Career coach: how to manage your own career

Q I want to get ahead in HR, but I can’t afford a career coach. What can I do to manage my own career?

A Here are three key steps to help you take control:


Even though HR professionals encourage career planning, they avoid it as much as anyone. Fighting this week’s fires is more pressing. So begin by taking a snapshot picture of where you are right now. Use three basic questions:

  • What kind of work do I find both energising and challenging?
  • What outcomes does my present or next employer really seek?
  • How can I exploit the overlap, or create one?

The result is a much clearer match between your personal wish list and the needs of an employer. Knowing why you are a preferred internal supplier compared to the competition keeps you sharp, and requires a constant focus on your organisation’s wish list.

Beware of career traps

Career traps can be employer-imposed. People working in HR commonly feel that they have been sidelined into a specialist area, and can sometimes be set unattainable goals or experience inflexible management.

Escaping career traps requires a strong sense of what you have to offer in other areas. Try negotiating a new project or working in a new team.

Far more potent are career-limiting actions – traps we lay for ourselves when we are actively trying to do the right things in the job. For example, learning how much or little to communicate within organisations. Discover how and when the rule book can be abandoned. Go to your manager with solutions rather than problems.

Rethink your ‘offer’

Too many rely on the hope that their hard work will be recognised. HR often complains that its ‘soft’ contribution is not valued – but it is more likely that it simply isn’t understood. Communicate your ‘offer’ in a language focused on the primary needs of your employer.

Take a good look at the company you work for. Research your present employer as carefully as if it was a major new customer you were trying to win. Cultivate the people who know everyone and everything – whether it’s the security guard or the boss’s PA. Look for quick wins: ask front line staff ‘what could we do better?’

Career progression, ultimately, is not a question of what you do, but how far you are seen to be doing the things that matter. Taking small steps now to become more aware can make a huge difference to the way you spend the next 10 years of your life.

John Lees
Career strategist and author

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