21 Ways to Jump Start Your Career
Letting your job become routine is hazardous to your salary--not to mention job security. Here's how to give your career a jolt.
(MONEY Magazine) – Tomorrow morning, take a good look around your desk at work. The files that haven't budged in years, the phone with the "1" almost worn off, the chair your body knows so well, the Sticky Notes. Is it all a little too familiar? Is your workspace the centerpiece of a job that's become predictable? Here's the real question: Is this the desk you dreamed you'd be sitting at by this point in your career?
In this still spotty job market, more and more people are finding themselves in a career rut (or plateau, to put it more gently). American workers are staying in the same jobs longer--a quarter of people ages 35 to 44 have stayed at the same gig for more than 10 years, as have half of all workers over 45. More than a quarter of workers say they're "often" or "very often" burned out by their jobs, according to a survey by the Families and Work Institute. Those numbers add up to a lot of people who may not be realizing their potential or, worse, their dreams of success.
Everyone's career needs a kick in the pants from time to time. But how can you make it happen? What should you do differently, say, tomorrow? Over the next six months? Turns out, there are a lot of answers, and they don't all entail ditching your current job or going to night school. We searched for solutions by talking to career experts, people who have successfully re-energized their careers, and bosses who know how to get the most out of their employees. Use their advice to shake up your workday, start producing more and get the recognition you deserve, remunerative and otherwise. You'll soon find that the faster your career moves, the easier it'll be to sit back, relax and enjoy your life away from that desk.
1 | STAY CURRENT You read the daily business section and the same trade rag you've subscribed to for a decade. Fine. So does everybody else. It's time to deepen your knowledge by subscribing to new trade journals, signing up for industry newsletters and scanning message boards related to your field. When you come across a timely story that could affect your business, pass it along to your boss. If she hasn't seen it, you suddenly look very, very smart.
2 | FEAR NOT THE BLOG One other new resource to add to your daily reads: blogs. Short for Web log, a blog (if you haven't heard) is a sort of online diary that could offer anything from ramblings on a person's trombone collection to the inside scoop on your industry or even your company. Marketingvox.com, for example, is for marketing professionals and Autoblog.com serves the car industry. To look for daily insights about your field, use a blog-specific engine such as Technorati.com or Blogsearchengine.com.
3 | DRESS LIKE YOU MEAN IT When it comes to office attire, "people who get comfortable in their jobs tend to dress comfy. That's a risk," says Jill Bremer, a corporate image consultant whose clients include Intel and Abbott Laboratories. A casual wardrobe signals a casual approach to work. Your best bet: Take a cue from your boss' attire.
4 | BE A MENTOR Most people have, at some point, sought guidance from a mentor. But when you've been around for a while, being a mentor can be just as rewarding. "Mentoring makes you realize what your skills are," says Sandy Throne, 53, who advises younger workers as a way of keeping herself fresh after nearly a decade at a New York City-based financial services company.
5 | ASSOCIATE WITH DOERS If you find yourself kibitzing with whiners--who tend to be the people with the longest tenure--find a new crowd. "If I see a person with a negative attitude hanging out with two other people in the break room, I'll assume they have the same attitude," says David Mitchell, director of customer service for MetTel, a telecom company in New York City. Be seen with the people who the boss praises in meetings. Invite them to lunch. Ask them for advice. Walk by their office. A lot.
6 | REDECORATE "Your workspace is an extension of you," says image consultant Bremer. "If you have too many little fuzzy things stuck on your computer monitor, it suggests that you may not understand the reason you're there, which is to do business." A framed photo or two on your desk shows that you have a life outside work. An "I Don't Do Mondays" coffee mug shows that you don't understand the meaning of the word professional.
7 | SPEAK UP Think, for a moment, about the last meeting you attended. What's the first memory that comes to mind? Does it involve somebody speaking? Of course it does. The only way your superiors will remember you even attended a meeting is if you say something. Don't worry if silence has become your habit over the years--it's never too late to start speaking up. Request clarification of someone else's idea or, better yet, introduce an idea of your own. Before each meeting, make a habit of e-mailing the person who called it and asking her what will be covered.
8 | THINK POSITIVE How do bosses know who has a bad attitude? "It's not hard to tell," says MetTel's Mitchell. "They stop griping when you walk by, like in the classroom when everyone's shooting spitballs and they stop when the teacher walks in. You should not be griping in the first place."
9 | ROLL UP YOUR SLEEVES "A good employee never says, 'That's not in my job description,'" says Mitchell. "I'll clean out an office and scrub the desk if I have to. You do what needs to get done." But be careful about the work you volunteer for. "You don't want to be the person everything gets dumped on," says psychologist Dory Hollander, president of Wise-Workplaces, a career advice firm.
