etc., and met other people within the field. But the rest of them, I think, are achievable by at least early mid-career.

      1. AndersonDarling

        In my case, I’ve worked with folks who have moved to other organizations and I worked with them enough that I could call them and get a recommendation for any openings at their workplace. I’m not a super guru at my work, but I think I am pleasant enough and dependable enough that I would be remembered.
        But I’m lucky enough to be in a support position, so I have worked with almost everyone at my organization.

      2. nonymous

        My experience is that the first item was really easy as an early/senior careerist and not so much in mid-level positions where the number of jobs drops, becoming more competitive. For example, as a technician in the teapot factory, I could easily share info about openings in the lid, handle and cozy departments with former classmates from teapot makers uni.

        I can’t do this as easily at the team lead level, mostly because there are fewer positions (and thus fewer people to give those recommendations) and because my specialized experience in lid-making doesn’t necessarily transfer to handle-making. Although I will say that the recommendations & info about openings, though more rare, is more likely to lead to a great fit.

      3. learningToCode

        “I think the first one is something that’s the hardest for junior people to attain”

        This was the only one I could check off! Though it helps that my dev shop has been shuffling in and out plenty of engineers to “sister” companies that would listen to me over a senior. Less than 2 years in and I at least have a handful of people who would at the very least know who to contact to vouch for me and see what’s out there. Note that I wouldn’t actually ever use them as just a “hey, you know of anything open around town?”, but I know that if I was in a pinch they’d do anything they could to help find me something.

    2. Manders

      I was sweating over this list, and then I realized that Alison had already said that people in their 20s were unlikely to have it all down just yet. Most of my peers don’t have much of a professional network built up yet, but we’ve only been in the workforce for 5-ish years.

    3. Ask a Manager Post author

      See the third paragraph of the article! It says: “If you’re reading this list in your 20s and blanching because you haven’t achieved most of these things yet, don’t worry. These are things that you build over the course of your career, not things you accrue in only a few years – but they’re a good road map for what you should work toward.”

    4. Brett

      I think I could easily say that just 9 months ago, I checked off every one of these except number two. And the reality was that I had plenty of other options, I just felt hemmed in by a series of circumstances.

      Despite this, I was in my first career job (and had been there for 8 years) still in what my employer considered not just junior, but entry level, with no hope for even a raise, much less advancement.
      I had to wake up and realize that I really had a career better put together than the position I held. Once I did that, I started looking to move on and found a perfect opportunity within a few months at one of the top employers in my area. In fact, the opportunity actually came to me through my network.

      I’m still not what anyone would call “extremely senior”, or even senior for that matter since I don’t have any true direct reports yet. But I could still easily check off every one of these items now.

    5. Cat steals keyboard

      I’m not that senior and I can say yes to all but one. It’s made me feel pretty good about my career…

      1. Al Lo

        Agreed. I’m in my mid-30s, and I can answer yes to all of them. The networking one is a smaller network than I’d like it to be, so that’s perhaps a qualified yes, but I still do have quite a few people I could go to, even if I don’t have all my bases covered in terms of companies/organizations I’d like to have solid relationships with people at. However, this job I’m at now has been amazing for connecting me further into a great web of people who have threads all over the place.

        But yeah, the rest of them are all absolutely there. I have a lot to be proud of at this job, and a lot that people recognize me for achieving. It’s a pretty great feeling.

      2. Honeybee

        Yeah, that’s how I feel too – I am pretty junior, and I can say yes to all of them and a “maybe” to #1. I know a couple of people who have left my team or that I am connected to through team members here that if I wanted to leave, I have an idea of where I could move onto and who I can reach out to. I’m also consciously working on it by networking within my field.

    6. Chinook

      Actually, I am reasonably sure I can answer yes to all of those standards and am pleasantly surprised. Part of it is luck, part of it is the ability to grow any position into something bigger (think of me like creeping ivy – I can do my job well if good boundaries are in place but, the minute I see an opening, I send out a tendril to see if there is room for me over there too). This has meant that, a few years in to this job, no one is really sure what my job is (since my title is “contractor” but I think there would be short term panic if my contract was cut tomorrow because everybody would be affected. I use my outlying tendrils not only to help the organization but to give me opportunities to grow skills, grow contacts and see if that is a direction I want to grow in if given an opportunity.

