Five strategies for building a meaningful career and increasing your income.
Career growth means different things to different people. While some aim to secure the highest salary possible, others might prioritize stability or be driven to serve others. Like almost all choices in life, there is no right or wrong answer about how to choose a career. However, almost all professional fields have room for growth.
I was taught from a young age that there are more important things in this world than money, fancy work titles, or impressing other people. My upbringing had a definite effect on what career growth means to me. For many years, quotes like this have guided my work goals:
"Strive not to be a success, but rather to be of value."
- Albert Einstein
The second factor that has guided my career goals was a strong desire to keep learning, expanding my comfort zone, and trying new things. In short, I would rather tackle the most daunting tasks than be bored. An interesting job assignment is a high priority for me.
Because money and the traditional version of success aren't my core values, it was uncomfortable to have discussions about wages or title changes with my employers early in my career. In addition, it was difficult to be convinced of my value in those years when I had so little experience under my belt.
My initial discomfort was reinforced when some of my first conversations with employers about pay rate went sideways. In my first professional office job, I asked an employer for a raise to a wage closer to market rate. My request unleashed a fury of swap-meet-style haggling that caught me completely off-guard. While I did receive a bump up in pay, I also realized exactly how ill-prepared I had been to negotiate.
Even the "good" conversations about compensation could be uncomfortable when I was insecure about my value: Later in my career when I was making a solid living wage, I was embarrassed by a supervisor advocating for me to get a title change and pay raise. This was true even though the supervisor's request was due to the greater responsibilities I had taken on at work. At one point, I even tried to wave off the salary increase as unnecessary. Luckily, he continued to believe that all employees should be compensated with fair pay, and he felt strongly that my hard work warranted an increase.
I learned while working in human resources that setting a respectable salary is the first step in finding and keeping great workers, but it took me some time to understand that these concepts applied to my own work as well. While money and impressive achievements are still not high on my list of values, I have become much more comfortable talking about things like pay rate and job titles. Although I have absolutely no regrets about where I've ended up, feeling confident about the value that I was adding to the workplace would have allowed me to more successfully advocate for myself along the way.
Mapping a lifetime of income.
Wage is just one aspect of career growth, but it's an important one. When it comes to finances, how we spend our money is only half of the equation. What we earn can make a huge difference.
A retirement calculator I used recently asked me to project my wage increases for the remainder of my career (I have a pension plan). I'd heard that wage growth is much stronger in the early half of one's career, and I estimated conservatively. However, the question made me realize that I didn't have much awareness about what kind of wage growth I'd experienced so far. My curiosity was also piqued by stories of people job hopping to get large bumps in pay instead of the average 3% per year raise. I have only had three employers since the age of 19, and I was concerned that I was missing out.
To discover how my personal wages had grown over time, I first had to gather some data. I used old tax returns and my social security earnings record to map out my financial past and determine my year-to-year wage growth:
Mapping my income since graduating high school included some interesting surprises. For instance, it seems counter intuitive that my income increased after having a child (more about that in Strategy #3). It was also a reminder that I lived on less than $400 per month as a single mother in order to go back to school for my bachelor's degree and pursue a career that I love. (I had some additional help from scholarships, grants, and student loans for which I am eternally grateful! Not to mention the friends who snuck boxes of Cheerios into the kitchen cupboards of my tiny apartment. #stillgrateful) Luckily, my economic situation has changed drastically since those days. Below, I identify 5 reasons for the career growth I've experienced.
The 5 ways I've built a more meaningful career and, by default, increased my annual income
I love my job. Like "Capital L" Love it. It's challenged me in all the best ways, allowed me to give back to my community, put a roof over my head, given me the chance to grow as a human being, and it sends me home feeling accomplished most days.
Looking back, I can see that the moments when I did the most to advance my career all involved taking risks. I concur with Forbes contributor Margie Warrell when she writes, "In an increasingly competitive, cautious and accelerated world, those who are willing to take risks, step out of their comfort zone and into the discomfort of uncertainty will be those who will reap the biggest rewards."
