How Limited Visiblity Is Hurting Your Career

In tough economic times, such as we’ve faced in recent years, it can be tempting to keep your head down and just focus on doing a good job. I can remember the paranoia that permeated the air whenever layoffs loomed. Everyone retreated to their desks, hoping not to draw any negative attention to themselves. They seemed to believe that if they were invisible, nobody could touch them.

Even in good times, many professionals keep a low profile. They perform their jobs well, but lack visibility. Some are more introverted by nature, choosing to shy away from too much exposure. Others would love greater visibility, but they don’t know how to find it.

In good times or bad, flying under the radar can be harmful to your career. You may be an exceptional performer with unlimited potential, but if others don’t recognize the contributions you are making, your value to the organization is greatly diminished. This is particularly dangerous in tough times, as perceived value is a major factor in determining who keeps their jobs. If you want to advance in your career, influential leaders, in particular, need to understand your role and its significance.

If you’re ready to stop flying under the radar and get recognized for the value you bring to your organization, here are just a few suggestions:

1. Speak up. You, undoubtedly, have ideas and opinions that would enrich discussions and potentially influence your team’s direction. Rather than sit quietly in the corner, share your ideas with others. You can do this in meetings, one on one discussions with your manager, or even in casual lunch or hallway conversations.

2. Get involved. Find opportunities to participate in a cross-functional team. Your manager is likely bogged down with meetings and would love the opportunity to have you represent the group on a particular project team. Also, many organizations have employee affinity groups. These are great opportunities to meet professionals across the company that you otherwise never would have encountered.

3. Raise your hand. If you’re a consistently high performer, you’re probably ready for new challenges. Ask for more responsibility. This is a great way to increase your visibility, as well as demonstrate leadership.

Keeping a low profile can feel much safer than putting yourself out there. You don’t have to worry about public failure, others’ judgments, conflict, etc. But if you want to take your career to the next level, you must become more visible. Start by taking a few small steps. With each step, you’ll gain the confidence to continue to fly higher and higher.

Are you flying under the radar? What steps will you take to increase your visibility?

A Powerful Secret to Career Success

A Powerful Secret to Career SuccessAfter many years, I finally had an opportunity to read Carly Fiorina’s (former Chairman & CEO of Hewlett-Packard) book, Tough Choices. One of the things that really resonated with me was her approach to each new role, initiative, or challenge that she encountered. Before rolling up her sleeves and diving in, she took the time to ask lots of questions. She made an effort to understand as much as she could from as many people as possible. By asking questions, she realized that she earned people’s respect, as they appreciated her interest and enjoyed the opportunity to talk about themselves. She also learned a lot very quickly.

Asking questions is an incredibly powerful, and highly underutilized, career strategy. Think back to the last time you sat in a meeting, listening while others discussed something you didn’t fully understand. Did you jump in with a question, or did you sit back, observe, and hope it would become clearer to you as the discussion progressed? If you’re like most people, you opted not to ask a question. Perhaps you worried that others would judge you for not knowing what everyone else seemed to know. Or, you were concerned about taking the discussion off-track.

Here’s another common scenario. Reflect back on the last time your manager asked you to take on a new project, or commit to a new goal, but you weren’t entirely clear on his/her expectations. Did you ask follow up questions, or did you assume you would figure it out as you went along? Many people are afraid that by asking too many questions, their managers will think they’re incompetent. The opposite is actually true. Asking questions reinforces your commitment to getting the job done right.

Each time you fail to ask a question, you miss a very important opportunity. Here are just some of the benefits of asking questions:

1. Acquire valuable information. This is the most obvious benefit of asking questions. If something isn’t clear, or you want a deeper understanding, asking questions will expand your knowledge and increase your understanding. The better you understand something, the more confidently you can speak about it, and the more effectively you can do your job.

