If you’re like most people, you probably have a few big career goals. But, if you’re like the vast majority of us, you probably feel like the steps to get there are intimidating, scary, and even impossible. The distance between where you are and where you want to one day be can feel insurmountable.
Or, maybe you don’t have a clear vision of where you want to end up. You know you don’t want to remain stagnant, but you’re not sure what that end game looks like.
Either way, the good news is there are plenty of totally manageable things that you can do for your career today that will pay off in dividends down the line. After all, no matter where you’re headed or how far away that feels, reaching a big goal is a series of much smaller steps.
Try one—or all five—to lay the foundation for your someday success.
1. Grab Coffee
Grabbing coffee probably seems like no big deal. You might already do it once (er, several times) a day, using it to transform from crusty bed monster to semi-functioning human or catching up with co-workers in need of a mid-afternoon break.
But sitting down for a latte with a friend, former colleague, or someone new to your network is also a fast, simple career-boosting strategy—and can quickly catapult any situation from stagnant to stimulated.
My own example: A couple years ago, I felt trapped in my assistant job and was hoping for a more creative role. I reached out to a family friend who had a cool job in marketing and friends in industries that interested me, sending a Facebook message explaining my situation and asking if she knew anyone who was looking for someone like me. She put me in touch with her friend who owned a content publishing startup, and we sat down for coffee. A few weeks later? I was hired as her content manager.
OK, this is certainly a best-case scenario, but even if you don’t have a clear purpose in mind, these meetings can be incredibly valuable. Having one-one-one interactions opens the floor for interesting and productive conversation, sincere advice, and deeper connections. You’re also creating a memory with someone, which makes your relationship more significant and is something you can use to your advantage when looking for a new job or want advice down the road.
What it really comes down to is consistent, intentional network maintenance—getting into the habit of meeting up with people in your network is a small, but crucial move that can ultimately lead to big changes for your career.
2. Get a Certification
Higher education is a common step for moving your career forward, but heading to grad school can be a big leap, both emotionally and financially. Instead, consider getting certified for specific skills or specialties in your field, which allows you to add to your expertise (or add legitimacy to the background you already have) while still working, and ultimately gives you a chance to set yourself apart from other candidates or increase your value as an employee.
For instance, financial analyst Travis Lockhart, FP&A was searching for ways to differentiate himself from his peers and gain more industry knowledge, so he earned the Certified Corporate Financial Planning and Analysis (FP&A) credential from the Association for Financial Professionals, a self-paced, cost-effective program. Lockhart shares just a few of the benefits he saw: “I was promoted to Manager of FP&A, along with a salary increase, at about the same time as gaining the FP&A credential. I definitely think the FP&A certification makes you more marketable as an FP&A professional, helps to increase and validate your skills and competency, and brings you into a broad network of likeminded professionals.”
If, like Lockhart, you’re looking to grow and verify your current skill set, explore certification programs in your industry: Options range from finance to HR, marketing to project management, and plenty of fields in between. If you think you might need some totally new skills to get where you want to go, look into online classes that offer certifications, and then learn how to share these credentials on your resume.
And if you aren’t sure what skills you need to grow, talk to people one or two rungs up the chain from you to figure out where your gaps are—or just follow your gut and learn something that’s interesting to you! Even if it’s a skill you don’t end up using later in life, pushing yourself to learn will help you continue to grow in the long run.
3. Take on a New Project
Whether it’s taking the lead on an assignment that’s fallen through the cracks at work or starting a side project or volunteering gig, taking on something extra outside of your current responsibilities can help you stretch yourself while setting yourself up for all kinds of potential benefits, both now and down the line.
For example, volunteering to champion a task or team at work will allow you to practice owning and executing a project—something that positions you as a leader even if you aren't in a management role. You’ll be remembered as someone who embraces new challenges and opportunities, is ambitious, and gets the job done—not to mention you can reference your hard work later when negotiating a promotion or pay raise.
And starting a side project? That allows you to explore abilities and interests that don’t quite fit into your current job. These small ventures are also excellent portfolio builders, serve as differentiators in the job search, and can be the push you need to score a more fulfilling role in your company or a completely new job.
Of course, there’s an important caveat here: You should only pick up extra work if you truly feel like you have time to do it right—otherwise it could end up hurting your reputation! If taking on a new project sounds like too much given your current workload, consider just helping a colleague with a small task. You’ll still be seen as someone who takes initiative, you may pick up a new skill, and you’ll definitely be improving relationships at work.
4. Ask for a Small Raise
Of course, we’re not suggesting you walk into your boss’ office and demand your wages be doubled. But if you haven’t had a conversation about a pay bump in a while, now might be a good time. Remember: Even just a few thousand can really add up. In fact, researchers have found that people early in their careers who negotiate their starting salary by just $5,000 (upping it from $50K to $55K) can earn over $600,000 more over the course of a 40-year career, assuming a 5% annual increase in salary. That’s a lot of moolah that just a little ask right now can lead you to.
Having salary conversations can also be major motivators and help to up your confidence—when you feel you’re making what you deserve, you’ll likely feel empowered to do even better work. Also, the more you practice discussing your wages, the more comfortable you’ll feel bringing it (and other topics you need to negotiate) up with your supervisors.
And even if your raise is smaller than you wanted—or you don’t get a raise at all—you’re still vocalizing your career goals and reminding your boss that your work is valuable. Situating yourself as a confident, assertive employee sets the stage for future advancement.
Knowing how and when to ask for a raise is important, so remember, when you ask, be sure you have a game plan.
5. Do Something That Scares You a Little
Not everyone’s a risk-taker, especially when it comes to work, but moving forward in your career often involves taking risks, both big and small.
That’s what all of this advice ultimately comes down to—making sure that you’re regularly doing things that make your heart beat just a little bit faster. Maybe for you that’s asking for more, asking a stranger for coffee, or getting a certification to verify how awesome you are. Or maybe it’s something totally different for you: speaking up in a meeting, asking for help on a stretch project you’re stuck on, offering to give a presentation at an industry conference.
Acknowledging where you’d like to grow professionally—and taking steps to get there—takes bravery, and it’s likely something that you’ll work on over the course of your career. But small, incremental improvements starting now will help you grow into the professional you want to be.
Photo of man working courtesy of Tom Merton/Getty.