Career Success in 3 Easy Steps – Step 1: Define Success

Career Success in 3 Easy Steps – The first step is to Define what success actually looks like and decide what tasks, if performed regularly, will provide the greatest return on time invested.  The second step is to Clear the Path; automate your workflow and reduce the amount of time that you spend focusing on low-value activities.  The third step is to Do the Work that matters most.  In this series we will examine each step in turn.

“What does success in my job look like?”

Often we think we know what to focus on, but it turns out to be the wrong thing.  Why is it that some people stagnate on the career ladder while others seem to fly to the top effortlessly?

Success in any field is dependent on doing a good job, but also doing a good job on the right things.  It is easy today to get lost in the minutiae of your daily tasks so that you lose sight of the bigger picture.  This is especially common for knowledge workers as we often lack physical markers that indicate how productive we have been that day.  So we fall into the trap of focusing on the one item that proves to the world that we are “working” –  Email.  Any while good electronic communication skills are important, the instant replies are likely breaking your concentration and keeping you from doing the work that really matters, both to your company and to your career.

Start by simplifying things.  When boiled down to their essence there are really only two jobs in the whole world; you either make money for your company, or you save money for your company.  Salesmen, technicians, and researchers fall into the first camp, while administrators, accountants, and secretaries fall into the second.  The jury is still out on where lawyers fall.

Every job will have a handful of Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s) that if completed successfully will ensure a successful career.  And the things that are valued are not always the things that are said to be valued.  If you can identify the things in your field that truly matter, and focus on those exclusively, you will gain a competitive advantage that will be hard to beat.

Success Viewed From What Angle?

A key point to keep in mind while defining your KPI’s is that there are two angles you want your career viewed from if you are aiming to be a top performer in your field, and not just your office.

Your performance is not only judged by your immediate boss, or members of the board.  It will also be judged by your peers and colleagues within your industry, especially when they are considering adding members to their own teams.  Certain items that are very important within your company, such as timeliness and accuracy of reporting, will be assumed as a given by outsiders.

But they’ll also be looking for something more.

The trick is to figure out which few actions, performed consistently, will give you the greatest return on your time invested both inside your company and outside across your industry as a whole.  There are going to be certain things that you’ll need to do to stay at the top of your game inside the company, and other things to do that will ensure you are playing at the top of the big game in your industry.  Sometimes they will be the same thing, other times you’ll need to put in some extra effort on the side.

Defining these KPI’s will take some introspection and you’ll need to read between the lines in places.  But fortunately you should already have a number of resources to pull from.  You’ll just need to take the time and do some digging.

Ask Your Boss

Have you ever had a job where it seemed like you couldn’t catch a break?  Chances are that you may not have been doing what actually needed to be done, or not doing it in to the standard required.  This leads to frustration and anger from both sides which is unfortunate because this is easily solved with a bit of communication.

Your immediate superior is the first person you should speak with.  Different bosses value different things so what worked with your last boss may not work with your current one.  And if you have been promoted into a new position, with a new boss, then chances are that your KPI’s have shifted as well.

The shortcut here is to sit down with your boss and ask.  What do they value?  What is expected?  How can you help them make their job easier?

This doesn’t stop with your immediate supervisor either.  Reach out to people in your organization up the ladder (as appropriate) right to the CEO.  As people become more focused on the overall running of the company rather than day to day operations they will have developed a more focused outlook on what is providing the ultimate value within the organization, which can really help you dial in your concentration.  And they will probably be more willing to talk than you might think, especially if you are coming at it from a place of humility and genuine interest.


Your staff handbook is another piece of low hanging fruit from which you should be looking for information.  It likely holds your job description as well as other handy tidbits that will help you figure out where your efforts are best focused.  Besides that, it will give you the nuts and bolts of performing your daily tasks, which will be invaluable info during step two.

You should give this a read through at least once a year to ensure you are familiar with the changes made and because you may pick up something new with each fresh pass.

Interviewing Rock Stars

Who is the best at what they do within your company?  Within your field?  Who do you see that is excelling with ease, or has a trajectory that you would like to emulate?

Make a list of these rock stars and then reach out to them.  Email works, but a phone call or face to face meeting is best .  Ask them what they consider to be the most important tasks to concentrate on.  If they could do it all again, what would they spend more time working on, and what would they leave out?

A fifteen-minute meeting with somebody at the top of their game can save you years of trial and error.  Model your behavior after theirs in order to achieve similar results.  It’s how apprenticeships have worked for thousands of years, updated for the modern age.

If those persons happen to live on the opposite side of the world, then you can utilize Skype and do an interview that way.  And if they are consultants or private agents then you could even consider hiring them for an hour to answer your questions.  A couple of hundred dollars spent to gain a distinct advantage from your competition is money well spent.

Itemize Your Day

If you’ve ever been on a diet you are probably familiar with the instruction to write down everything that you put in your face for a week, in order to get a handle on how much you are eating.  The same idea can be applied to your work.  Track how much time you are spending daily on your tasks in order to identify patterns of activities that are providing the most benefit, and those which provide the least.

Pareto’s Law states that 80% of the value is provided by 20% of the activities.  The idea here is to identify those 20% activities, then spend 80% of your time focusing on them.

Make the Time

This process takes time to complete, but you will earn it back in time savings over the course of your career as you’ll be focusing on the right things and reducing the trial and error required to figure things out.  Take charge of your life rather than letting it happen to you.  It is time to figure out what is important, both to you and to the people in your life that count on you.  Once you’ve got the important things identified it is just a matter of focusing on them consistently.

Set aside some time to think things over.  The aim is to proactively control your time and efforts, rather than reacting to events after they happen.  By doing so you’ll provide the most value to yourself, your employer, your customers or clients, and if you are doing meaningful work, to the world as a whole.

What are some other ways we can identify the actions that provide the most value?  Please share any ideas you have!

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