2. Be more productive. Without asking questions, you are bound to make inaccurate assumptions that result in wasted time and energy. Rather than speculate about the right approach to take, only to have to repeat the task when it’s not done correctly, ask clarifying questions. The more clearly you understand the objectives and expectations, the more effectively and efficiently you will perform your job.

3. Increase your visibility. Many executives spend much of their time in meetings. It certainly feels unproductive at times, but it’s a great way to increase your visibility. By asking questions, people begin to notice you. You differentiate yourself as someone who is engaged in the discussion, interested in making a contribution, and capable of formulating thoughtful questions. People remember the people who add value.

4. Demonstrate your leadership potential. It’s human nature to fear being judged or looking foolish. Let’s face it, there is certainly an element of vulnerability when you ask a question. It also brings great opportunity, however. When you ask a question, you take a leadership role. As conventional wisdom tells us, if you have a question, others likely have the same question. By asking your question, you’ve put yourself out there and benefited others at the same time. Everyone else who was afraid to ask that same question will appreciate that you stepped forward.

5. Build relationships. If there is something you don’t understand, or would like to learn more about, treat a subject matter expert to coffee and pick his/her brain. This is a great way to meet people in different functional groups and build valuable relationships. People love to talk about themselves and what they do! They’ll appreciate the opportunity and you’ll get some really useful information.

If asking questions is not your natural style, it can feel uncomfortable to put yourself out there. Find an opportunity to take a small step outside your comfort zone. If you’re not ready to raise your hand at your company’s next town hall meeting, try asking a question in smaller group meetings. Each time you do this, you will feel more comfortable. And you’ll become more confident, particularly as you begin to reap the benefits of this very powerful practice.

How do you feel about asking questions? Do you find it empowering, or does it make you feel vulnerable?

Has Your Career Reached a Plateau? Here’s Why!

How do others in your organization perceive you? This is a challenging question to answer, as most of us don’t engage in these types of conversations. It’s an important question, however. How others, particularly key leaders, perceive you directly influences the level you will reach in your organization.

Most professionals tend to focus their efforts on performance. Not only is it easier to observe and measure, it’s also where most feedback is directed. Performance reviews, one on one meetings, etc. tend to focus on the work itself – the outcomes. Actual performance is just one piece of the puzzle, however.

How many times have you seen a stellar performer passed over for a promotion in favor of a seemingly less qualified candidate? Perhaps you’ve actually been this stellar performer at one time or another. If so, you probably felt confused, frustrated, or resentful. More often than not, that decision was made because the decision makers perceived the other candidate more favorably, despite the disparities in performance.

This tends to happen more often at higher levels of the organization, which is why many mid-level professionals are left scratching their heads. At the lower levels, advancement decisions are more often based on performance, so high performers shine pretty quickly. At higher levels of the organization, however, decisions tend to more heavily reflect less tangible qualities, such as influence, communication style, and leadership potential.

Here is a fairly common scenario: Jim, a mid-level professional, was promoted very quickly in the early stages of his career because he proved himself to be a highly competent employee. He is a subject-matter expert and a consistently high performer. As he rose through the ranks, however, Jim reached a plateau and just can’t seem to advance beyond this level. His performance reviews are generally positive, but he continues to be overlooked for new opportunities.

Jim is a strong performer, but he doesn’t have a great reputation in the organization. He hasn’t taken the time to build strong relationships with influential people, so key decision makers don’t know him very well. Additionally, his style is a bit abrasive, which tends to rub people the wrong way. Jim excels at meeting deadlines, but to do so, he tends to keep his head down. His team perceives him as cold and difficult to engage.

Unfortunately, this feedback has never been presented to Jim. The only feedback he’s ever received has been with regard to his performance, which has always been strong. He is now frustrated by his inability to advance, and entirely unaware of the areas he needs to address.

