Do you want to be a leader in your work? Have a remarkable career and an impressive and measurable positive impact on the world? Good. If you already hold those ambitions, you are well on your way. Here are some guiding principles to help you on your journey.
But first, let me tell you a story. During my second year after graduating from Yale, I was toiling away in the English as a Second Language mines of downtown Seoul, teaching groups of three-year-olds and a few adults, when I was plucked out of obscurity by the head of the legal department of a professional services firm where I had a few students. He had seen my resume, and he wanted me to manage training initiatives for the whole firm, then about 40 people. I was in the right place at the right time, and the opportunities that followed I owe primarily to the fact that my resume was in order and sitting on one of my student’s desks.
Before long, the professional services firm merged with KPMG, and I had taken a role as an analyst in financial services. I was excited about the job at first, but I soon found that it didn’t allow me to engage with people in a meaningful way. Suddenly, I was languishing because I wasn’t passionate about my work. This was when I created an opportunity for myself. I decided to ask my boss to put me in charge of strategic HR initiatives for the whole firm – now nearly 800 people. I put together a PowerPoint presentation detailing my relevant experiences, accomplishments, and ideas. I asked for more money. My boss agreed. That’s how a job cajoling a classroom full of toddlers into learning English ultimately led to a career influencing high-level executives to think differently about the way they manage their personnel and human capital.
- Learn How to Talk about Yourself
This story demonstrates all four principles you will need on your journey. The first is storytelling. You’ve heard the Zen koan: “If a tree falls in the forest, and there is no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?” Apply this riddle to your career. If you did an amazing job designing a spreadsheet, conducted a slew of really effective and valuable customer interviews, or spent extra time learning a new technology to inform your team’s recommendations, great! Hard work is critical to success. But, if no one knows that you did those things, how can you be sure they will help advance your career?
Storytelling is the key to promoting your accomplishments without bragging. Stories hinge on conflict and redemption. The character struggles against obstacles but emerges triumphant. If you earnestly share the dark moments and the challenges in your experience, then the listener will celebrate your success with you, and you can tout even Herculean feats without seeming arrogant.
You don’t need to memorize an elevator pitch, and you don’t need to belabor the same story over and over again in front of a camera. Storytelling is an art form, and like any art form, it cannot be mastered without exploration, practice, and a little dedication. You don’t expect to earn a black belt your first day of Tae Kwon Do. But with practice, you will eventually be able to share your experiences – good and bad, big and small, successful and unsuccessful – spontaneously, publicly, with friends, colleagues, superiors, and subordinates, at networking events, in job interviews, in stressful and conflicted performance reviews, and in just about any professional context where the opportunity arises.
And best of all, these conversations will be fun for you. The easiest thing about teaching three-year-olds is that they love to talk about themselves! They have fun doing it. Social and cultural norms force us to suppress some of that natural enthusiasm. If you want to get it back, learn how to tell stories about yourself.
Try it out now: If you were to tell a story about your career to date, even if it only includes your childhood worm farm, a retail job, a couple of internships, and an accounting class, how would you tell it?
- Elevate Your Self-Awareness
To inform your stories, you will need to look closer at your experiences. You won’t be able to tell a meaningful story if you don’t remember the details of the conflict. But self-awareness matters far beyond merely providing fodder for your self-promotion stories. It will be the basis of every decision you make, every priority you choose, and every relationship you build.
Self-awareness entails asking yourself the hard questions and being really honest in answering them.
- Where did I fall short of expectations; where have I failed?
- What are my authentic strengths and weaknesses?
- What do I need to learn to get where I want to go?
- What really drives and motivates me?
- What am I genuinely passionate about and what am I doing because someone else expects it of me?
- What impact truly matters to me?
If your career is a ship adrift in a vast ocean, self-awareness constitutes the rudder. At MBA Career Coaches, we do a lot of work with people reflecting on their experiences and values, so that they can make choices – both big and small – that reflect those values.