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It takes more than just being smart to get ahead. Image licensed under Creative Commons.

Your career and your personal trajectory in life are firmly in your hands. What will you make of your career and your life? The odds have never been more stacked, with various factors in the macro environment conspiring to mean launching your career is harder than it has been in decades. With competition from every corner,  getting ahead is seriously tough. And if you’re trying to break in an industry like engineering, finance, journalism, law or public relations, it can be even tougher. You face off against hundreds – sometimes even thousands – of other candidates with identical skill sets to you. But you still want to progress for the prestige and to make more money. Even if you manage to secure a place on a coveted fast-track graduate scheme, how are you going to make sure that it’s you who lands the permanent role at the end? You need a strategy to maximise your chances of success. The planning starts here…

Get The Training You Need

Getting the career you want is all about the skills you can bring to the table and matching those to the wants and needs of the organisation you’re hoping to work for. A general level of education is simply not enough to help you stand out from other applicants. What you should be aiming for is to become a subject matter expert, with deep knowledge of your chosen sector, plus a host of soft skills like communication, negotiating and project management. This combination of attributes will make you a recruiter’s dream. The first route to become a specialist is through your learning. Take every opportunity to develop your knowledge and learn more about the industry you work in. Before completing your necessary education, make sure you understand which qualifications are desirable in the area your aiming to move into. It may be essential or even just advantageous to complete a postgraduate degree or some kind of professional body certification. You may well be committing yourself to a lot of additional study, so make sure you understand what that entails, the cost and how or where you can study – click here for more information. Some options may be offered as part-time or distance learning, so that you can combine certifications with practical work experience. Getting the right awards will give you more credibility in the eyes of the Human Resources departments your application will cross, and the more broad knowledge you have around your industry, the better. You can also aim to add some awards to your name once you get started. Almost every industry will have a governing body who give awards to recognise experts and high achievers – set about finding out how to get nominated. There’s nothing like a few accolades to add some magic to your resume. It’s also important to get to a few local networking events – you never know who you may meet that will become useful to your cause later on. Certainly, networking is the best way to get your face known and hear about any new opportunities coming up before they become general knowledge. Combine your face to face networking with an online platform like LinkedIn. Find industry specific groups and join in the conversation, put your opinions out there and see if you can author some blog posts or thought pieces and publish them on there. Getting your name associated with professional articles is a great way to showcase your passion and expertise. You can also further your knowledge with personal research rather than paid for courses. Whether it’s watching Photoshop design tutorials on YouTube or learning the principles of effective marketing via a TED Talk, reading industry journals or looking through research papers, there’s always things you can do independently to enhance your learning and keep your opinions informed and up to date.

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Look The Part

Although no one is suggesting that what you wear is more important than who you are as a person, the fact is that others do make judgements based on our appearance. Perhaps disproportionately so in the workplace, where higher-ups may catch a fleeting glimpse of us and make a snap judgement. When studies have shown that our clothing influences how others see us in the workplace, it’s worth paying attention to. When we know we look good, our confidence also gets a boost, and this can have a range of effects – from getting us to present better and pitch our ideas, to being the one that volunteers for that showcase project. Looking good doesn’t have to cost the earth, if you’re savvy enough to use sites like The Outnet or even eBay to bag high quality items. It’s much better to have a smaller selection of high quality items than armfuls of cheaply made junk. Concentrate on forming a capsule wardrobe for business comprised of well-made basics, and take it from there. Having the right, well-groomed look will put you in the confident, ‘can do’ state of mind that you need to pursue your goals and impress those around you, so don’t overlook this important step.

Get Networking

Once you know your stuff and you’re looking good, then you need to get out there are mingle. Expanding your network should be a continuous process throughout your career. Although events and conferences are great to get started, it doesn’t have to be all that you do on that from. From informal emails to contacts and former colleagues, to a quick coffee with a recruiter or reaching out to potential mentors, it’s something that you can keep rolling all the time. And it’s how you build on it that counts the most. Say you meet a great contact at an event – make sure you swap cards, and follow up with a quick email or add them on LinkedIn. Check in every so often. Even if an opportunity isn’t available right at that moment, when it does come up you’ll be at the forefront of their minds.

Put Your Plan First

Relying on lucky breaks is probably going to get you nowhere fast in the working world. You need to make your own luck to get ahead, and that starts with planning. There are a lot of qualities you will need to make this plan into reality – determination, tenacity and more – but they won’t mean much without a framework to apply them in. Learning to plan your career is all about splitting your ambitions into short term and long term goals over a span about two years for the immediate ones and ten for the far reaching ones. As well as stating your ambitions, the plan needs to function as a roadmap to success, with practical steps that show how you intend to achieve what you want. Do you research and make them into SMART goals – Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-Bound. This ensures you have a plan rather than just pie in the sky. Your personal development depends on drive and action just as much as foresight and planning. If you’re not sure how to get from A to B, consider consulting a careers coach, or reach out to industry contacts to get their take on the steps you need to take. You could also take a look at the career trajectory of a few people you admire- how did they get to where they are? What roles have they had? What qualifications did they get?  This will give you an idea of what it will take to get to the top in your industry.

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Find Your Voice

Getting noticed is all about being heard, so you need to make sure you speak up and have something good to say. There are two main ways to do this. The first is ensuring that you always have something relevant to contribute in meetings. Instead of just rocking up to the table  schedule time for meeting prep, where you do some research and come to the table prepared with a couple of ideas. Just as you wouldn’t show up to someone’s dinner table without a gift, don’t show up to the meeting table without some ideas. This is a great way to get recognised for you talents, as often meetings are the best chance for practical contact with senior leaders within your organisation. Sharing your insight and inspiration may mean you’ll be front of mind when an opportunity or a big new project rolls in. You will also develop a good reputation, so that when a promotion comes along or a new role is created, you are thought of and have credibility when you express your interest.

The best time to get started on your career aspirations is now. Create your plan, make those contacts and get started – and remember  every job, even if it isn’t where you want to be, has something to teach you. So go get that experience and do your preparation so that you’re in the best possible place when the right opportunity comes along.

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