      Plus, since I am a contractor/temp, I know my job could end today and I am aware that I like eating and sleeping in one place, so I always keep an eye out on who I could talk to among my business contacts to see if they could find me a little work here or there.

    1. Brownie Queen

      Me too. :( How is it possible for one to even obtain a career when you get laid off every 2 years?

      1. pope suburban

        Or when you can’t get out of entry-level, menial positions, because you had to temp for a long time, and ended up in positions where there was no room to grow (and any attempt to grow was vetoed)? Because that’s what graduating into a recession can get you, and it often takes more than determination and willingness to take on new tasks to get out.

      2. Chinook

        I think the trick is to not think that career = one employer. I got to where I have despite a career change and many moves around the country. Every time I took a new job, I looked at it as a way to train for future jobs there or elsewhere. Would I love to stay where I am until I retire 20 years from now? In a heartbeat. But that doesn’t stop me from looking at every opportunity that I succeed at as being one more thing to add to my master resume (the one that lists everything and then is whittle down for the next application). And I look at every colleague as a potential reference, both internally and externally as well as sources for me to learn from (when they are open to talk about their jobs).

        Honestly, it has felt like I have been “in training” my last 20 years for my current position and I have no doubt that, if/when it ends, I will be able to find something that I can live with that I will be good at because of what I have done here.

    2. neverjaunty

      Hey, this isn’t a “Do You Suck?” quiz – just things to reach for to help improve your career prospects. You don’t suck just because you aren’t there yet.

    3. Not So NewReader

      Kix and anyone else who is thinking this, you don’t suck. That is just plain not true. You were smart enough to find AAM, smart enough to keep reading on a regular basis. Don’t stop now. Keep going. Take this advice here and see if you can get just ONE thing on Alison’s list. Come on, just one. Pick the easiest one and get that lined up for yourself. Nope, don’t pick the hardest one to do first, we have to eat an elephant one bite at a time. Start small, keep your plan/goal simple so that you actually do it. Once you get that then look for your second idea.

      No, you are not too late/too slow/ too frivolous/too tall/too short/too whatever else you can think of. Don’t listen to the Negative Nancy or Doubting Dan in your head, s/he lies.

    1. Bad Candidate

      I was already depressed and I would really call this a career… A career of suckage maybe.

  3. AyBeeCee

    Thank you for writing this Allison! This was the article I didn’t know I needed.

    My network is almost entirely within my current company and I feel like there’s nowhere for me to advance at this company – if I were laid off, I have no idea who I’d call about a job. I’m currently staying at my job because I can’t quite bring myself to take the steps to start the soul-crushing process of job hunting again, but the job itself isn’t terrible so I have no idea if that counts as “staying because I want to”. I technically have a mentor but what I really want to ask him is how to best go about getting out of this company and I think if I ask that I’ll be hurting my current position.

    What I should do is review my LinkedIn account and update it and actually trawl through the local job ads, but beyond that I don’t really know how to better manage my career. My skill set (contract negotiations) isn’t industry-specific and even if it were there’s no other companies that are in my company’s industry in this city.

  4. Anonymous Educator

    I’ve got everything except this:
    If you were laid off tomorrow – or simply decided you needed to move on – you know who you’d call to talk about a job.

    I have good relationships with co-workers and former co-workers for the most part. I have great references and mentors, but I don’t have a strong network of people who can immediately hook me up with a job or a viable opportunity.

    1. Blackout

      Same thing for me. Although even if I had better networking skills, it might not help me too much – I work in a field where available positions are few and far between, no matter how many people you know.

    2. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)

      I took this to mean “You know who you’d call to put feelers out about making your next move,” not “You know someone who will immediately create a job for you,” because who — other than those at very senior levels or with otherwise rare skills and experience — would ever meet that standard?

      I don’t think I could get a job tomorrow if I needed one, but I do have a half dozen or so folks who would immediately help me get the word out, point me in the direction of promising opportunities, know about roles that may not be made public, and act as my champion.

