Five Tips for Successful Career Zig-Zaggers

It is time to stop the career shaming people! Once upon a time, we would choose a career, follow a path that led to success and then retire. Though technology has allowed the world to effortlessly connect across time and space, we are still expected to choose a pathway for our career in the same way we declare a major for college. And when people deviate from that path they are written off as flakes or indecisive. The truth is they are as ambitious as anyone else but are interested in multiple things that add to their entire skillset. It doesn’t mean they aren’t experts in their field, in fact, they tend to be more agile and effective than their single-pathway counterparts. Organizations benefit from having both types of people – those who follow a set path and those who like to zig-zag a bit. Being a zig-zagger though can have pitfalls. Here are five tips for managing a successful career while fulfilling your need to explore.

1. Understand and Communicate Your End Goal

Some people require more freedom to explore multiple interests before settling on a long-term career. I, for example, studied finance and went into securities trading and investment post-undergrad. I loved it. The truth is I love finance. My goal was to become a trader. As a woman…a black woman…that was no easy goal. Eventually, though, I found that career wasn’t for me. I went into healthcare, which I enjoyed far more than financial services. Once I settled on an industry, I had to decide what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wanted to be a CEO. But after working with two CEO’s I realized I wanted to stay closer to the action and either run strategy or a business unit. When asked I could communicate the what and the why, but the how was a bit tricky because I’m a zig-zagger. Take some time to really think about what your end goal looks like. You need to be driving toward something and it should be within reason. When asked, you should be able to explain it. If you want to be chief counsel but never worked in the legal department, that’s a stretch. People can get behind a plan they can understand.

2. Deliver Results and Beat Expectations

When you are taking the path less followed you will need to produce more results than your pathway counterparts. The pathway is well understood and accepted even though it rarely develops people for success. Wait…what?!? Following the pathway in and of itself isn’t development. It is merely doing what expected and what the majority does. Think about it, how many times have you seen someone who isn’t necessarily a good leader or delivered above-expected results get promoted? They checked all of the boxes, right? They were a known factor. Then there are others who are more dynamic, agile and delivered crazy results who are overlooked because they deviated from the path. They are a risk, even though they have demonstrated more competency and agility than those promoted. If you go the road less traveled you will need to beat expectations more than the traditional folks. As black women, we are already working three or four times harder to be seen as equal. You need to up your game to five or six times harder. This doesn’t mean you can’t fail, but your lessons learned need to be greater.

3. Calculate Every Move Carefully

Because you are doing your own thing you need to be highly cognizant of how a move contributes to obtaining your ultimate goal. Having a professional development plan will help with this. A good plan will indicate where you are strong and what areas you need to develop or what experiences you need to have. If you don’t have an end goal in mind, it makes planning very difficult. You don’t know what you’re planning to do. Analyze every aspect of the opportunity. Is it a good leader who will develop you? Have the expectations been clearly defined? What is the next step after this move? Of all the factors I would say understanding your manager’s leadership abilities will be key. If your manager isn’t good or isn’t on board with how you have chosen to pursue your career aspirations the relationship will become contentious at best. At worst, your manager may set out to derail your career because you don’t fit his or her narrow view of success.

4. Sometimes It’s Okay to Ignore Number 3

Occasionally, there will be times that you have to leap. There are times in our careers where we have to blindly decide on a course of action. With great risk can come great reward. The trick is to know when it’s okay to do less analysis and jump. This is a gut decision. It’s easier to tell you when not to ignore. If you don’t trust the person(s) involved with the opportunity, it’s probably best to dig deeper. If the opportunity is either too good to be true or seems to really deviate from your zigs and zags, pull back the layers to get a better sense of what’s involved.

5. Get A Sponsor

This last tip is easy to talk about but not necessarily easy to do, especially for black women. Having a sponsor can make all of the difference to someone’s career. A sponsor is different from a mentor in that they are the one who pounds the table on your behalf. They put themselves on the line to assist you in getting the opportunities you need to move forward in your career. You don’t always know who your sponsors are and you can’t really go up to someone and ask. How do you get a sponsor then? Refer to number two, deliver results. Your performance, skills, and outcomes should never be in question. Another way to cultivate a sponsor or more, is to network and develop relationships with key people around the organization. You shouldn’t network for the purpose of finding a sponsor, but it’s certainly a benefit. The best place to start with networking is within your immediate sphere of influence. This could be projects, company organizations you belong to, and former colleagues. The best way to cultivate a sponsor is to get on high visibility and high stakes assignments. And, by the way, never assume your manager is a sponsor. You would hope that they are, but if your manager is looking for their own promotion they may not be invested in yours. However, if your manager is a great leader, they are most likely your biggest and best sponsor, or at the very least amplify your good work so you can get a sponsor will ensure you receive credit for your work, talk about you, and provide you with opportunities for visibility.

Are you a career zig-zagger? Let us know some of your best tips by commenting below. If you found this post helpful, please share, mention #BlackEVEolution, and follow us on TwitterFacebookInstagram, and Google+. We know you’re looking for more great content like this. Connect with us now to receive original and informative content that will help you be healthy, wealthy, wise and woke.

Nile Harris
Nile Harris, the Chief Chick, is a word weaver and dream believer with 20 years of experience in healthcare, finance, and education. This aspiring motivational speaker, TED presenter and LinkedIn Influencer is committed to valuing people, driving healthcare access and innovation, and weaving words that move people to action. Her views are her own.
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