10 | FILL EMPTY SPACES When you see an opportunity to work on a new project, pounce on it like a cheetah killing a ferret on the Discovery Channel. Larry Kist, formerly a project manager at Mercantile Bank (now U.S. Bank), had been running a small department when the head of a division was called up for a military assignment. Kist volunteered to step in. "The bank was downsizing and the job I was in wasn't challenging, so I thought it could be my chance to shine," says Kist, 48, who lives in St. Louis. Within six months of taking over, he had helped boost morale and erased the department's longstanding reputation for missing deadlines.
11 | SEND A MESSAGE Getting to the office at 7 a.m. so you can e-mail your boss before she arrives is the oldest trick in the book--and, if used sparingly, highly effective.
12 | MAKE A CO-WORKER OBSOLETE Got a free moment? Don't Web surf. Tell whomever you report to that you've polished off your work faster than expected and you're available. "If you want plum assignments, don't be afraid to say you're not busy," says MetTel's Mitchell. "Demonstrate that you can not only do your job but other people's jobs, and better than they can. It's a bit cutthroat, but it's what you have to do."
13 | TAKE A CLASS There's always more to learn. Enrolling in a job-related class can solidify your knowledge and get you a certificate to show for it. It helped Bruce Pecci avoid getting laid off from his utility company during a shake-up. He had been transferred from a technical position to a project management role, "but people still thought of me more as a technical resource than someone who could manage projects and lead teams," says Pecci, 34. So he became the first person in his department to be certified as a project management professional by taking a four-day class. "It was important to show I had experience and demonstrate why they should retain me," says Pecci, who lives near Columbus, Ohio.
14 | BE THE MOTIVATOR YOUR BOSS DOESN'T HAVE TIME TO BE Good bosses know praise makes people work harder. By lauding co-workers in an e-mail and copying your boss, you're doing him the favor of motivating others. "An employee down in the ranks who gets noticed favorably will think, 'Maybe I shouldn't be just a lump over here collecting my paycheck, because getting that recognition was fun,'" says David Erickson, president of Parker Stephens, an ad agency in Irvine, Calif. "The person who sent that e-mail would be perceived as a good manager because that's what good managers do."
15 | MAKE E-MAIL STAND OUT Corporate America sends more than 7 billion e-mails a day, according to the International Data Corp. Give messages must-read subject lines. "Good News" is more enticing than "here it is." Michelle Peluso, CEO of the travel search engine Travelocity, will never forget the employee who was requesting a meeting to discuss a cost-saving plan and sent an e-mail titled "You Bring the Ice Cream, I'll Bring the $2 Million."
16 | ALWAYS BRING A CARD Keep at least five business cards on you at all times. You never know who you'll encounter at the movies or on an airplane, and giving out your number on the back of a grocery receipt is lame.
17 | SIGN UP After more than a year working in an entry-level position in Birkenstock's warehouse, Tim Grimmer didn't see much room to move up. But when he saw a notice about a new task force on health and wellness, he signed up. "Working alongside people in marketing and accounting helped me see the company differently," says Grimmer, 33. A sales position opened up a few months later, and a manager from the task force asked him to apply. He landed the job and now, six years later, he manages Birkenstock's largest brand, which has more than $60 million in annual sales.
18 | JOIN THE CLUB There's a professional organization for virtually every field, from the Professional Marketing Research Society to the Meat Importers and Traders Association. But mere membership doesn't give you wheeler-dealer status. Laurence Stybel, co-founder of Stybel Peabody & Lincolnshire, a Boston career management firm, is a member of the Association for Corporate Growth. Stybel, 58, recently joined the group's program committee, and his first task was to call CEOs to invite them to speaking engagements--not a bad way to meet wheeler-dealers.
19 | GO OVERSEAS Moving abroad for an assignment is a big move, to say the least, but it can be a powerful way to awaken a dozing career. Not everyone can just up and leave the country, but plenty of people do it--kids or no kids. Websites such as Expatfocus.com and Transitionsabroad.com can help you decide whether you and your family could weather a foreign stint. Taking an assignment far from home broadens your experience and ensures that you will be considered for new responsibilities when you return. The strategy succeeded for Richard Montross, who worked in sales for Amana for 35 years and was promoted at age 49 and again at 50 after requesting stints in Brussels and the United Kingdom. The assignments were both short term, and his family remained in the United States. "I had worked for Amana for 29 years, and the company was hiring young M.B.A.s," says Montross, who is now 60. "I was at the point in my career when it would have been easy to say I was washed up. But I learned so much, and it reinvigorated me."
20 | SEEK CRITICISM Don't wait till your annual review to get feedback, says Anne Murray, 46, senior director of interactive marketing at Southwest Airlines. She requests a meeting with her boss once a quarter to discuss performance. Do this, and the only surprise at your next review will be how good it is.
21 | JUST MOVE ON Of course, the time may be right to start anew. Update your résumé. Tell a few friends you're looking, but be discreet. Set up a separate e-mail account for your job search, and if you need to fax a résumé, go to Kinko's. A little sneaking around--changing from your interview suit to business casual on the fly--may be required, but it's for a good cause: a new, more challenging place to work every day. And when you land that job, reading this article will be completely unnecessary.