      1. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)

        (These people are a mix of former managers, colleagues, and members/clients/partners of organizations I’ve worked for.)

    3. Chinook

      “but I don’t have a strong network of people who can immediately hook me up with a job or a viable opportunity.”

      I think you may have them there, they just haven’t made themselves available because you don’t need them. I keep thinking about looking for a job back home when I separated from DH. I tried all my regular sources and even got on to the schools’ substitute teacher lists and got nothing until my mother was talking to her ad rep at the local newspaper who mentioned that they were looking for someone who could use a computer to work in layout. I would NEVER have asked my mother to look for an opportunity for me and the ad lady wasn’t actively looking, but a simple chat over a cash register pointed me in a direction of a job that, while part of a dying industry, gave me a good, steady wage and taught me more skills that later lead me to working with accountants and properly laying out their client’s financial statements. If anyone would have told me the path my career was going to take to me, I would have told them they were drunk because what they described was far from a straight line.

  5. Brett

    Career oriented volunteering has helped me tremendously with my professional reputation in ways that I could never have done inside my workplace alone.

    I went to lots of meetups and founded one. I founded a local branch of a non-profit group in my field. I did volunteer disaster response missions with my skill set. I volunteered to help organize conferences, teach workshops, and give presentations. You may not think you have the skills to do these things, but often no one steps up and you are certainly better than no conference/workshop/presentation at all! As an extra bonus, this often led to me getting free or discounted registrations for conferences, making it easier to go.
    For those worrying about doing so many extroverted activities… I am fairly introverted and really cannot handle the more social aspects of these events, but learned to handle presenting and organizing as an introvert. I was lucky to have a grad advisor who is one of the giants in our field despite being a strong introvert. She taught me by example. (Introduce yourself early and buy the first round of drinks. Excuse yourself without guilt when you are drained.)

  6. neverjaunty

    I recently got some actual, concrete advice about networking which I found way more helpful than the usual “you should network and meet people!”. You should try to make sure your network is open – meaning that you have people in your network who don’t know each other. If your entire network consists of people in your department or your favorite hobby, that is not going to help you develop professionally. You’re in an echo chamber in many ways – and certainly in terms of finding out about jobs or different opportunities. “You should network” really ought to be “you should start reaching out to people in different departments or fields that you think will help you grow, instead of hanging with the same people 100% of the time”.

    1. Chinook

      This exactly – knowing and interacting nicely with people from all sorts of backgrounds and career paths is probably the most effective way to grow opportunities. And you should never hesitate to help those who could use some guidance or a lead. Good networks are full of people who remember who helps and who hurts and their memories can be long. You should be selfish and take care of your own needs, of course, but you also shouldn’t hesitate to help someone else out even if you expect to gain nothing from it. The person you help climb to the rung above you might just be able to arrange for a rope to help you when you need it (or, better yet, have created enough grateful people on her way up that they have no problem reaching that rope out themselves).

  7. Stellaaaaa

    I read the comments before the article so I was surprised to see that I can tick off most if those boxes. I think the missing piece is that I’ve achieved those connections in my social life, not my professional one.

  8. Another HRPro

    I’m happy to say that I was able to check off all of the boxes. A few years ago, I wouldn’t have had similar results. It take some work to manage your career and not let your career just turn into a job. But it is well worth it. I look at as investing in myself.

  9. Clever Name

    I can’t state enough how helpful it is to have a mentor. It doesn’t have to be a formal arrangement or anything. I’ve had a couple people throughout the years whom I would call mentors, and none of them were part of anything structured. They are all people who are a decade or a few older than me who I’ve clicked with on a personal level and who also think highly of the work I do. I cultivate the relationship by chatting with them when they’re in the office (one is a coworker and another is an outside consultant) and I periodically invite them to lunch/cocktails to catch up. So if I decided I was looking to move on, I would go to each of them and pretty much say, “So I’m looking to move on from Teapots Inc. Do you know anyone I could call?” They are both very familiar with the work I do. For reference, I’m in my late 30s with about 10 years of industry experience.

