How to work yourself into the opportunity zone
Without fail, everyone I speak to wants opportunity, and as a mentor, I want to give it to them. But how?
What does opportunity mean and how can you get it?
I’d like to walk through three critical components to opportunity and how you can work yourself into the opportunity zone.
Context: the needs of your environment
Track record: your demonstrated success
Vision: the desire for your career
Context speaks to the needs of your environment. This can be the most frustrating and hardest to control piece of getting opportunity, but it should not be overlooked. You can be the best rodeo rider in town, but if you work for an accounting firm, they probably won’t pay you more because of it.
The bottom line is that being awesome at something and wanting something isn’t sufficient. It is your job to seek contexts that have use for the unique skillset that you bring to the table.
Jumping straight into a new job, or field, or industry might not be in the cards for you. So what can you do about your context?
The best thing you can do is to get informed. Pay attention to the world outside your day-to-day job. Watch the leaders of your organization to see where things are headed. Read about other organizations to see how they attack their market.
These “opportunities” aren’t necessarily walking around with titles and salaries—needs can be more subtle than that. Needs change, people change, contexts change. Your best bet is to fully understand your current situation, as well as anticipate your future situation.
I also see myself consistently giving the responsibility, titles, and raises to the same high performers who are crushing it.
I can’t count the number of times people have asked me for opportunity (and money) but have underperformed at what they are already tasked with. I also see myself consistently giving the responsibility, titles, and raises to the same high performers who are crushing it.
I want to empower everyone to ask for the things they want, but the reality is that if you get what you want, you’re going to have to do the work. Help your management justify all the “opportunity” by being an A-player in your current role. Build a reputation as someone who delivers, and people will start asking you to deliver more.
You might be tempted to say you’re putting out mediocre work today because your job is boring or doesn’t align with your skillset, and this might be true. However, your current work is the best way for people to know what you’ll be like with your future work.
If you’re tempted to ask for a raise or promotion but know you’re not a top performer, I recommend a re-ordering of your conversations. Set up time with your boss to have the performance conversation first. (Want to know how? Check out this piece.)
Once you’re bringing your A-game, you can ask your company to bring theirs.
Vision ties context and track record together. It sets a direction for you and your advocates. Vision can take many forms. It can be a specific job (Senior Account Manager – West Coast), a generic type of job (CMO), or a skill set (go-to negotiator).
Articulating what you want is an important step in getting it. As a leader, I am constantly on the lookout for a "home" for different types of work. If I know someone on my team is really interested in honing their data analysis skills, I might assign them the upcoming project on client retention tracking.
If I don't know what you want, I might be reticent to give you an opportunity. I worry you'll just perceive it as extra work, because I don't know how it fits into your longer vision.
I find that many people shy away from creating a vision because it feels definite and scary. Below are some of the common fears:
If I say I want to be Job A and then Job B comes along, can I change my mind?
What if I don’t like Job A?
What if they laugh at me for wanting Job A?
They don’t need someone to do Job A, so what is the point in telling them I want it?
It’s definitely true that picking different random job visions every day will not lead to success, but I would advise everyone that it also isn’t a life sentence. You’re allowed to change your mind. They also probably won’t laugh at you if you’re a rockstar in your current job.
Finally, contexts change, so communicating often about what you’re looking for helps put you at the top of the list when something shifts in your favor.
The Triangle in Action
When I first started working in New Business sales management, I had an individual contributor on my team (let's call him Larry) who was very interested in becoming a manager. We talked about his vision a lot, but we didn't have any open positions and he didn't have any leadership experience.
However, every time a new task would come along, Larry stepped forward and volunteered to do the work. He worked longer hours than his peers, and didn't immediately get more money.
We had just hired two junior sales team members, and he offered to mentor both of them. Soon enough, he was quasi-managing these new members. He ran one-on-one meetings with them, gave input on their goals, and ran trainings on sales skills. Everyone gave rave reviews on Larry's leadership abilities.
Over time, there were changes in the business, and it made sense to open up the New Business Sales Manager role. It was a full two years later, but Larry finally got the position he wanted.
He had the vision, and his track-record, especially in relevant skills, was excellent. When the context shifted, he had a vote of confidence from the entire leadership team.
Choosing him was a no-brainer.
Opportunity lives in the place where context, track-record, and vision overlap. You have more control than you realize, so don’t wait around for something nebulous to be handed to you.
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