When you think about career growth, do you also think about that coworker who doesn't work as hard as you, who's not quite as intelligent as you, but who keeps getting promoted—and you don't? Is she the boss's niece? Does she have dirt on the VP of sales? Is the head of human resources her die-hard fan? Or is she just attacking her career from a different perspective?
She might have some inside connection, but it's more likely that she's just personally taking responsibility for her career development, while you're waiting for someone else to show you the way.
It's logical to expect your boss to give you a promotion when you've earned one. It's also logical to expect the HR department to have a succession plan in place that involves promotions at all levels—including yours. But if you want to experience career growth, you need to take matters into your own hands.
Speak Up When an Opportunity Arises
Employees would like to think that promotion decisions are made based on merit, but managers are imperfect people and they often make assumptions. For instance, the manager may think, “Jane probably doesn't want that senior trainer position because it requires lots of travel and she has little kids at home.”
Now, this assumption could violate gender discrimination laws, but that doesn't mean that subtle discrimination doesn't happen. So speak up. When an opportunity arises that you're interested in, say something to your manager and express your interest.
Keep in mind that you probably have skills and interests that your boss knows nothing about. She won't know about them either if you don't tell her. If you have an interest in a new area or in managing people, let her know. Otherwise, she may pass you up for an employee who does speak up.
Speak Up Before an Opportunity Arises
Sometimes a colleague gets promoted or a new hire comes in for a job you never even knew existed—a job you would have applied for if you'd known about it. How can you get these hidden jobs? By speaking up sooner rather than later.
This doesn't mean that you need to bombard your boss with information on how you'd like to proceed with your career, but it does mean letting her know the paths you're interested in. Your annual review is a great time to talk about these things.
As you're setting your goals for the next year, talk about what you want to do and ask for assignments that will help you achieve this. If you want to manage people, tell your boss and ask her to make you the team leader on a project. If you want to move from tax accounting to auditing, ask if you can work with any special projects or cross-functional teams.
Find Out What Training You Need and Pursue It
People often talk about the importance of having a mentor, and this is one of the reasons. Find a coworker who currently has the position you're targeting and ask, “What do I need to do to end up where you are?” Listen and do those things. Some of that training may include work experience, and some may come from classroom learning.
For instance, some jobs favor people with MBAs. If you want that type of job, you'd better go back to school. If you want to become a high school principal, your bachelor's degree in math education probably won't cut it. If you want to become the head of HR one day, you might want to pursue an SPHR certification, a master's degree in HR, or an MBA.
Some career paths don't require formal certifications or degrees, so spending your time on them is great academically but won't necessarily advance your career. That's why you should ask the people who are doing the jobs that you think you'd like to do.
Reach Outside Your Comfort Zone
Don't ever sit back and wait for someone else to notice that you'd do a great job in a higher-level position. Volunteer for challenges, like serving on special projects and cross-functional teams that open you up to new possibilities.
Also, remember to build relationships outside your direct line of reporting. Always work hard and be pleasant to coworkers. If you have an interest in moving to a new department, work on developing a relationship with the department head.
Ultimately, your career growth is your responsibility, so take charge!
Suzanne Lucas is a freelance journalist specializing in Human Resources. Suzanne's work has been featured on notes publications including Forbes, CBS, Business Insider and Yahoo.