    1. Chinook

      I think those mentors can also be in different fields but have skills that are transferrable. One of my best mentors, though I don’t think he realized it, was a partner in accounting firm who had me do his meeting minutes. I was in awe in how he ran any meeting and I learned so much from being in the room while he did it. At one point, I asked him for advice because I would have to do something similar in my volunteer life and he gave me some great tips that I try to pass on to others when appropriate (either as a past-president in a volunteer group or a minute take in a meeting ran by a new engineer-in-training)

  10. Anon4This

    My career has been a giant pile of suck for the past couple of years, but I wasn’t in a position to do much about it. Now I am, and that list gives me some specific ideas for goals. Thanks, Alison!

  11. ThisIsNotWhoYouThinkItIs

    Just want to say I had the auto-load pictures disabled and I love the text description of the main photo: “Portrait of a handsome young man working from home”. Ha!

    1. Saturnalia

      Haha yes! I read on my phone, so there’s usually a slight delay before the image loads. I was wondering what this “handsome” gent was going to look like… symmetrical, I guess? It was a moment to realize my tastes are NOT standard lol

  12. Brett

    A different way to think of #1, since a lot of people commented on not having this one covered:

    If you best buddy colleague was laid off tomorrow (either at your workplace or another one), how would you help them? Who would you contact to find out if there were hidden or upcoming openings? Who would you send their resume to if they asked for help circulating their resume?

    If you can answer those questions, particularly with people outside your current employer, then you have #1 far more covered than you think. If you cannot answer those questions, then put together a roadmap to get there. Think of the different hiring managers, mentors, regional influencers, recruiters, and vendors that you have interacted with and work to improve your relationship with them so they would consider referrals from you (and then you could feel more secure that you would be covered if that referral needed to be yourself).

  13. Lemon Zinger

    I’m 23 and shockingly, I meet ALL of these easily! I am so fortunate to be where I am now, at such an early age.

  14. NicoleK

    I’m humble, reserved, and I don’t like to be center of attention. I could use suggestions on how to highlight my accomplishments

    1. Clever Name

      Networking isn’t about highlighting one’s accomplishments. It’s about getting to know people in your industry. You don’t have to become personal friends exactly, but you do want to become a familiar face at meetings and events.

      1. Not So NewReader

        Yep. It’s more about getting to know other people than it is introducing yourself to them.
        People love to talk about themselves ask them questions about what they do. If you are walking up to strangers and saying “hi, my name is _________ and I am the best _______ ever.” Then you are doing it waaay wrong.

        Humbleness you can work on. Practice making statements of fact in front of the mirror. Get used to the sound of your own voice saying, “I am a ______, currently I am working on______.” You can practice with similar simple statements of fact. “Last year, I created a ____ and I also organized ______.”

        Reserved. That can be an asset because you probably don’t malign and back stab much. People probably see you as as a sincere, thinking person.

        Highlighting your accomplishments. You really don’t need to in this context. You could practice asking good questions.

        1. Chinook

          Humility is truly an undervalued skill to develop. Those with brains can see when someone is humble because that person is letting their actions speak for them and know that it is enough. When you work with someone who is humble and effective at what they do, they will become the go to girl because wiser people realize that they will focus on completely the work the right way and to the benefit of those who need it. A reserved person is the same way. The smart powers that be who are looking for doers know to look for the quiet ones and for their results.

          The only downside is that the not so humble or reserved ones do seem to get all the credit and rewards but, when they do fail, they go down so visibly that it is hard to miss. If you , a humble or reserved person makes an error, it is easier to move on from it because a)not everyone will have noticed it and b)you will have a body of work that it can be compared to and people can see it as an anomaly.

    2. Susan C.

      If I’m understanding correctly, you’re asking about #5 rather than #1? In that case, I share your predicament, but there’s two things I think work pretty well for me.

      One, position yourself as a expert on a specific topic – either by pursuing some pet project, or just owning it if it happens organically that a project forces you to dig particularly deep into something.

