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Building Career Capital — From the First Deposit to the Big Pay-Off

stock_student3Experts agree that it’s never too early to begin investing in your personal professional development, or building career capital. Think of career capital as an investment in yourself that will ensure that you are professionally secure, productive, and happy throughout your working life. Just like any other investment, it’s not something that you throw money at and then walk away from. You must continually add to your investment by acquiring new knowledge, new skills, and new capabilities. You need to make deposits on a regular basis, keep up with the balance, diversify—it will only work for you if you nurture it and pay attention to it.

Open your account with the following basics, and watch it grow as you accumulate knowledge, insight, and skills.

Know Yourself
“The front end of your personal professional adventure is to be self-aware,” says Janelle Shubert, Associate Director of the Center for Women’s Leadership at Babson University. “Figure out what you love to do, what makes your heart sing. Pay attention, because when you’re doing something you love, it’s not work.”

This self-evaluation really needs to be happening in high school or even earlier, but if you are beyond that, don’t despair! College is also a good place to be introspective, to explore different careers; but many people can’t really wrap their heads around what they want to do until they are out in the workforce, and in their first jobs.

“When you figure out what matters to you, who you are, then you can use that as a basis to make life decisions,” adds Janine Moon, founder of CompassPoint Coaching, a career coaching firm in Columbus, Ohio. Too often, Moon finds herself taking clients—at 40 or 50 years old—through a process of self-discovery that should have happened years earlier, before they spent decades in an unsatisfying career. It is always a good investment to take the time to discover your foundational values before committing to a professional direction.

“It makes me enormously sad when people get up every day and hate what they’re doing. Life is so short,” Shubert says. “Try to make the stuff that you do and get paid for something you can feel really proud of.”

If you do find yourself in a job that’s just not making you happy, have a conversation with your boss, urges Shubert. “Don’t be afraid to tell your supervisor that you may be good at something but you just hate it, it’s not something that makes you happy or challenges you.” Shubert reminds us that bosses are supposed to nurture their employees, give them the tools to do their jobs, to grow and develop professionally: if they don’t know you’re unhappy, they can’t do that. “Your boss can’t read your mind: you need to have that conversation,” she says.

Challenge Yourself
“We often take comfort in things that we do well,” says Shubert. “It’s safe.” But women are more likely than men to stay in that safe zone and not challenge themselves, not push for more responsibility or for a different role.

Think about your current job not as the end, but as one step along a path. “When I talk to students, I tell them to quit looking for the perfect job,” Shubert says. “This is your first job, it’s not the job you’re going to have for the rest of your life.” She urges job seekers to ask different types of questions during interviews. How will this job build the skills you need to continue on your chosen path? What strengths can you leverage in this job, what weaknesses will it help to bolster?

Think about what you need to get out of the job in order to move on, get it, and then MOVE ON to the next challenge. “This is going to be episodic—it’s a movie with a surprise ending and sometimes some intermissions,” says Shubert.

Make Yourself Visible
Women often enter organizations and work with the belief that it’s all about being competent—they’ll work hard and everyone will notice. “Your advancement has nothing to do with being competent,” Shubert avows. “Organizations hire people who are smart and already have the skill set they’re looking for, so being competent is the lowest expectation.” An organization will only invest in growing and shaping your skill set if it can see you; and if you’re really, really competent, you’re probably invisible. Shubert believes, “Some of this is a failure to provide ‘data’ about what you are doing and how you are doing to the folks who make decisions and can make a difference.”

So, Shubert suggests that the most important thing that you can do after getting a new job is to figure out what being “visible” means in that organization. Maybe it’s being on a certain committee, maybe it’s organizing the office Christmas party, maybe it’s being a liaison between departments, or maybe it’s just speaking up in meetings. “Be as memorable as you are talented,” she urges.

Another of the most important things you can do to foster your own professional growth is to ask questions. If you’re not asking 20 questions a day, you’re not asking enough, says Shubert. Not only does this help you to become visible, it will help you transcend your assigned role and find out how other parts of the organization work—both great investments in your long-term career health.

Janine Moon often works with clients who have found that they’ve been put into a box that is very difficult to get out of. “You either have to leave the organization or find a way to get out of the box in a non-threatening manner,” she says. Ask questions, break out of your role, don’t let yourself get in that box to begin with.

Build Relationships
“Networking continues to be looked at as a soft skill, as less important than hard skills, even though in the knowledge economy it’s the soft skills that will create success,” says Moon. “More than half the population hates networking, but that’s how business happens.”

Many people, and women in particular, think of networking as distasteful because they equate it to schmoozing or being political. But Shubert advises, ”Get the word ‘political’ or ‘politics’ out of how you talk about—and think about—your work environment. Substitute ‘relationships.’ Think ‘networks.’ Figure out how to create ‘partnerships.’”

Moon adds, “Smart networking is not a short-term affair. You may go to an event and connect with someone, but that’s just the beginning—you need to know how to maintain the network in order for it to work for you.” And women are so great at building and maintaining relationships, Shubert says, why resist it? “We have this incredible advantage and we need to capitalize on it.”

Anticipate Life Changes
Many women wonder how they can build a solid career when they expect to take a hiatus at some point to raise a family. It’s the 500-pound gorilla in the conference room, and many tip-toe around the subject and delay discussing it for as long as possible. But a study being conducted now at Babson may upend the notion that family plans are not something you want to talk about at work.

Though Babson is only in the very preliminary stages of collecting data, Shubert says that she’s been intrigued by the reports that have come in so far suggesting that women need to treat starting a family as the normal, natural, and inevitable event that it is. “I keep hearing that the women who have stepped out of the work force and have been successful at stepping back in are the ones who did two things,” she says of the data she is sorting through. “First, they were clear and upfront at their last place of work about what they were doing—they didn’t wait until the last minute to spring the news of a pregnancy, and they had a conversation with their boss about arrangements for them to come back.”  Shubert believes such openness sends an incredibly powerful signal to the organization that you are being strategic, you care about yourself professionally, and you care about the organization.

Companies know that women are too big a talent pool to ignore, and many are becoming much more astute about how to attract and keep women. Many companies—both large and small—are more than willing to make arrangements to ensure that they don’t loose good people. “Even so, the more we can do inside those companies to get policies and practices in place, the better,” says Shubert.

The second thing that ensures a successful workplace reentry is maintaining networks. “You need to keep those connections to people open—phone calls, lunches, emails—don’t let them lapse,” urges Shubert. It doesn’t take very long for your contacts to move on and forget about you.

When you add a great basic education and a strategy for life-long learning to this list of core investments, you’ve rounded out an investment portfolio that will be sure to pay off in a lifetime of career satisfaction.

Dr. J. Janelle Shubert is the Associate Director of the Center for Women’s Leadership at Babson College and a professor of management. She is also the program director for Babson’s MBA Women’s Leadership Program. Janine Moon is a business/career coach and trainer whose expertise lies in developing individuals and businesses to confidently manage changing corporate cultures.

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