If you’ve reached a plateau, or you’re committed to ensuring you don’t, take the time to learn how others perceive you. This can be challenging, but here are several approaches you can take:

1. Pay attention to how others respond to you. When you speak, do others appear energized and attentive? Or do they seem to tune out, roll their eyes, or show other signs of disapproval? Do others seek you out? Do they seem to view you as a leader? Do people seem to like and respect you? These cues should provide some clues about how others feel about you.

2. Request feedback from people you trust. Ask trusted colleagues how they and others perceive you. Let them know you’re working on making some changes and are genuinely interested in their feedback. When they do provide feedback, be sure to accept it without becoming defensive.

3. Engage in a 360 degree review. You may need to consult with your manager or HR organization to conduct this formal review. This is an excellent way to obtain candid feedback from people at different levels of the organization (i.e. your manager, second level manager, peers, etc.). You choose the respondents, so be sure to select people who will provide useful feedback.

Managing how others perceive you is as important to your career success as maintaining a high-level of performance. As early as possible in your career, make an effort to determine what attributes your organization values and how consistent these are with your style. If you are committed to advancing in your organization: a) decide how you want to be perceived and focus on achieving this perception, b) periodically use informal or formal measures to gauge these perceptions, c) incorporate any changes you’d like to make into your professional development plan, and d) find one or more influential mentors that can help you.

What steps have you taken to manage how others perceive you? Has this been a focus of your own career management strategy?

Top 5 Reasons to Network While You’re Successfully Employed

Top 5 Reasons to Network While You're Successfully EmployedIf you’re like most executives, when you hear the term networking, you associate it with job seeking. Virtually everyone knows the benefits of networking when looking for a new job, but few people make a concerted effort to cultivate and nurture their networks when they’re successfully employed. For many, it’s a time issue. They’d love to spend more time networking, but their plates are already full. Others simply don’t see the value. They’re already doing well in their jobs. Why worry about networking?

Here are 5 important reasons to invest in your network while you’re successfully employed:

1. Get more done in less time. Few, if any, jobs are standalone. Most are interconnected, requiring some degree of collaboration with others. Investing in relationships with the people you depend upon not only makes work more enjoyable, but it increases your ability to get things done. If you need the cooperation of others to achieve your goals, you’re at the mercy of those people to successfully perform your job. Without a relationship, you’ll need to hope they make your needs a priority among their other responsibilities. When you build trusted relationships with key decision makers across the organization, you can make requests, or ask for favors, and know that they will rise to the top of the priority list.

2. Uncover new career opportunities you never imagined. Networking increases your visibility across an organization and exposes you to career options that you may never have considered. Whenever possible, get involved in a cross-functional project and get to know the people on your team. I’ve done this throughout my career and, more than once, I found entirely unexpected job opportunities, which greatly advanced my career. If you’re uncertain about your executive career path and would like to explore new career options, networking outside of your own functional group is a particularly powerful way to broaden your horizons.

3. Gain new insights and perspectives. When you’ve worked in a particular executive role for a while, or you’ve worked with the same people for a long time, it’s easy to develop a limited “world view.” By engaging with executives from other backgrounds, organizations, and skill sets, you gain exposure to new ways of thinking, which can be helpful in tackling new challenges, solving new problems, and developing new strategies. Doing the same work for a while can get stale, but networking with others can get those creative juices flowing again.

4. Get the inside track. The more connected you are to others, the more “behind the scenes” information you’ll be able to access. A critical career success factor is the ability to adapt to change. If you can anticipate changes, you’ll have a distinct advantage over others. One great way to anticipate change is to have your finger on the pulse of your organization and industry. If you have strong relationships with influential people, you may have access to confidential information about upcoming organizational shifts, strategic acquisitions, leadership transitions, etc., which can help you strategically prepare in advance for key changes.

5. Find a new job. We continue to live in an unstable economy where many fall victim to downsizing. Even if you’re confident in your job security, it’s always helpful to have a strong network you can tap in the event of a sudden job loss. Waiting until you need a job to engage in networking can be uncomfortable. It’s awkward to approach someone with whom you haven’t spoken in years to ask for help. And while most people are willing to help, they may not know you well enough to offer valuable support. Taking the time to build strong relationships with people before you need them, and making the effort to help others before you need help, will result in far greater returns if you ever find yourself in the unfortunate position of having to find a new job.

