Most great careers rarely follow a straight line. Ask anyone who started a business or worked their way to the top of an organization and you’ll probably find that it was a long and winding process. Often it’s through turmoil and disruption that new leaders arise and existing leaders wane. Sometimes the organizational tree you are climbing gets chainsawed out from under you because of external forces, and you find yourself back on the ground looking around for a new sapling to scale. You soon realize that it’s not about the climbing at all, it’s about growth, and getting involved with the right group of people who can figure out how to grow together.
Or maybe the tree you are in is stable, but you figure out how to grow an entirely new branch that nobody thought was possible. Soon, new jobs are created where none existed. It’s these non-standard opportunities that often provide the best career growth because instead of fighting your way up the typical career climb, you find yourself on a new branch generating new revenue streams. Everyone loves new revenue streams.
What I’m really talking about is growing your career on multiple dimensions. In doing so, you may put yourself in the best possible position to eventually follow a typical career progression because most great companies like to have well rounded leaders. With that in mind, here are some different ways to grow your career:
The expert—No matter what business you’re in, it always helps your career to be the expert. Often people can grow their influence, income, and value in an organization simply by becoming the go to expert on a specific topic that is critical to the organization. I’ve seen this done to great effect many times and watched people move up in an organization without actually moving up through the levels. They get invited to more meetings, they constantly get asked for their opinion, and they are often relied upon when times get tough because they are critical to some specific function or area of the company. It can be as simple as being the expert in the business software your company uses, or a technical facet of your product or service offering. You need to have a focus on continuous learning with the ability to dive deep into any topic. Becoming an expert in a specific area or multiple areas can be a highly rewarding career in and of itself, but it also lays a solid foundation for future expansion of your career into leadership or other roles.
Renaissance person—Careers don’t have to follow a straight line. Lateral moves can expand your knowledge of the business and prepare you for future career opportunities. A great example is spending time in an operational role and then making the switch into a sales role or starting in a supporting function and then moving to a market facing role. The best way to make a lateral move is to look for opportunities to fill gaps in the organization while rounding out your skills and knowledge. If it’s done the right way, a lateral move can be a vital part of your rounding out process. Spending some time in different functions or areas of the company with a focus on moving the company forward can help you become more well rounded, expand your perspective and knowledge, and prepare you for future leadership roles in the company.
Internal entrepreneur—Great companies have a continual growth mindset. Most large organizations have multiple business units that evolved from related businesses that already existed. Taking on the role of internal entrepreneur means you are opportunistic and willing to take career risks to start up new areas within an existing organization. This can be fraught with peril, but can also end up being the future growth area of the company. Instead of climbing the existing structure, you end up building a new structure below you. This type of activity, if it’s successful, will often end up impacting the organizational structure and opening up brand new career opportunities where none existed before. Being entrepreneurial within the structure and stability of a larger company can be a great career for certain people and can also fuel overall company growth.
Organizational leader—Most companies do have the traditional leadership levels: manager, director, VP, etc. which are necessary in a well run company. Many people follow one of the previous career growth paths first and eventually find themselves as a typical organizational leader within a company. However, taking that winding path helps them have a broader perspective on their traditional leadership role. They realize that being an organizational leader is more about facilitating communication and consensus, driving the organization towards making good decisions, working with and developing teams and individuals, maintaining the culture, and driving growth and profitability. Some of the best people in leadership roles are well rounded with varied and interesting backstories.
Career growth is an interesting thing. Often when it looks least like you are getting ahead is when you are gaining the type of experience that will enable you to be very successful in the future. So don’t worry if your path isn’t always straight up the tree. Look to grow your career in multiple dimensions, and you’ll probably end up in a different and better place than you ever imagined.
Aaron Cargas (email@example.com) is vice president of marketing and product development at Cargas Systems, an employee owned company providing software for fuel delivery and service companies and a certified Intacct and Microsoft Dynamics partner.