      Two, if you have trouble speaking up in meetings, pick someone at the table you’re comfortable with (ideally not sitting next to you though), and address them with your suggestion, rather than the table at large. (Once people get used to the sound of your voice, start working on branching out with the eye contact)

  15. Another Emily

    I’m not doing too badly except one thing: networking. I like people but I’m introverted so talking to other people in my industry, however enjoyable that would be, would require a huge amount of energy that I just don’t have. (I am a people-person introvert.) I’m also a bit socially awkward so frankly networking is my worst nightmare.
    I’ve worked at the same awesome job for 8 years and I have no desire to leave but if sure don’t have an answer for, “Who would you call about a job?”

  16. they mostly come at night... mostly

    No, no, no, no, no and no.

    I have no idea how to build a network, I hate my job but I have nowhere else to go, I could get things done if I had had a manager who actually trusted me to think, and who didn’t turn down all my ideas simply because it’s not exactly the way HE would do it, and I can’t even imagine what a mentor would do.

    Any suggestions on how to change this? Anybody?

      1. Chinook

        You truly need to build a life outside of work and see where that takes you. Look at your current job as a means to pay for you to live while you develop a network of people. It will take time because these networks require give and take, so you need to show that you can be trusted with any leads they give you.

        These networks can be found outside your profession, if you look for them. There is a reason that, not that long ago, many men belonged to groups like Elks Lodge or Masons or Royal Buffalos. It isn’t just for the secret handshake but the chance to talk as peers who are in different stages of their lives about life in general. And, during those conversations, opportunities may come up that could help “a brother” because they knew enough about him for him to a)succeed and b)not embarrass the person pointing him that direction.

        The modern equivalent is harder to find, but social meet-ups are one way to go. For myself, I was amazed at the opportunities that come my way via my Catholic Women’s group because we are interacting regularly with women in different industries and life stages who can show pathways that looked hidden from my perspective. These types of groups can also give you support in ways that you need when you are reorienting yourself after a job change -whether it be a shoulder to cry on, a project to distract you with or a reminder that losing a job does not mean you are loser in life.

    1. ChrysantheMumsTheWord

      Networking is all about relationship building…like another poster said above this doesn’t have to be limited to just those people in your department or industry.

      That said there may be chamber of commerce, volunteer or industry events that would help you open up your network locally – or start working on your LinkedIn networking to get your feet wet. Join active groups on LinkedIn and much like the AAM network here, you will find like minds that can provide you support and guidance. A mentor doesn’t have to work at your organization to be effective.

      I know in the moment it feels like you are stuck in your job but just keep your feelers open because you don’t want to miss your opportunity out because you stopped looking. I always find that if I develop a routine to look for a job everyday for 15 minutes, as opposed to once a week or once a month, the process goes faster and it’s much easier to spot the newer postings. Good luck!

  17. Bethlam

    Well, this was timely. I work for a manufacturing company and we were informed 5 weeks ago that our facility will be closing and operations moving to our manufacturing facilities in two other states. I love, love, love everything about my company and my job and never intended to job hunt again, especially at my age; I have not updated my resume since I started working here.

    However, as I face the daunting task of having to find new employment, I’m glad to see that I have all of my bases covered according to this list. I’ve kept copies of my annual reviews and kept track of accomplishments, so updating my resume shouldn’t be too painful. And, while I can’t imagine that I’ll find something that’s as perfect a fit for me as what I currently have, I’m feeling a little more hopeful after reading this (and discovering that I got my ducks in a row, even if I did it unknowingly and without expecting that I needed to) that I’ll be able to find something I can live with for the sunset years of my working life.

  18. Lady Julian

    @AAM and other professionals: I’m curious how you’d go about the “People seek out your input and take your opinions seriously” one. I’m a teacher at a 150-person faith-based college in the Midwest. I like my job, and while I’ve been told that I’ve contributed positively to the organization, I often feel as though my input doesn’t matter. The vibe I get is less that people are actively disinterested in my opinion than that I am a nonentity, someone that nobody thinks to consult. (For what it’s worth, this is who I am outside of work too; I’ve never been someone that my friends confide in, or seek advice from me.)

    What would you suggest I do to cultivate a persona that people are more likely to ask for advice?

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