With formal qualifications in place and many career opportunities ahead, young professionals have every reason to be optimistic about the future and keen to realise their ambitions.
For some, the way ahead can be quite clear – a defined route from graduate status through the various stages of becoming a credentialed member of their profession, often taking in further tertiary studies along the way. Other professionals begin their career with particular aims and later change focus when they discover a stronger pull in a different direction. And these days, it’s increasingly common for professionals to progressively qualify in multiple fields in order to realise their ultimate career ambitions; medicine and the law, engineering and business management or IT and marketing are just examples.
Being ambitious can be a strong driving force especially in the early stages of your career. Prospective employers are often drawn to young professionals who are clear about what they want to achieve in their careers and willing to channel their energy in ways that also benefit their employer.
But however much you have of it, ambition alone rarely leads to a successful, satisfying career. Young professionals should make sure that their ambition is accompanied by:
1. reliable sources of honest feedback;
2. supportive mentoring;
3. professionalism; and
4. an organised approach to managing your career.
1. The value of feedback
The potential for you to realise your career ambitions is, at least in part, dependent on how you are perceived by others and on the quality of your work. However satisfied you are personally with what you’re doing and how you go about it, it’s important to also gauge others’ perceptions of what you deliver and your working style and, if warranted, adjust your approach.
Your manager is one important source of feedback about how you are going, where you might need to change your approach and any areas that need improvement. If your manager is adept at managing your performance you can consider yourself fortunate – many are not. Be ready to take the lead by soliciting feedback rather than waiting for it to come to you. There are tips on how to go about this in the article Managing Upwards. And above all remember that you don’t need to agree with your manager to make wise choices about your response to their views!
Feedback from others around you at work is another important source of assistance to develop your career and it can be indirect. For example, an IT specialist found that he was increasingly canvassed for input to solving tricky problems. It became clear that colleagues were turning to him for leadership and willingly acted on his guidance. This observation and his awareness that he derived satisfaction from taking the lead helped inspire him to actively seek progression to project leadership – a long-standing ambition.
2. The role of mentoring
A mentor is someone more experienced than you in the same or another relevant field, who provides practical advice and guidance appropriate to your needs and aspirations. Being mentored can be a great source of support to translate your ultimate ambition into the practical steps you can take to get there.
For example, a newly-qualified engineer was highly capable from a technical perspective but feedback from her manager had made clear that a concerning impediment to career advancement was her preference to work alone rather than as a member of team. A skilled mentor, external to her employer organisation helped her realise that she did not need a personality change in order to be a more effective team member – it was just a case of breaking some longstanding habits including tempering her perfectionist streak.
3. Professionalism and ambition
Knowledge, skills and accumulating relevant experience are all important contributors to becoming a true professional. But professionalism also includes standards of behaviour. There is no surer way to trample on your ambitions than if you fail to adhere to the written and unwritten rules of your chosen profession.
Doing what you say you will do, treating others with respect and producing high-quality work are markers of true professionalism in most fields. Keen observation of the behavioural norms of your profession in general and the particular behaviours of others in your workplace can help you avoid any career damaging pitfalls. It helps to take cues from more experienced professionals who have achieved career success in areas that mirror your aspirations in some way/s.
For example, a recently graduated medical scientist felt fortunate to have secured the mentorship of someone whose reputation in the field he greatly admired. The more experienced colleague was renowned internationally for his research outcomes. He was widely-published and much sought after as a speaker. The graduate mentee’s ambition was to achieve similar status and made a point of learning about his mentor’s approach not only to his work but also to his interactions with colleagues. In particular he noticed the extent to which his mentor acknowledged others’ efforts including their published work and paid keen attention to what they had to say. It was also clear that the mentor’s ambitions were focused on the value of the scientific breakthroughs he had led and the significance of others’ contributions.
4. Ambition and career development
Ambition can be a great thing – it’s a strong personal motivator and it can get you noticed when employers are making their selections from a field of well qualified candidates. But it can also bring you unstuck in the workplace if you don’t also have a plan for developing your career in ways that balance personal ambition with benefits to your employer(s). Know that, unless your ambition is akin to that of scientist in the preceding section of this article, in isolation your personal ambition may be of relatively minor significance to your employer once you are on board. Managers, HR departments, customers and others who judge your performance, whether formally or informally at work are primarily interested in the value of what you do.
The ambition related challenge for young professionals is to keep your ambition alive and well, at the same time finding ways to realise your employer’s expectations. It helps to be clear about how what you are doing now is helping you progress towards your career goals. The following will help you do this:
v Be clear about what is expected of you in your current role at work and how your performance is assessed. A ‘position description’ for your role is an essential starting point and a conversation with your manager can be helpful for resolving any uncertainties.
v Obtain regular feedback about your performance (see section 1 of this article) and, when appropriate act on it.
v Manage your work relationships, be aware of your role in relation to others and don’t let your ambition mean you unintentionally step on others’ toes.
v Have a career plan and review/adjust it regularly.
v Write down what it is you are ambitious about and make this part of your career plan.
v Consider how what you are doing now is helping progress towards your ambitions. And be patient – in some professions the ‘apprenticeship’ is a long arduous journey.
v Question your ambition from time to time. Does it still make sense?
v Be ready to change direction if it makes sense to do so. There are times when a ‘sideways’ move can be far more satisfying than continuing to climb a ladder that is no longer appealing.
Looking for more ideas?
For members with an interest in extending their reading about the topics covered in this article the following articles are available on the Professionals Australia website:
About the Author
Dr Janet Fitzell is an independent organisational consultant and facilitator, specialising in organisational, leadership and management development through her company FourLeaf Consulting Pty Ltd (http://www.fourleaf.com.au/).