How to seize a career opportunity

"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…