Throughout my 18-year corporate career, all I saw around me was what other corporate people were doing – the good, bad and the ugly. The meetings that droned on and on, the ridiculous political fights, the narcissist leader, the power-hungry manager stepping all over his staff, the passing over of certain individuals for promotions because they didn’t “fit in,” and so on. I also saw examples of individuals thriving in their work, and leaders who inspired, but truthfully, those were very few and far between.
Now that I’m out of corporate life and run my own business, I see it all very differently. I see what I and others should have been doing to build our careers more successfully — to experience greater personal reward and satisfaction – even in very limiting corporate situations. And I see that many people are far better suited to being out on their own as independent workers – either as entrepreneurs, consultants, private practitioners or in other capacities.
Helping people move from career misery to professional joy and reward, I’ve identified 7 essential steps professionals must take if they want to generate exciting financial reward and experience doing meaningful, purposeful work that aligns with their highest values and authentic lifelong goals.
The 7 critical steps to building a career that’s both financially and emotionally rewarding are:
1. Know that you are more than your current role
Every year in my career coaching I learn one major lesson about career pain that I hadn’t seen in that way before. This year’s lesson is that people can’t help but feel absolutely defined by how they’re doing in their current job – by what their bosses and colleagues think of them, and how they are performing within that tight, narrow culture. It doesn’t matter if they were stellar rock stars in their previous jobs; if they’re suffering now and not being appreciated, recognized and valued, that’s all they see and all they believe.
The reality, however, is much different. You aren’t just this job or role – you are an amazing amalgam of talents, gifts, experiences, perspectives, accomplishments and contributions. Just because this job isn’t a fit and you’re failing at it, doesn’t mean you are a failure. It means you’re focused on the wrong thing, with the wrong people, at the wrong place.
Tip: Know when it’s time to leave. Don’t stay in a place that doesn’t accept or value you.
2. Figure out who you love to serve
I felt so often in my corporate work, “What am I doing this for? Who cares? What’s the point?” Selling and marketing products for marketing organizations left me very cold. Now I know why. I thrive on doing work that contributes to people’s growth and happiness. If I’m not doing that, I’m not satisfied. I also know that I love to serve mid-career women in particular, because I was so lost in my former professional life and I couldn’t find any help that truly addressed my specific challenges. And those challenges, in great part, had to do with my being female in a corporate world that didn’t embrace feminine leadership styles, values and approaches.
Knowing exactly what you want to do and who you love to serve, and pursuing that in your work, takes courage and resilience. I can’t tell you how many men each year challenge me in my chosen niche of serving professional women. Men have asked angrily, “Why don’t you offer your programs to men too?” What they really mean is, “I need the kind of help you’re offering. Why can’t I have it?” The answer is that there is a very great need today for supporting the advancement of women in leadership and business in ways that honor and address women specifically, and I’m happiest and most fulfilled when I am contributing to that goal. You have to be tough, courageous and firm about who you are, and what you love to do, and not cave under challenge and criticism. That’s what it takes to pursue your heart’s work.
Tip: Start identifying exactly who you love to serve, and have the guts to pursue that niche. (This tool will help.)
3. Use your natural talents
It was a shocker to me that we can be fabulous at tasks we hate to do. Your work is much more fun and rewarding when you’re using talents that come naturally versus skills that you’ve acquired because you had to, but aren’t easy for you. For example, I’ve been good at managing multi-million dollar marketing budgets, and reporting on P&L variances to a corporate board, but I hate it. I much prefer (and am much better at) formulating ideas and new behavioral models to generate change, as well as writing, training, coaching, speaking, product development, qualitative research, and more.
Tip: Base your career on what comes naturally and easily to you. I guarantee that drawing on your natural talents generates much more reward on many levels. Use what you’re gifted at, not what you struggle to achieve.
4. Build connections with people you adore, and help them
Yesterday, I felt so exuberant and blessed because I dedicated a full day to talking to new colleagues, mentoring new contacts (who became instant friends), and connecting with professionals I love. An amazing boost of adrenalin comes from collaborating with and helping people you adore. And the more you do this, the larger your circle grows with people you deeply admire, and who inspire you.
Don’t spend one minute more than you have to with people you don’t like. Wasting your time with them means you’ll lose precious opportunities to build a more robust support community of people who enliven and inspire you to grow and thrive.
Tip: Identify at least one new person each week you admire and adore, and would like to help. Get on the phone with them, and find new ways to be of help.
5. Close your power gaps
I was laid off after 9/11, and my self-esteem was shot for months (and years) after. I didn’t realize then that being let go was exactly what needed to happen, because I hated my corporate identity and needed a change but would not take the steps to alter it. Now I see that I suffered from what I call a “power gap” – being laid off made me feel unworthy, unwanted and weak.
The single most important thing you can do to build a professional life you love is look at where you feel “less than” and address that courageously. Whether you haven’t finished your degree and you’re ashamed of that, or your skills in a critical area are rusty, or you got fired six months ago and it’s devastated you, spend the day today thinking about your “dirty little secret” – what makes you feel undesirable, unworthy and ashamed. Then do something bold and courageous to address that power gap so you’ll never have to live that feeling of “I’m ashamed because I’m not good enough” again. My bold move was to earn a Master’s degree in marriage and family therapy and change careers. What a blessing that was.
Tip: Look at where you feel ashamed and unworthy, and take a bold step to close that power gap today. Do it!
6. Think bigger than “What’s My Next Job?”
Sadly, thousands of corporate professionals think only in terms of linear career progression, and that’s the wrong way to look at your career. It’s not a series of jobs, salaries, and titles you should be focused on. It’s who you want to be in the working world, and how you want to contribute over the long arch of your life.
For example, if you’re an advertising director who longs to do something much more creative with your talents, don’t think only about what next advertising job will get you there (because it won’t). Think about how you can leverage your creative talents to do something completely different, such as produce and sell your own art, or illustrate a children’s book. If you’re a copywriter bored out of your mind at your science marketing job, think about how you can use your writing talents differently – perhaps to help a worthy cause, or support a non-profit you care about, or write your own blog (or book). Get out of the narrow thinking about your next job, and explore how else you can contribute in the world.
Tip – Brainstorm openly about other ways you can use your talents and gifts rather than “What next job should I get?” Evaluate the talents you love to use, and talk to everyone you know about new and different avenues for being of service using these talents.
7. Act like a savvy entrepreneur
I remember one of my bosses saying to me when I was reviewing my division’s P&L, “I want you to manage this as if it were you’re money.” I tried, but couldn’t wrap my head around that, because it wasn’t my money. Now that I run my own business, I get it. Every single investment – every new technology tool, new partnership, new program I launch – means I’m committing to a new direction and I have to know what it takes to make it work, and be fully prepared to make that happen.
Corporate folks often don’t know what that feels like. But if you can “try on” and live the identity of an entrepreneur, your career will change for the better. You’ll embrace risk more easily, and you’ll understand your potential contributions and talents and leverage those. You’ll embrace failure as information, and you’ll realize more quickly when things are going sour, and learn to pivot. And finally, you’ll understand that the people you surround yourself with can make or break your happiness, success and growth.
Don’t stay stuck where you are. Be flexible, nimble, fluid and open.
Tip: Wherever you are today, think more like an entrepreneur. Change is good, flexibility is critical, self-trust is essential. Don’t resist it.