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  • Kathleen Phelps

Leading Your Own Career Part I: Understand the Marketplace and Cross-Pollinate

Excerpt from my session at the Most Powerful Women in Healthcare IT Conference, May 12, 2016 in Boston.

My post-college career began in the late 80’s. I was a first generation college student and my well-meaning parents thought that as long as I had a degree, my career would take care of itself.

Upon graduation, I accepted the first job I was offered and began work at a financial services company. My confidence was bolstered as I discovered that I was able to learn what was needed relatively quickly, and won awards for quality and productivity on my team. Unfortunately, I was bored. There seemed to be only one path forward, and I didn’t think it would get any more interesting. After a little over a year, I decided to find something new.

I landed at a international temporary employment firm, where I interviewed and placed temps, did business development, and eventually managed several profit centers. My climb up the ladder was relatively quick, but again I was looking for more.

This time I left for graduate school to study something that actually interested me. I earned a degree in Community Social Psychology, and began to take control of my own career for the first time. Many roles, companies, and affiliations later, I couldn’t be more satisfied and fulfilled by my career now. And it could not have been conceived or created by anyone other than me. At the executive level, there is no road map for career development.

That’s just not how it works. Perhaps earlier in your career, your professional journey followed a similar path to mine. Individual contributor, to team leader or supervisor. Later manager, and then director. It may have been a relatively linear progression.

As you ascend the ladder as an executive, career development looks different.

Though there may be some title changes along the way, people begin to not only move up, but to move sideways, and apply their talents to different functions—sometimes in different industries.

The way to proactively manage your professional and career development at the executive level is by focusing on three things:

  1. Understanding the marketplace

  2. Building relationships

  3. Intentionally growing and evolving

For this post, let’s look at how you can Understand the Marketplace:

  1. Attend conferences or other professional forums where you can cross-pollinate your thinking. This is valuable for both you and your firm. Prioritize this on your calendar, build in some time for reflection and follow up after the event, and share what you take away from the experience with your colleagues, both inside and outside of your organization.

  2. Determine what publications or information sources are relevant for you now. Take stock of what routinely comes into your inbox and eliminate those things that don’t add the value they used to. Investigate new media sources that didn’t exist a couple of years ago.

  3. Build in time to understand the latest developments in other parts of your organization, your industry, and the marketplace as a whole. Professional growth as an executive requires some attention to all three. How are you staying current and relevant?

An IT client of mine realized recently that she had been so “heads down” and “fighting the fires” that her direct reports should have been fighting, that she’d lost sight of the bigger picture. Her skill set and expertise enabled her to fight fires better than just about anybody—but to grow as a leader and to elevate her contribution, required her to move beyond her comfort zone.

She decided to interview other people in her organization that she respected about how they stayed current. She created a forum for other functional leaders to connect on common dependencies so they could learn from one another how best to handle like challenges. She also found people outside her organization in similar roles and is reaching out to see how they might share best practices.

You may be thinking that this sounds like a lot of work. It does take time, but it does pay dividends. I’d advocate for small steps in the right direction—consistency over quantity.

For my client, letting her staff handle some of the things she was better at was hard at first, but it is working. They are stepping up, and she is able to contribute at a much more strategic level (cliché as this sounds).

The proof is in how she is now being perceived. She has become sought after for her opinions and insights—beyond her functional area.

More importantly, she is energized by all she is learning, and by the new ways she is able to contribute. Understanding the marketplace and cross pollination fuel both personal and professional evolution.

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