"If you're offered a seat on a rocket ship, don't ask what seat. Just get on!” So said Sheryl Sandberg.
But it’s not always that easy.
This post will help you recognise a career opportunity (that rocket ship) when it comes knocking - and then take action so you can seize it.
Three months after starting my first ever proper job (in the UK Civil Service), I was given the opportunity to move to Brussels, for work, alone.
I would be living in an apart-hotel in a strange city; working in a non-Civil Service office where I knew no-one, not even the culture; and doing a job I had literally no idea how to do.
What did I say?
YES, of course.
And it was brilliant.
The naivety of youth helped me seize this opportunity.
But so did my ability to say YES - because my desire for achievement and adventure has always outweighed my fears.
This is not true for everyone.
Have a think back over your life and career so far. List three things you are happy you said “yes” to; and three things you WISH you’d said “yes” to. What stopped you? Was it the right decision at the time, or were you letting something stop you...?
> So first, how do you recognise a career opportunity when it comes knocking?
> And then, how do you make sure you seize it, and don’t let it slide past?
How to recognise a career opportunity
1. Define what you want
Something is only an “opportunity” if it is something that has a positive result (we aren't given an “opportunity” to go to prison…).
In order to understand that, you have to know WHAT you want.
So the first step to recognising an opportunity is to define your goals.
These can be very long-term: “I want to be CEO”, “I want to be a Partner”. Or they can be shorter-term - Sheryl Sandberg recommends defining your goal 18 months from now: “I want to manage a team”; “I want to present my proposal to the Board”.
The key point is, you won’t recognise how a career proposal is a positive step (ie an opportunity) if you don’t know where you’re going.
2. Give yourself time for reflection
Not every opportunity is obvious: you are not often called in by your boss and offered a promotion...
Sometimes you have to spot them for yourself.
For example: a merger between organisations might offer opportunities for new job responsibilities (leading merged teams; or even leading on aspects of the merger).
Or a colleague leaving might offer opportunities for taking on new management responsibilities.
Or a new office opening abroad might mean a chance for a secondment overseas.
Give yourself the best chance to identify these opportunities.
Keep abreast of changes in your organisation and your industry.
Think: what might these mean for me? What chances do they offer for me to move closer to my goals?
Every month, take some time out to research, read and think about strategically about this, so you are prepared for when the opportunity arises.
How to seize a career opportunity
You've done the preparation, the opportunity has arrived - now it's time for action.
1. Identify your best course of action
What actions do I need to take to take advantage of this opportunity?
What is the timeframe?
Who specifically needs to know what specifically, and by when?
Who might disagree/ what might prevent this from happening, and what can I do about it?
Sit down, and map this out, step by step.
> It could be simple: just say “yes”.
> It could be complex: you need to agree a way forward with a number of different stakeholders.
If you're feeling overwhelmed, start with the very first step: define that. Then move on from there. The journey of a thousand miles…
And this is the perfect time to use the support of a mentor - someone who is knowledgeable about you, your career goals, and your industry.
Run your ideas for action past them, and see what they can add.
2. Overcome your blocks
Something is stopping you from taking action - and that’s because your fear of what could go wrong is stronger than your desire for the possible gain.
These steps will help you redress the balance:
You have already identified your desire through your preparatory work defining your goal. Now clarify that even further. List all the things you have to gain. See what you would be passing up if you don't go for it.
Say to yourself, “What if I could do this?” Imagine what that would be like. Really visualise the world where you succeeded in seizing this opportunity, and gaining all the benefits it would bring. Making the success really vivid will strengthen your desire for it.
List all the things that could go wrong if you were to say yes to this opportunity. All of them. Then one by one, work out if they are actually real, rather than a perception. And then plan to mitigate the real ones, and put those actions in your action plan. (When we shine a light on our fears, often they melt away. And if not, planning to mitigate them moves them from being an emotive fear to a practical obstacle that can be overcome. This allows for action.)
Finally, imagine not seizing the opportunity, and not gaining the benefits. Feel in your guts the disappointment, and regret. Use that as a motivator to act.
Richard Branson’s approach to opportunities is, “The answer is yes, now what was the question?”.
This may be a step too far for many...
But certainly, career success is dependent on seizing the right opportunities.
And this can mean not only acting on them, but also creating them. Don’t wait for them to find you.
Take responsibility for your career success, and take action.
p.s. if you're interested in seizing a career opportunity, I am now taking bookings for my new Career Accelerator Programme, starting on 23rd April 2019.
This 8 week programme will help you transform your career without struggling with stress or risking burnout.
It combines 9 modules of online training with four 1:2:1 calls with me, plus weekly group coaching, for an absolute bargain, never-to-be-repeated price for the special Launch participants.
For more information, click here...