In today’s information-rich world, there is no reason why going back to college should be the primary way you acquire the knowledge and skills you need to rise up the ranks in your field or to switch careers.
Higher education is important and plenty of research proves that college degrees are worth their cost. However, I also value autonomy and believe that people should be allowed to live in the way that best aligns with their lifestyle preferences and values. For most people, working full-time while in school and likely accruing debt, takes away their freedom to live life to their fullest.
Here are seven strategies that will help you improve your reputation and be offered new opportunities at work, without getting another degree.
#1 Shine Beyond Your Workplace
Attending industry conferences on your own time is a great way to differentiate yourself because they facilitate an experience to help you acquire connections and knowledge that individuals who don’t attend the conference don’t have access to.
When determining which ones to attend, keep in mind that in most cases, you don’t go to conferences for the content. You go for the connections. The information you hear can be learned elsewhere; what you are paying for is the opportunity to be surrounded by talented, intelligent people with similar interests as you. Choose the conferences that focus most on the areas you’re passionate about to make connections with people who are most able to help you succeed.
Before attending conferences, set up a system to measure its return on investment. Here are some examples of measurable goals for conferences:
- Agree to future meetings with three people who you can mutually benefit from sharing expertises with.
- Connect with two potential clients for your company.
- Find a freelancer and/or consultant who may be able to meet a critical need for your company.
For the introverts reading this, I know conferences can be your worst nightmare. However, there is one networking strategy that is guaranteed to make socializing at conferences enjoyable.
Rather than trying to meet lots of people and remaining towards the center of crowds, focus on developing one-on-one connections. Engaging in deep conversations with people boosts your levels of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that is linked to feelings of pleasure and contentment in introverts. This will help you maintain your positive attitude.
The challenge for many introverts is finding those few people to engage in deep conversation with. Here are a few things to look for:
- People hovering just outside groups, along walls or sitting alone. Chances are, they are other introverts who feel uncomfortable in the large group setting.
- Strike up conversations with people sitting around you during presentations to see if you click well.
- People whom you have seen or met elsewhere since that sets the foundation for you to strike up a conversation.
If by the end of the conference you only spoke with three or four people, it’s okay as long as you developed strong connections with those individuals and reached your goals.
Action step: Upon returning from conferences, share what you learned and accomplished with your colleagues and supervisors at work to begin putting into action the knowledge learned.
#2 Focus on Your Potential, Not Your Past
When most people try to get a new opportunity, they strive to convince people in power that they are the most qualified person for it. This strategy is intuitive because western society, particularly America, is built on the belief that the people who are the most competent and work the hardest deserve to be the most successful.
Strangely though, our brains do not rationalize who is deserving of opportunity in that way. A joint study between Stanford and Harvard Universities found that people view individuals who have a lot of potential as more competent and worthy of recognition, rewards and promotion than those who have lots of relevant skills and experience.
The researchers found that we like people with potential because they excite us. We envision the amazing things that they may accomplish and we become so enamored by the possibilities that we want to give them opportunities to make our visions become a reality. Contrastingly, there is nothing cognitively alluring about people who have accomplished a lot of things. Being qualified with no obvious growth potential is boring.
Action step: When speaking to people in power (anytime, but particularly when you are trying to get a new opportunity) focus on sharing your potential by talking about your goals, the people you’re aspiring to become like, the skillset you are working to acquire and other topics that highlight your growth potential.
#3 Your Team Creates Your Success
On the quest to improve your reputation in your organization, earn a promotion, gain recognition or achieve another goal that requires you to be a superstar, you are unlikely to succeed by focusing solely on boosting your own career. 86% of managers report that strong teamwork skills are one of the primary factors considered when deciding who to promote.
An effective way to way to prove you’re are a team player is to practice active listening. Active listening is when you ignore all distractions and focus solely on understanding the message someone is sharing with you. It may sound simple, but people rarely engage in this way. Too often while other people are talking, our own thoughts are rambling away about our problems, to-do lists, eye-catching things in the surrounding area, etc. Even thinking about your response to someone before they have had the chance to finish speaking means that you are not actively listening.
Because active listening is so rare, it will help you stand out for two critical reasons:
- People you interact with will feel like you genuinely value them which will help you form stronger relationships and strengthen your reputation as someone who is desirable to work with.
- When people feel like their thoughts are respected, they share more information. The more information you know about what is going on in your organization, even if it is just gossip, the better equipped you are to identify potential projects and problems you can volunteer to work on and stand out for the contributions you make.
To practice active listening, use a combination of verbal and nonverbal communication to prove to the person you are speaking with that you are 100% engaged with what they have to say.
Some of the key verbal components of active listening are:
- Summarizing what people say back at them.
- Restating some of their key points.
- Giving people feedback tailored to the specific information they shared with you.
The nonverbal components are:
- Slowly nodding your head three times. This encourages people to keep talking.
- Face your entire body from head to toe toward people. This is called fronting and not only is it a sign of respect, it also shows people that you are fully focused on them.
- If sitting especially, lean in toward them and tilt your head slightly sideways. This conveys that you are eager to hear what they have to say.
Organizational psychologist Adam Grant discovered that the majority of people value reciprocation. When you help a colleague, they feel compelled to return the favor to keep your relationship equal. When you’re trying to build yourself up in your organization, having other people support you gives you a huge advantage.