Networking is certainly a time commitment. In an economy where everyone is forced to do more with less, it can feel impossible to find the time to network. The reality is, however, that you actually gain time when you network. By networking, you build a virtual team of allies that can help you do far more, in far less time, than you could ever do on your own. You also make a powerful investment in your own career, increasing your visibility and strategically positioning yourself for your next step.

Do you make the time to cultivate your network? What other benefits have you experienced as a result?

3 Steps to Expand Your Comfort Zone & Achieve Greater Career Success

3 Steps to Expand Your Comfort Zone & Achieve Greater Career SuccessI was recently invited to speak on the topic of fear of change. This is an issue that, unfortunately, is all too real to most of us. One of the most powerful forces keeping us from making changes, even when we know the chances of success are high, is the comfort zone. This pesky state of familiarity and predictability is difficult to escape because unless we’re entirely miserable, which is rarely the case, the fear of the unknown outweighs the pain of the present situation.

One of the challenges is that we tend to think in all or nothing terms. We imagine making a major life transition and assume that that change needs to take place immediately and completely. This, naturally, results in a state of panic where we cling to the highlights of the current situation and convince ourselves that it’s just too scary to let go. Much of this is a function of perspective. While you can envision a change, you can’t actually experience it and all of its benefits until you make the transition. So as you begin to evaluate the effects of making the change, the variables that are most salient are the ones you can feel today, namely the loss or the sacrifice you’ll make for this still fuzzy, intangible future. You’re, therefore, really looking at only one side of the equation. If you could transport yourself to the new reality, try it out for awhile, and then make a decision, your life would likely look much different than it does today.

So, what if you actually could “test drive” that new reality before making a change? There are steps you can take to get a better idea of how the change you’re considering will affect your life.

1. Talk to people. If you’re considering a career change, but you’re not sure how it will affect your lifestyle, budget, career path, etc., find people who are doing something similar and ask them for more information. Be candid about your concerns and ask them for honest input on how they’ve managed the particular areas that are causing you to worry. There is no greater resource for insights, advice, and information on making a change than someone who is living the change you wish to make.

2. Do your homework. You may need to do some research to determine whether or not a change is feasible at this point in your life. For example, if you’re thinking about transitioning to a new career that pays only half of your current salary, you need to understand the implications of that change. Do you have a good understanding of your current financial situation – your budget, your savings, the amount of money you need to operate your household? Without a clear financial picture, you can’t possibly know if you can afford to make this change. Once you have this information, you can decide if you need to cut expenses, find supplemental income sources, etc.

3. Try it first. Many people have visions of a dream job they would love to have, but they’ve never done it before. They may have no idea if the job would: 1) bring the fulfillment and satisfaction they imagine, 2) be a viable career opportunity, or 3) maximize their skills and abilities. The best way to find out is to find a small, low-risk way to explore the possibility. For example, if you’ve always fantasized about having a career in writing, write something on the side. Submit articles to magazines, start a blog, perhaps consider self-publishing an ebook. If you’ve always thought it might be fun to own your own bakery, seek a part-time job at a local shop. Or, if you’ve wondered whether a transition to marketing would be more rewarding, take a course at a local community college, or take on a volunteer marketing role at a local non-profit.

Fear serves a very powerful purpose in our lives – to protect us from danger. Unfortunately, those instincts that evolved to keep us from harm have also served to hold us back from taking risks that can substantially improve our lives. We will never “overcome” fear, but we can learn to manage it. Taking the steps outlined above can help you ease the anxiety and incrementally expand your comfort zone so that you can make important changes with greater confidence.

How do you manage your fear of change? Please share your strategies for confronting the power of the comfort zone.