You've just landed an entry-level job in a large corporation and you are already thinking of how you can move up. You know just where you want your career to go, but do you really know what sets you apart from the pack of recent graduates seeking to get to the same level?
What steps do you need to take to prepare for advancement? What strategy should you have to become a very functional contributor and team member? To help you get that road plan together, here's a rough guide based on insights and perspectives from corporate executives with 20/20 vision. Their valuable experiences will give you just the kind of foresight you need to soar.
The same drive and determination that helped land the dream job (don't forget the summer internships) are what you'll need to climb the career ladder. You can't sit back and wait for work to come to you.
"I think a lot of people when they come out of college want a ‘hockey stick effect’— in 10 or five years they want to be a vice president," said Chineta Davis, retired vice president and general manager of operations in Northrop Grumman's Electronic Systems sector.
Still, if you want to move up, “move fast” is Davis' first advice. She also adds that to get ahead, it's important to know the players within the organization. Understand what their roles are, what they do and how they got where they are.
Davis entered the workforce during the first wave of corporate gender policies in the 1970s. Like other executive track women of the time, when faced with the option of creating a flex work schedule, she felt forced to take "time out" after a second child. Davis' off-ramp lasted two years, and she returned to take on a series of top-level, mission-critical assignments. Over three years, she cut back costs and scaled down the weight of technology for the F-22 and Joint Strike Fighter program. She also led the build of a German design mail sorter within schedule for the US Postal Service. In 1989, she won a $100 million in new business, building it from scratch to thriving double-digit growth and profitability within Northrop Grumman.
So how did she move into those kind of plum jobs?
"Just the fact that you're interested in continuing career growth puts your name in people's mind when they're considering," said Art Lofton, CIO and vice president for Northrop Grumman's Aerospace Systems sector. "At the end of the day, it's about networking, expressing your interest in opportunities. The more you get networked across the company, the more you understand what opportunities are out there."
"When I started as an engineer I kind of knew my discipline, my function," said Darryl Fraser, vice president of corporate communications at Northrop. Fraser also realized, however, he didn't know how his military program team interacted with thermal design folks, or even the structural people. So he made it a point to understand a bit more about the organization.
"That's what helped me get those phone calls and opportunities," Fraser said.
Taking on projects and assignments that give you the opportunity to lead a small team is a good way to start getting experience, said Vice President of Learning and Development Kathy Thomas. But when you get into roles where you are the key individual that folk go to—point person for advice and guidance—don't think leadership comes innately.
"That's the time to get professional development training where you actually learn how to lead, how to talk to people and communicate. It's so that you're in a position where you enable people and through that you enable projects to be successful," Thomas said.
Thomas’ four rules to help take your career to the next level are:
1. Know what's on your resume.
2. Know your value to the organization.
3. Know enough about the business your companies are in so you can bring your A-game every day.
4. Have mentors, champions and sponsors that will raise your name in a favorable light and raise your name when opportunities are being discussed.
Sure, having mentors is key, but how do you rev up to speed for new assignments?
"Do your homework. Find out as much as you can about the job," said Davis, who had 15 different assignments over her 33-year career. "When you don't know, find someone who can give you an answer, and then find a solution."
Lofton, who is a mechanical engineer by degree, says problem-solving skills, how to approach things, work with people and collaborate are some of the things he had in his toolbox as he advanced. Up against career information technology professionals when he competed for his current vice president position, he reflects on what gave him the edge.
"I brought a diverse set of skills and the ability to work across the experience regimes,” he said. “What does IT (information technology) mean to the business? How does it enable the business?"
Understanding the business and what it takes to bring value are the set of experiences and perspectives that helped him to success and taken him to the next level.
Lofton said his current position is made up of building blocks of his previous experiences. Among the many jobs the 25-year veteran has held at Northrop Grumman is running a site for composites at Hill Air Force base, a major U.S. Air Force base. The CIO position is Lofton's first IT position.