Watch Grant’s Ted Talk to learn more:
Action step: Help others in the workplace whenever you have the time and ability to do so. Whether it is holding the door open for someone carrying a lot of things or volunteering to stay late to help your colleagues with a project or anything in between, helping others will solidify your positive status in the organization.
#4 Don’t Just Be Innovative, Be Intrapreneurial
Being “innovative” is one of those buzzwords that many people label themselves to help them stand out as someone who is creative and capable of solving problems. However, in reality, managers are looking for employees to possess a trait that is similar yet widely different in its application. Research shows that 66% of managers look for intrapreneurial behavior when making promotion decisions.
What is the difference between being innovative and being intrapreneurial?
Innovative people discover creative ways to approach and solve current projects and problems. Comparatively, intrapreneurs identify previously unaddressed areas of potential improvement and propose solutions to address them in a unique way.
In other words, innovative people add their flair to existing projects while intrapreneurs create new projects and solve them too.
Action step: Check out my full article on How to Be an Intrapreneur to find out more.
#5 Think Like a Time Management Guru
Do you look to your manager to set your priorities and arrange your schedule to ensure you have time to complete all of your work or do you do those things independently? Your answer to this question is one of the predominant determining factors in whether or not you’ll be considered for new opportunities.
87% of managers say they look for employees who, when tasked with multiple responsibilities, can independently prioritize their work in ways that best benefit the company. For example, say you’re a product developer and are working on two projects. You need to do a few days of uninterrupted work on project one to make progress before your meeting with your supervisor at the end of the week. However, the supply chain team needs information about project two so that they have time to set up supplier contracts for that product. A strategic employee would gather the information for the supply chain team prior to dedicating the rest of their time to project one. This ensures both they and the supply chain team are able to meet deadlines.
To develop this skill, you must be able to independently answer these questions:
- What tasks should you prioritize?
- How do you plan your schedule to ensure all of your work is completed in a timely manner that aligns with your priorities?
One way to do this is to rank all of your tasks based on how urgent and important your tasks are.
- Urgent tasks have a deadline coming up soon.
- Important tasks are critical to your project’s success and may be highly critiqued.
After making this chart, complete your tasks in the following order:
- Important and urgent
- Not important and urgent
- Important and not urgent
- Not important and not urgent
The more successfully independent you become, the less your discussions with your managers will focus on the logistics of keeping you on track. This opens up more time to discuss valuable topics such as your strengths, goals and areas of improvement.
Action step: Use the above framework to categorize your next 10 tasks. This makes it easy to determine how to most effectively prioritize your time.
#6 Invest in Alternative Education
If you’ve hit a point where your skills are stagnating and you are struggling to keep up with recent graduates or you want to make a career change but first need knowledge in your new field, it can feel like going back to school is your only option.
Luckily, there are several organizations who have worked to transform higher education by creating an open education model that gives anyone the opportunity to take courses with little to no commitment.
There are two primary types of open education: expert-led and university-led.
University-led open education courses are similar to traditional online university courses except they tend to be shorter, are open enrollment to anyone in the world and require far less work.
Two of the most popular platforms are EdX and Coursera. Both offer a range of options from allowing you to audit courses for free and complete zero coursework to low-cost certificate programs that require some homework and quizzes to mini degree programs.
Expert-led courses are online courses created by industry experts who want to share their knowledge with the world. Their length, style and structure varies widely depending on the instructor. These courses offer immense value because they tend to be highly practical, however the lack of oversight means that most are unable to offer credible certificates. Popular platforms include: Udemy, LinkedIn Learning and CreativeLive.
If you are uncertain about whether or not you’ll be able to learn as well using open education as you would in a college setting, consider this: 85% of students who use open education materials say they learn just as well if not better than those who learn using standard textbooks in a classroom environment.
Other benefits of open education include:
- There is little to no long-term commitment so you don’t have to make major life sacrifices to learn.
- Allows you to join a community of professionals who are also interested in learning.
- Online courses include learners from all around the world and in the forums, you have the opportunity to make connections with and learn from people whom you would never meet in-person.
Keep in mind that traditional education isn’t the only way to acquire the knowledge you need to stand out in the workplace.
#7 This is the Hobby that Nearly All Successful People Share
If you look at high-performers from a variety of industries, there are very few characteristics that most share in common since the traits necessary for success vary widely by profession.
One of the few success strategies that does transcend industries is reading. A study surveyed 1,200 wealthy people (those who earn $160,000+ per year) and discovered that the one thing they had in common was that they all read in their freetime. More important though is what they read. Unlike low-income individuals (those with an annual income of $35,000 or less) who read novels, magazines and other light-hearted publications for entertainment, wealthy people read educational nonfiction to learn.
Being well-read and committed to a lifelong pursuit of knowledge makes you stand out because it ensures that you are always one of the most intelligent people in the room. It also gives you the perspective to add fascinating contributions to conversations and approach your work in more effective ways using the lessons you acquired through reading.
By reading this article, you’re already off to a good start. However, books provide a level of depth into subjects that few articles can match. If you don’t know where to begin, start with bestsellers in your industry or chose one from our list:
If you think you don’t have enough time to read regularly, estimate the amount of time you spend each week on social media and Netflix. The majority of that time can be spent more productively with a book or some research-backed articles.
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