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How to Advance Your Career, According to an L&D Leader

  • 7 MIN READ

Career advancement means something different and happens differently to everyone. Here are five steps you can take today to advance yours.

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Sometimes career advancement is a straight line drawn with a ruler. More often, it’s a toddler-drawn picture of a squiggly mess of spaghetti.

Career advancement means something different and happens differently to everyone. There’s no right or wrong way to do it.

In this article, we’ll go over some of the steps you can take to bring your career to the next level. Here are some of the key takeaways:

  • Understand where you want to go by doing a thorough self-reflection before anything else.
  • Know that career advancement takes many shapes. Ask yourself, “What does it mean to me?”
  • Keep your goals short term and measurable. Leave your five-year plan at home.
  • Investigate which professional development opportunities will help you achieve those goals.
  • Ask others to help hold you to those goals, improving the odds that you’ll follow through.
  • Reassess after you’ve achieved your goals before you embark on the next ones. This journey is cyclical.

Complete a Self-Reflection

You don’t leave for a road trip before you have a rough idea of where you’re headed. Even the most spontaneous trips have the next step in mind. The same goes for career advancement.

“Self-reflection is a critical first step for anyone who’s looking to make a move,” says Rosanne Holmes, learning and development (L&D) manager at D2L. She recommends asking yourself questions like:

  • What are my strengths? My weaknesses?
  • What do I enjoy about my current role or past roles? What do I—or did I—dislike?
  • What do I want to try?
  • How do I want to be challenged?
  • What excites me?
  • What are my must-haves?

Mapping out these answers will help you take a meaningful step on your career advancement journey.

In the self-reflection stage, it’s also important to think about what the possibilities are by looking externally.

Think about someone whose career you admire. It could be a coworker, a connection on LinkedIn, an online personality. What has their career path looked like? What skills did they acquire along the way? You could reach out to them and ask about the steps they took to get where they are or invite them for a coffee to pick their brain.

Remember: This part of the process is for inspiration and possibilities, not comparison. Your role model’s circumstances and career journey won’t be identical to yours—and that’s okay. You can still keep an eye out for tangible steps they took to advance and try to replicate those steps in a way that makes sense for you.

The more you put into this stage of your career advancement, the more you’ll get out of it, so be thorough.

Define What Career Advancement Means for You

Once you’ve taken some time to reflect and consider where you are, it’s time to think about how you want to advance. As we said earlier, career advancement looks different for everybody.

People leadership isn’t the only way to move ahead in your career. In fact, if you’ve identified that your least favorite part of your current job is the number of meetings, maybe that kind of management role isn’t how you should plan to advance.

“Not everybody wants to be a people leader,” says Holmes. “And there aren’t enough of those roles for everyone, even if they did. While we usually think about it vertically, a lot of growth actually happens horizontally.”

So consider these different ways to advance your career:

  • promotions, where you get a new role and different or more responsibility
  • cross-functional development, where you learn skills that might typically be attributed to another role
  • breadth of skill, where you widen your skill base to help you in your current role
  • stretch goals, which give you the opportunity to push yourself to achieve something beyond your day-to-day responsibilities
  • becoming a subject matter expert, where you’re a leader of knowledge rather than of people

The steps you take for each of these advancement options may look different. Understanding what you realistically want for your career’s next step is important before you start planning.

Set Realistic Goals

Armed with your skill set, your likes and dislikes, and an idea of how you want to advance, you can start setting goals. Again, leave the five-year plan idea at the door.

“Looking at your plan with immediacy versus the ‘five years down the road’ idea is really important,” says Holmes. “Think about how much your life has changed in the past five years. How can you expect to achieve goals you set five years ago if your life looks completely different?”

Life circumstances change. The goals you set for five years from now may not account for new circumstances like changes in where you live, marital status, parenthood or a new pet.

To stick to your plan, keep the timelines short and the goals themselves measurable. If your goal is to “use my new Excel skills,” it’s difficult to define success. But if your goal is, “I want to audit and improve my existing spreadsheets using the skills I’ve learned,” you can more decisively determine when you’ve achieved it.

Pursue Professional Development Opportunities

Depending on the goals you’ve set, professional development (PD) can be a very powerful tool in advancing your career.

“PD is only a piece of the puzzle, but it’s an important one. Think about learning to drive: the driver’s ed manual and the driver’s training course are small parts of the equation, but they matter a lot,” says Holmes.

Professional development can help you gain new skills, feel more confident and comfortable in your role, and enable you to take on projects that excite you.

Not sure how professional development can actually help you move forward in your career? Explore some example pathways that show what skills you could use to advance in your career.

Look for Chances to Apply Your Skills

Going back to the driving analogy, think about where most of your learning comes from: practice. The textbook and driver’s training set you up with the foundation you need to start. Then you built on those skills with lots of time spent actually driving.

The same goes for career advancement. Professional development is only effective when you can find ways to apply the skills. Otherwise, the information doesn’t stick.

How can you put learning to work in your day-to-day role? Maybe the circumstances don’t even exist yet. That means you have the chance to flex your creativity and make an opportunity for yourself. If you’re taking a course on using inclusive language, for example, why not ask your supervisor if you can present some of your findings in a team meeting?

Be Accountable

Once you’ve found an opportunity to apply your skills, tell people about them. It’s easy for everyday duties to take over and get in the way of us applying our new learnings.

“If you’re taking something like an active listening course, you can say, ‘I’m going to practice these active listening skills in my weekly team meetings,’” Holmes says.

Trying to hold yourself accountable is one thing. Having other people hold you accountable is another. It can help to have an accountability buddy “to poke us from time to time,” Holmes suggests.

You can also talk to your supervisor about what you’d like to accomplish, and they can help keep you on track. Consider adding a specific touchpoint in your calendar or building it into your quarterly reviews.

Reassess Often

As you start the process, recognize that it’s not a clear-cut journey and destination. It will, and should, continue to varying degrees throughout your whole career. That’s why it’s important to continually reassess as you progress.

“Ask yourself, ‘Am I still in the same place I was the last time I did a self-assessment? Is this still what interests me?’ These things can change over time,” Holmes says. “It’s a constant, circular process and a continuous cycle.”

Even if you’re not making changes, an assessment is important to ensure you’re still heading in the right direction, she says.

Take on Professional Development With Confidence

Taking on professional development can be an intimidating process if you’ve been out of school for a while. Check out the ultimate checklist for going back to school as an adult.