The risks I took can be considered small compared to what entrepreneurs or people in highly competitive fields endure to find success. In retrospect, maybe they will all sound like calculated measures bound to have a positive impact, but that is not at all how they felt at the time. Here are five ways I've built a more fulfilling and meaningful career:
1. Sacrifice for long term gains in a field you love.
Sometimes career trajectories are not smooth upward lines. Sometimes you have to sacrifice to find success in a field you love. While I think I first read this advice in a magazine for teenage ladies, Actor Jim Carrey makes an incredibly elegant argument for this kind of risk taking:
So many of us chose our path out of fear disguised as practicality. What we really want seems impossibly out of reach and ridiculous to expect so we never dare to ask the universe for it. I'm saying: I'm the proof that you can ask the universe for it.
My father could have been a great comedian but he didn't believe that was possible for him. So he made a conservative choice. Instead, he got a safe job as an accountant and when I was 12 years old, he was let go from that safe job and our family had to do whatever we could to survive.
I learned many great lessons from my father. Not the least of which was that you can fail at what you don't want, so you might as well take a chance on doing what you love.
Short-term sacrifices can come in the form of student loans, absences from the workforce, or a step down in pay to enter a new field. These options all involve risk, but they can also have big rewards. Working in a field that I am devoted to has motivated me to perform at my best, and, at various points along the way, my supervisors have taken notice.
Here's how my career changed paths:
While working in human resources, I found myself yearning for a career in public service that would allow me to make contributions to the community. However, I had little experience or education in this field. I didn't have a Bachelor's degree of any kind. I also had all the financial responsibilities of parenthood.
Returning to school meant descending temporarily into poverty level earnings while raising a young son. There was also no guarantee that I would find a job upon graduation (especially with a political science degree and zero interest in doing campaign work). As someone who had already been in the workforce, I knew the value of experience. To gain some experience in public service, I took on unpaid internships while working, being a mom, and going to school. For my final quarter in school, I immersed myself in an internship at our state legislature that offered a small stipend for living expenses. These internships didn't offer much in the way of financial success themselves, but I am convinced that they helped me immensely when I began job hunting.
After graduation, I stuck with my goal to find work that felt meaningful to me. This meant turning down a well-paid human resources job at a private college when I didn't have any other firm employment offers on the table. Eventually, I was able to secure a lower paying job in a City Clerk's Office. It wasn't a glamorous first job, but it helped me break into public service and begin an incredibly meaningful career.
In addition to finding work I love, there have been financial benefits to these risks as well. Overall, I've experienced average wage growth of 13.7% per year since attaining my bachelor's degree.
When I began to reach the end of my career trajectory for an employee with only a bachelor's degree, I returned to school for my Masters in Public Administration. Yeah, the cost of grad school hurt, and I'm absolutely going to be paying it off for awhile. However, my wage history reflects a 22% increase in annual pay the first year after graduating with my Masters. I have been able to move into even more challenging and meaningful work, and I am hopeful that the financial dividends of investing in my education will pay off over time.
2. Take the projects that no one wants.
Local leader Lyle Quasim made a profound statement that changed my life. As a speaker for a leadership class, Quasim advised us to take on the immensely difficult work assignments that no one else wants to tackle. If we failed, he said, no one would blame us. But if we succeeded, we would get the credit for doing what seemed to others to be impossible.
With a prior employer, I had the opportunity to work on highly-visible community issues where the community held divided opinions. Parking, homelessness, urban wildlife management, housing for sex offenders... These were areas where neighbors held strong (and sometimes deeply divided) opinions and where the impacts touched people in their day-to-day lives. While these kinds of projects came with a high level of challenge, I also found them to be extremely rewarding. As Quasim predicted, my supervisors gained significant respect for me when I was willing to take on the most daunting assignments. This was true even when I was just one member of a work team and not the project leader.
