Whether you’re a young graduate just starting your career or someone who is feeling the vocational version of the “Seven Year Itch,” the secret to professional development is taking control of the direction of your career. Many young professionals have been taught to ask for permission and seek guidance at every turn. At times this is understandable because young professionals have much to learn. But, it is easy to misapply this lesson and end up feeling a lack of control over your own career.
Professional success starts with being the CEO of your own career. Ray Kroc, the visionary who took McDonald’s restaurants from seven small locations to the global chain it is today, once said, “The quality of a leader is reflected in the standards they set for themselves.”
If you aspire to be an entrepreneur, approaching your own career like an executive will help you prepare for your eventual launch. Here are six ways you can become the CEO of your career.
1. A CEO is comfortable making decisions
Leadership will demand you make tough calls from time to time. An executive must make decisions based on the best-available information at the time, which means there will sometimes be incomplete data.
It’s equally important to recognize that not all decisions are created equal. In a 1998 letter to shareholders, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos describes the importance of first determining the type of decision you’re making, differentiating between Type 1 decisions (such as quitting your job), which are impossible to reverse once it’s set into motion, or Type 2 decisions, which you can backtrack from (like signing up for a professional certification course that you later discover wasn’t worth the investment).
It’s critical to ask piercing questions and consider the foreseeable (and sometimes unintended) consequences of a decision. Then, at the end of the day, the executive must make a decision and live with the choices he or she made.
2. A CEO considers both the near-term and the long-term
A good CEO keeps one foot firmly planted in the present, while facing the future with a sense of anticipation. Knowing how to stay agile enough to function in the here and now while also being a forward-thinking executive is a must if a CEO intends to enjoy sustainable success. Living in both the present and the future will help a professional meet challenges head-on while proactively creating opportunities in a world that is anything but stationary.
3. A CEO continually learns and develops new skills
It can be easy to fall into a professional slump where nothing feels particularly motivating or sufficiently challenging. To be sure, there are times when being on career cruise control is helpful, such as periods of exceptional stress. However, at times we must head off professional atrophy by taking time to develop new skills. This might mean learning or deepening a technical skill (like coding or engineering) or cultivating soft skills, like communication or time management. Whatever it might be, a CEO takes time to continually improve.
4. A CEO surrounds himself with smart people and seeks out their advice
If society judges us by the company we keep, then the business world judges us by the people we hire, fire, and associate with. This means that an executive must recognize talent and character. This is true when it comes to choosing who to surround oneself with, including who to seek advice from and even emulate. But it’s also true in choosing who not to associate with. Avoiding scoundrels will help you avoid being tainted by their misdeeds and bad reputations.
5. A CEO knows how to say “No” and regularly does so
Anytime you say “Yes” to one thing, you’re saying “No” to something else. When reflecting on Apple’s success, Steve Jobs once said, “I’m as proud of many of the things we haven’t done as the things we have done. Innovation is saying no to a thousand things.”
By saying “No” regularly, you’re ensuring that your schedule is pruned and your priorities are set, which can safeguard you from feeling overwhelmed. This also means sometimes saying “No” to an existing commitment in order to pursue a goal of great importance.
An effective executive also recognizes “Not now” is sometimes the best choice of all. A leader may have to decide whether he or she is currently equipped with the necessary skills, experience, and resources (and backed with the right team) to pursue a “moon shot,” or needs to patiently focus on building reliable service and sustainable productivity.
6. A CEO has the resilience to persevere through adversity and resolve conflicts
Every leader will face adversity. Perseverance and grit are critical. Equally important is the ability to adjudicate conflict. By learning to deescalate office conflicts and resolve disputes with diplomacy, a young professional will learn the necessary skills of an executive that will serve her throughout her entire career.
“In times of adversity and change, we really discover who we are and what we’re made of,” former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz wrote in his book Onward.
By developing a sense of confidence, cultivating necessary leadership skills, and understanding that one’s own efforts and decisions carry a lot of weight, each of us can confidently face the challenges ahead. So whether you’re an emerging professional or budding entrepreneur, the key to the next step, and every step after that, is found in becoming the CEO of your own career.
Doug McCullough, Director of Lone Star Policy Institute
Brooke Medina, Communications Director, Civitas Institute
Originally Published in Foundation for Economic Education