There’s no way around it: When trying to advance your career, you need to be your own biggest advocate—and that means being self-confident, assertive, and competitive. But the unfortunate truth is that sometimes, people can misconstrue sincere ambition for serious aggressiveness. Women in particular are held under an especially critical lens in this regard—I know I’ve been unfairly called out before.
But I’ll tell you this—I never would’ve made it to this point in my career if I had given up on being competitive. Man or woman, the key is learning how to balance that competitive drive with consideration for others. Throughout my career, I’ve learned three ways to find that sweet spot between ambition and humility.
1. Compete Against Yourself
No matter how cutthroat your company is, the workplace isn’t a reality show—you don’t have to beat out all of your peers in order to win. Even if there are multiple people with the same title as you, it’s not likely that your company hired you all with the expectation of one person coming out on top. Recruiting and hiring is an investment that takes time and money, so if a company hires for multiple positions, it usually means that there’s plenty of work to go around. Read: There’s room for everyone to succeed.
So rather than thinking “I’m going to beat so-and-so,” tell yourself, “I’m going to set my own career goals, and then work to achieve and surpass them.” You’ll want to check in with a supervisor to make sure that your goals are realistic and attainable, but once you have a good set established, you’ve got a clear path and a concrete objective to work toward. And instead of comparing yourself to others, you’ll be focused on building yourself up—which will lead to much more positive and enjoyable time spent at work.
2. Lend a Hand
Believe it or not, one of the best ways to stay competitive at work is by helping your colleagues—especially if they’re struggling. Coaching and advising folks is truly a win-win. Think about it: Not only will you get that warm and fuzzy feeling that comes with doing a good deed, but it’s also pretty hard for someone to accuse you of ruthlessly clawing your way to the top if you’re helping others along the way.
Bonus—if your superiors come to think of you as a mentor, you’ll have a leg up when it comes time for them to promote folks to management positions.
A great way to gain mentorship experience is to reach out to new hires in the office. Think about how scary it was when you started—you probably could’ve used someone to show you the ropes, and the newest members of your team probably feel the same way. When you first begin to cultivate a relationship like this, make sure that you really listen to the person you’re speaking to closely—then sympathize with his or her concerns while offering proactive solutions. Often, all it takes for someone to reach their potential is a great mentor. And when you help boost a team member’s performance, it reflects back positively on you. Who knows? You may even build the foundation for a long-lasting professional relationship.
3. Own Your Accomplishments—Without Shoving Them in Everyone’s Face
We all know that person who carries a list of achievement in their back pocket: They’re always going on about their killer sales numbers, their latest raise, their SAT score from all those years ago. And I’m pretty sure we all find that person incredibly obnoxious. Sure, when you do something amazing at work you want people to know, but that doesn’t mean you stand on your desk and shout it, or reply all to a company email.
However, at the end of the day, no one will notice your efforts if you don’t speak up. You have to advocate for yourself if your career is ever going to progress, and letting people know you did a kick-ass job is totally acceptable—as long as you do it in the right setting. And, as you probably know if you’ve worked in more than one place, the right setting depends on your team, your manager, and your company culture.
For some, it makes sense to let your team know via HipChat or Slack (celebratory GIF optional). For other offices, the appropriate time is during a one-on-one with your manager. And if that’s the case for you, lead the conversation by sharing which accomplishments you’re most proud of and why. This is helpful on a couple of different fronts—it serves as a great outlet for you to prove your value, and also allows you to verify that your definition of success and your boss’ are both in sync. After discussing your strengths, bring up what you want to improve on and how you plan on accomplishing that. That way, your supervisor will be impressed not only with your performance, but also with your drive to learn and grow.
I’ll admit it—focusing on succeeding while remaining likable is like walking a tightrope, especially in the beginning of your career. Take it too far and you’ll alienate your co-workers and burn bridges. Keep a low profile, and you’ll be overlooked and underappreciated. But as long as you handle it the right way, you can still come off as an impressive person without tearing others down.
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