Not all "undesirable" projects come with a lot of flashy visibility. I have taken on my share of assignments that were seen as highly technical as well as some terribly tedious file organization projects. I have also volunteered to take part in continuous improvement efforts of all kinds. These lower visibility projects also earned the respect of my peers and superiors. More importantly, theses projects fulfilled my personal goals to add value to the organization and be genuinely helpful.
Being willing to take on the projects that others avoid has had results. While I have only had three employers since the age of 19, I've held at least nine job titles in that time due to increasing responsibilities. My experience has been that career progression can happen without hopping to a new employer if you're able to demonstrate successful outcomes in demanding situations and if your employer promotes from within.
3. Ask for it!
Asking for what you want sounds like basic advice right? But Leadership and Management Consultant Cheryl Hilvert says that we don't do it enough: "It sounds pretty simple, but I have also found that way too many people sit back and wait for things to come to them." Asking to work on projects that are outside your regular duties, negotiating your salary, requesting specific benefits, and letting management know when you have an interest in an open position are all ways that you might be able to achieve career growth with your current employer. I've used all of these strategies over the course of my career.
Expressing interest in a promotion:
Before I had my son, I had worked my way up to an assistant branch manager position with a local financial services company. The company was not a large one, but they often promoted from within, which gave a lot of opportunity for advancement. While I was out on maternity leave, a Human Resources position opened up that had a better schedule and would greatly expand my job experience. I did what any ambitious mom might do. I marched my stroller down to the library and emailed the CEO to request the HR position.
To my surprise and delight, the executive management team responded favorably. I returned from maternity leave with a raise and a promotion. If this sounds like a too-good-to-be-true-fairytale, I should note that laid the groundwork for a promotion well before my request. I went above and beyond in my work even as an entry-level teller, starting a company newsletter to help break down silos and help staff that didn't work at the same branches get to know one another.
Asking for a raise:
There are a lot of great resources on negotiating a salary, but I want to emphasize this: Your title and salary are not temporary. They do not exist in just the current moment. Our salary becomes the baseline that an employer uses when deciding our next raise. And, at some point, our salary and job duties become the launch platform for whatever opportunity will come next.
"Women who fail to negotiate their salaries at the start of their careers could leave up to $2 million on the table."
- The Art of Negotiation Series, League of Women in Government
You can find more salary negotiation resources at the end of this post.
Negotiating for "fit" and work conditions:
There is far more to consider than a starting salary when considering a new job. No matter how hard you work, it will be more difficult to find success if your goals don't align with your employer's. We all weather hard times on the job, but work stress and burn out are easier to survive if you work for an employer whose mission moves you. Fit matters, and it is important to remember that the interview process is not just about getting the job -- A job interview process is your time to discover whether the opportunity is a good fit for you as well as for your potential employer.
In the interview process, it's okay to ask about workplace culture, shared values, and how the company feels about work/life balance. Is there an expectation that you'll work 60 hours per week? Does the employer offer flexible scheduling that allows both your personal and professional life to flourish? Are there mentorship opportunities? What kind of skills do they value most in the position you are interviewing for? What kind of input do managers at the organization solicit from their staff?
In the best scenarios, employers care deeply about the professional goals and life balance needs of their valued workers. I've been lucky to have bosses who take the time to ask me what I wanted for my professional future and who have a real interest in helping me get there. Many of the positive changes I've made are due to having first-class mentors and champions who believed in the value I could bring to the organization. Now that I'm a supervisor, I try my best to be that kind of boss and to model the supportive leadership that my best mentors gave to me.
Finding a supportive work environment doesn't mean that workers should expect a pampered cake walk with no problems. Building a relationship with your supervisor and demonstrating your worth to your employer take time and effort. Great workplaces still encounter big hairy problems and deeply stressful situations, but it's easy to survive them in a positive workplace where everyone is pulling together.
