Here’s something I’ve noticed: Successful leaders are almost always able to succinctly articulate what they’re good at—and why that’s valuable to their company. It’s a critical reason why they’ve gotten to where they are today. Not only have they carved out valuable niches for themselves, they’ve built their careers around those niches.
So, before you start climbing the career ladder, it’s key to ask yourself, “Is my ladder propped against the right building?”
What I mean is this: Your career plan needs to be about more than just getting into the next job, and the next one after that. Sustainable, long-term advancement comes more easily when you start out on the right trajectory. Instead of committing yourself to simply “getting ahead,” do some self-reflection and identify a career “sweet spot,” or niche—then pursue that.
To help you find your sweet spot, I spoke to four leaders I admire and asked them to share their strategies for finding that secret ingredient in your professional awesome sauce.
1. Know Your Vision, Values, and Goals
“Establish your personal vision, values, and goals, because if you have those, you know where you want to go,” says Romea Smith, former senior vice president of customer support for CA Technologies. “It helps you see when there are opportunities that fit in with that vision. It keeps you from going on a path that is not consistent with what you believe in.”
Here’s a great example: I recently spoke with a friend who had been interviewing for what she initially described as her dream job, only to discover that the company was famous for diabolical customer interactions. She realized that customer advocacy was one of her most closely held values and began looking for roles where she could unapologetically be the voice of the customer.
According to Smith, knowing your values insures you against poor career decisions. “If we have a clear idea of what our personal values are, then we don’t take on things that cause us to sacrifice our self esteem or integrity.”
2. Identify Your Passion and Where it Fits
Sharell Sandvoss, vice president and finance director, Europe of Brown-Forman Beverages, suggests, “Know your passion and evaluate how it fits with your role, your company, and the strategy of the company.”
To do this, consider what you’re passionate about in your career. What tasks energize you rather than drain you? What are you working on when you get “in your zone” or “in the flow?” What professional areas could you continue exploring without growing bored?
Those are the things you should be pursuing as you consider your career path and your employer’s business strategy. Is there a good fit already, or do you need to maneuver into a new role, company, or path that you truly feel passionate about?
3. Develop Your Own Style
Debra Aerne, an enterprise services leader for IBM, recommends, “Know your strengths and develop your own style. Figure out what works for you and work to mold the process to align with your strengths. Don’t look at how others succeed and try to emulate their approach if it doesn’t play to your skills.”
Consider your own leadership style. Of all the techniques that exist to motivate and engage others, which come most easily to you? If you haven’t yet identified your leadership style, ask people who know you well—like your manager, mentor, or a trusted co-worker. Do you lead by making people feel like part of a team, or by appealing to each individual’s hot-button motivators? Do you lead by presenting compelling logic, or by challenging each person to shoot for an inspiring goal?
In my experience as CEO of Women’s Leadership Coaching, I have found that leadership is hard enough work without the daily effort of twisting yourself into a pretzel trying to be something or someone you’re not. So figure out your leadership style, then seek out a role where you can use it and be appreciated for it.
4. Know What You’re Not Good At
“Know what you are good at and what you are not good at,” advises Jill Jones, executive vice president and president, North America and Latin America, for the Brown-Forman Corporation. “Before you take a job,” she continues, “sit down and ask yourself, ‘What am I really, really good at and what skills do I still need to develop?’ Then ask, ‘What does the job call for, and am I a good match for that? Can I be successful?’ If it is not a good match, will you be able to develop that skill set?”
If the job involves something you truly can’t—or don’t want to—develop, move on. It’s not the right one for you.
Not yet sure of your weaknesses? Consult again with that trusted manager, mentor, or co-worker. If you can convince them that your request is sincere, they’ll tell you!
Putting it All Together
Now, take this advice, and put it all together to identify your ideal career.
Ask yourself: What could you be doing more of in your career that aligns with your values, passions, and strengths? Is there something you’re great at—something you could do in your own leadership style? Is it possible to maneuver into a role or career path that combines all of that, while delivering a highly valued service to your company or industry that will make you a sought-after resource?
If so, that’s your niche. And it’s what’s likely to make you happier in your career than anything else. So before you take your next step up the corporate ladder, make sure it’s in the direction of your sweet spot!