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Eight tips on how to build an excellent career

published May 19, 2008

Rachelle J. Canter, PhD
( 7 votes, average: 4.6 out of 5)
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<<The eight simple tips that follow can save you needless time, effort, and frustration and help you have the career you want. These tips are short and action-oriented, designed for everyone with limited time (doesn't that describe all lawyers?) who needs to make a big impact in the career marketplace.

Tip 1: Define Career Satisfaction.

Avoid the common trap of assuming that success guarantees satisfaction. You cannot have a great career if you don't love what you do, no matter how impressive your title or how much money you make. If money alone were a guarantee of happiness, the world would not be crowded with unhappy lawyers.

What to do? Determine the sources of personal career satisfaction and seek satisfying work. Ask yourself the following questions as you consider your past jobs:
  • What are my greatest and most enjoyable skills?
  • What specific activities, tasks, and projects have interested me most and made the best use of my skills?
  • What kinds of results and rewards have meant the most to me (building something new, adding to knowledge, helping others, etc.)?
  • What roles (leader, follower, expert, coach, etc.) have I enjoyed most?
Tip 2: Have a Plan for Your Career, Not a Story.

Most people are caught up in their stories about the (career) past — how they ended up where they are in their jobs and careers and can't go farther. For example, I have personally heard scores of stories from attorneys who were assigned a specialty area by a firm that had nothing to do with their personal preferences and everything to do with the firm's needs. Once they developed competence in that area, they believed that they couldn't break out.

These folks never realize their career dreams because they believe they can't and never even try. Instead of a story about the past, create a simple plan for your (career) future.

Identify your long-term job goal, assess your current skills and experience, and determine the gap between the two so you can identify the steps to get from where you are now to where you want to go. The plan may be as simple as "I want to be a senior engineer in a technology company, so in the next three years, I need to increase my project management experience and build my facility with specific engineering software and approaches."

Tip 3: Calendar in Small Weekly Steps to Meet Your Career Goals.

Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither are careers. Look for small, measurable steps you can take each week to advance your skills and experience and ultimately meet your long-term goal. Ask what you can do in the next year to make yourself more valuable to your current employer and more marketable to other employers.

For example, talk to a person who does something exceptionally well (such as managing projects or coaching subordinates) that you aspire to do well. Or have a networking lunch to explore possibilities in the oil and gas industry. Call a former colleague who got an MA in Taxation to explore whether she thinks it was a worthwhile career investment. Read a business book on a new management tool.

Use the calendar to schedule a small but regular amount of time each week to work on your career goals. Small steps over time can create big results.

Tip 4: Keep an Accomplishment Log.

On your computer desktop or a piece of paper in your desk drawer, record every work accomplishment and quantify its impact or results. This will be invaluable data for performance reviews, salary or bonus discussions, negotiations for new jobs, and resume updates.

Tip 5: Prepare the Best Resume You Can.

Your resume is your best marketing tool and your professional face to the world, including prospective employers, boards, your network, and sources of other job, professional, and civic opportunities. Not only is it worth the effort to produce a great resume, but there's also a particular kind of resume that will help you most: an accomplishment-oriented resume.

Focus on specific quantified results to convey your unique track record. Show what results you've achieved instead of simply expecting that your job title or job responsibilities or scope will do the trick. Remember that if you are relying only on titles or employers, there is always someone with a more prestigious title or employer or credential.

Don't fall into the trap (or prejudice) of many law firm employers who care most about law school prestige or class rank, even for lawyers who have been practicing for years. Instead, focus on quantifying your contributions. Employers don't want to know what you were paid to do; they want to know what you actually contributed. Even traditional legal employers will be impressed, as hundreds of my attorney clients have found.

Tip 6: Build a Case for Your Target Job.

Getting your dream job is about marketability, not ability. The fact that you have the skills to do your dream job doesn't mean that anyone will hire you to do that job unless you build a strong case for yourself.

How? By identifying factual themes about your experiences and skills that tailor your approach and qualifications to their needs. This demonstrates value to them.

Saying you have the analytical, customer service, and interpersonal skills for a legal job with Google is just declaring your value; pointing to a 10-year track record of major joint ventures in target areas for Google, fluency in Chinese and work experience negotiating deals in Chinese, and experience working with two of Google's major competitors demonstrates value. Build your case, not your hopes.

Tip 7: Develop Your Interpersonal Skills.

People skills are not incidental to your success; they are essential. Many smart, talented people derail because of poor interpersonal skills, so it's important to pay attention to the impact you have on others. Emotional intelligence will determine your career success much more than technical excellence or smarts. It can be learned. Learn it, and keep learning.

Tip 8: Ask for Feedback.

Another important reason people derail in their careers is that they don't get good feedback on their performance. Lawyers are especially bad at delivering feedback, so if you want it, you'll have to ask for it repeatedly and often.

Don't expect feedback; ask for it regularly and repeatedly and ask tough questions to get useful and constructive criticism. Take it to heart and implement the lessons, but don't take it personally. Don't waste time being defensive. Incorporate the feedback, make changes, and keep asking how you are doing. Businesses thrive with continuous improvement. People do too.


Following these eight tips can help you find and do work you love. Begin now. Don't get so busy with your job that you forget to manage your career!

About the Author

Rachelle J. Canter is the author of Make the Right Career Move: 28 Critical Insights and Strategies to Land Your Dream Job, a career guide for attorneys and executives.

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