A Step at a Time

A dozen strategies to help advance your career

by Joseph D. Conklin

Every so often, I daydream about becoming one of those highly paid, in-demand consultants. Based on a quick perusal of the business press headlines and the top 10 best-selling business books, I have concluded two things are absolutely essential for the move from employee to consultant: a 12-step program and a strategy that spells out a catchy acronym.

Since we live in a rapidly changing, increasingly uncertain workplace with more and different challenges, I figured a good place to start my consulting career was in career management. With a little thought, I found 12 steps for a program and even came up with a trendy acronym to package them: VEND. It stands for volunteer, educate, network and document. After all, when it comes to promoting our talents to present and future employers, each one of us is a "VENDor," right?

This program is quite flexible. You can mix and match the steps to fit your own situation. Each step is good by itself. To increase the potential benefits, do these 12 things:

  1. Volunteer ideas for improvement projects to the boss. It shows initiative. Coming up with the ideas sharpens your mind for other projects. To make this step work, summarize the pros and cons of the project in a brief memo to focus the discussion and hone your writing skills.
  2. Volunteer for interdepartmental teams. The best ideas you come up with in step one will probably require cooperation between departments. If management sets up teams, see if you can contribute. As a side benefit, you learn more about other parts of the organization.
  3. Educate yourself by doing research and applying for training courses. The two to three-day short courses can be as beneficial as semester-long ones. When the workplace budget is tight for training, another possibility is to identify good books and suggest the organization buy them for a quality library.
  4. Educate yourself by researching and applying to go to conferences. Some organizations can afford airfare to distant cities, and others cannot. If you live where good conferences are within easy driving distance so no airfare or hotel is required, urge your department to give you time off to attend. Conferences or seminars you can take over the internet are other options for those with tight travel budgets.
  5. Educate yourself by studying want ads for skills in demand. This is one way to get ideas for appropriate training or conferences.
  6. Educate yourself by researching possible lateral transfers and promotions. This is a good idea if you can find a lateral transfer that will give you needed skills for a future move up the ladder.
  7. Network by talking to recruiters about the job market. This works well when you have established a relationship with one or two recruiters over a period of time. They know your skills, talents and traits and are willing to talk to you about what is happening in the market—even if you are not looking for a new job at the moment. There are many recruiters like this, and it is worth the trouble to seek them out.
  8. Network by staying in touch with former supervisors. When either or both of you are no longer in the same reporting relationship or company, it is easier to distill and organize the lessons both of you have learned on the job.
  9. Document your accomplishments by updating your résumé once a year. If the updates are few or minor, handling them yourself is probably just fine. If it has been a while, or if your skills and accomplishments have grown in a major way recently, enlisting a professional résumé writer can be money well spent.
  10. Document your accomplishments by writing them up for a performance review. A good performance review is a two-way discussion. A brief write-up of your accomplishments, plans and training prepares you to contribute to the discussion. Also, it helps ensure your boss remembers all of your contributions.
  11. Document updated contact information for references once a year.
  12. Document updated ASQ certifications once a year. You are either certified or working on becoming certified, right?

I haven’t decided whether to take VEND on the road yet. The beauty of the system is that I can use it to manage my own career in the meantime. That thought is very comforting.

Joseph D. Conklin is a mathematical statistician at the U.S. Department of Energy in Washington, D.C. He earned a master’s degree in statistics from Virginia Tech. Conklin is a senior member of ASQ and an ASQ-certified quality manager, quality engineer, quality auditor and reliability engineer.

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