4. Practice lateral leadership.
You don't have to be the boss to get leadership experience. With lateral leadership, you can help a team achieve results even if you're not technically above them in the company hierarchy. Usually, this kind of lateral leadership comes in the form of managing or coordinating projects. Not only can you demonstrate to others that you are capable of helping a team unlock productive outcomes, lateral leadership requires a level of finesse that authoritative leadership does not. When leading a team without any formal power, you have to be diplomatic and build relationships. Because your coworkers don't need you to approve of their work, you'll have to ensure that you earn their commitment and buy in. In short, you can build skills that will make you the kind of boss people want to have when you do earn your management stripes.
In recent years, many have made the argument for more fluid, "flatter" organizations with less layers of managerial hierarchy. These organizations have been known to be more collaborative, adaptable, and more innovative then traditional workplaces. They are also more suited to the emerging gig economy. Flatter, more fluid organizations may also offer numerous opportunities to take on a project manager role and flex your leadership muscles.
5. Job crafting.
Job crafting is the art of turning the job you have into the job you want. You can do this by changing who you work with, what you do, or the way you view your work. Yale Researcher Amy Wrzesniewski has given one-word titles to the three areas where we can make change: tasks, relationships, and perceptions. In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Wrzesniewski notes that:
"Our research with a range of organizations—from Fortune 500 companies to small nonprofits—indicates that employees (at all levels, in all kinds of occupations) who try job crafting often end up more engaged and satisfied with their work lives, achieve higher levels of performance in their organizations, and report greater personal resilience."
I have greatly benefited from job crafting throughout my career. By some stroke of luck, every job I have taken since graduating with my Bachelor's degree has been a newly created position. When you begin in a role that no one has held before, there is no preconceived idea for how the work should be done or what all the job actually entails.
The first person in a new position has to be comfortable with ambiguity and the unknown. They have to do the work of accurately interpreting expectations for the new position and completing many tasks with very little instruction. Because of this, brand new positions may seem unstable to folks who need a high level of security. However, being the first one to hold a position comes with a lot of freedom. Folks in this position can enjoy a high-level of job crafting as they define which tasks and relationships will become essential in their new role. There is great potential in a new position to build a job that is more satisfying.
While circumstances may allow us a little more freedom in the tasks that we do or the people we interact with during the work day, we can all change the way we perceive our work. Instead of letting the snarky fellow you work next to burst your bubble of optimism, you can focus on how your work benefits a customer or coworker further down the line. You can find a great podcast on this subject below.
All career development requires strong basic skills.
The five strategies discussed above are not miracles. It doesn't matter how enthusiastically you offer to tackle hard projects or lead project teams if you don't have basic career skills in place:
- Showing up (both physically and mentally) on time
- Supporting your coworkers
- Handling stress and criticism constructively
- Meeting deadlines
- Demonstrating accountability
- Committing yourself to excellent work
- Putting the organization's needs before your personal goals
- Being respectful of leadership
- Staying up-to-date on the newest trends and technology in your field
- Displaying professional conduct and attire
- Communicating and problem solving at a high level
These and other basic job skills are not optional for anyone except extreme geniuses, wildly talented artists, and the most ingenious of inventors/entrepreneurs. None of the five strategies will work if your overall performance is lacking. A strong foundation of basic skills like these must be in place before you'll get the support you need to build a beefier work portfolio.
If you are working on finding the right job, negotiating a salary, or deepening the sense of satisfaction you feel in your current career, I would highly recommend these resources:
- Fit Matters: How to Love your Job by Moe Carrick & Cammie Dunaway
- The Art of Negotiation Series, League of Women in Government
- Harvard Program on Negotiation: Salary Negotiations
- Hidden Brain Podcast: How to Build a Better Job (Job crafting)
Author's Note: Post photo of the One World Trade Center taken by Kye Alfred Hillig.
Also, I've scheduled this mammoth post to be shared while I'm spending a week in relative isolation at a wilderness retreat (like a little gift from far away me to far away you) so please don't mistake my silence for anything but absence. I'll greatly enjoy your messages and comments when I return. xo.