Getting to the Top: Strategies for Career Success

How do you know if a road will get you where you want to go if you don’t know where you are headed? You need a destination in mind to be able to evaluate and select a route that will get you there. Similarly, a career strategy enables career success.

Career success starts with understanding your long-term goal. Most people have an idea about the next step in their career, their next job: I want a promotion; I want to be a marketing manager or a financial analyst. That’s a great start but what is your long-term objective? I find in interviewing that many people are uncomfortable answering the question, “Where do you see yourself in 5-10 years?”

[wcm_restrict]Some people have a clear long-term goal in mind: I want to be a chief executive officer; I would like to run a business line; or, I would like a job that gives me flexibility. With a stated objective you are much more likely to achieve your goal.

With this goal in mind, you can develop experiences and skills that enable your career strategy and success:

1. Understand career paths

Do informational interviews with people already in your desired roles to understand routes toward your career objective.

As you think ahead about your career, there are four transitions that I call career pivot points: level, function, company or industry. You can be promoted and change levels, moving from manager to director to vice president. You can change function from marketing to sales, finance to operations. You can change companies to a new company in the same industry, perhaps a competitor, supplier, customer or partner company. Lastly, you can transition to a new industry. Look at the various options that may help you reach your objective, sometimes moving sideways to move forward.

From interviewing executives at career programs at Stanford Graduate School of Business and UCLA Anderson School of Management, I categorized backgrounds of individuals rising to vice president and c-levels. I learned that vice presidents of marketing rise through the ranks by: becoming experts in the marketing craft, having specific industry or product domain expertise, having strategic or analytic backgrounds, taking a cross-functional career path, or moving into the role from sales.

Through understanding the career paths of executives, you can get a better idea of directions that are available for yourself and how you can position yourself for your ultimate goal.

2. Develop skills

Next, develop the skills you’ll need for your desired job, though you may get stuck in a career Catch-22: you’re not given a role to manage people because you’ve never managed people, or similarly managing P&L. So how do you get the experience if you can’t get the job that will allow you to get the experience? This is where you start creatively putting together elements of the experience: manage a team for a special project or assignment at work, volunteer to lead a team as part of a non-profit or trade association. Then you can say you’ve managed people in these scenarios.

I summarize the skills discussed by executives in the career programs into a career pyramid of skills needed at the top. These skills include: strategic vision, customer perspective, communications, team leadership, and distinguishing skills for your job function. I’ll highlight communication skills because they become exponentially more important as you rise up in your career. The basis for communications is how your communication is perceived by others. Communication skills include listening, communicating up/down/across the organization, influence, persuasion, and becoming trusted advisor.

Think through the leadership skills important for your advancement and start developing those that will help improve your career success.

3. Develop a Career Action Plan

Put together a career action plan for developing the skills and experiences to reach your career strategy. Development comes from experience, exposure and education. Just do it. You learn best by doing the work so talk to your boss about your objectives and volunteer for special assignments. Expand your network inside and outside your organization, including having mentors and a career coach. And take courses and return to school to learn what’s required for the job.

You can take responsibility for your own career success by starting with a career strategy then putting together a career action plan that takes into consideration career paths and skills needed to achieve your goal.

Included in this article are excerpts from Kathryn’s book, Getting to the Top: Strategies for Career Success.[/wcm_restrict][wcm_nonmember]

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About the Author

Kathryn Ullrich heads Kathryn Ullrich Associates, a Silicon Valley executive search firm, and Alumni Career Services for UCLA Anderson School of Management. She is the author of Getting to the Top: Strategies for Career Success (2010), and may be reached through

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