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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

The New Way to Climb the Career Ladder (Hint: You Don’t)

Here’s a fun fact: Within a year and a half, I went from being a college freshman with no writing clips to my name to being a weekly columnist on USA TODAY College and interviewing celebrities like Nick Lachey and Elizabeth Banks.

I know, this sounds like an insurmountable feat. For many people, it feels like to make it big in a company you have to slowly work up the ranks within that company, starting as an intern and moving up with time, until some big-wig above you finally retires and you’re able to move into his or her place. “Years of experience” seems like the most important credential to prove you can do the work.

But there’s actually another credential that can help you ascend those rungs a lot faster: the principle of “Minimum Required Credibility” (MRC).

The idea is this: When someone is hiring you, they want proof that you’re going to be good. One way of proving this is, yes, showing that you’ve been in the field for years and years. But another way is simply showing that you’ve succeeded at said task somewhere else before—somewhere comparable or just one level below the company you’re aiming for. You’re essentially searching for the least amount of experience you need to gain the most amount of credibility to jump to the next level of your career. Then, when you’re at that next level, use it as a springboard to get to an even higher level.

As Shane Snow explains in his article on the subject: “…you need a good brand to borrow from, and to use that brand to ‘prove’ you can make it elsewhere. A hacker will use this idea to work her way from small brand to slightly bigger brand, and repeat. Rather than climbing the ladder, she'll switch between ladders whenever she gets stuck but feels she has the skill to perform one level higher.”

So, how can you establish MRC regardless of your career trajectory? Here are a few key things that I was able to apply to my career.

1. Start Somewhere That Really Needs the Help

There are plenty of places out there that have small budgets but need a lot of work done for them: small businesses, nonprofit organizations, budding startups, young blogs or publications. These places offer a lot of opportunity for you to grow that first level of credibility, since they are often more willing to accept help from someone with less experience, especially when that help is offered for free (something I strongly advise at this stage).

In my case, it was writing for Wesleyan’s campus blog Wesleying, which takes anyone who wants to write for it. At the blog, I was able to start writing a lot, which gave me tons of writing clips to point to for future job applications. I also got to hang out with really great writers and learn some of the odds and ends of the writing world (post formatting, Wordpress, the works) in a much more relaxed environment.

No matter what you choose, it’s all about getting your name and work out there so you build up that first level of MRC (as in, going from zero credibility to a little cred). It may not be the biggest opportunity, but it’s something.

2. Make Sure Every Step Adds MRC

It’s easy to get carried away once you gain some credibility and just take whatever is offered to you. Keep your eye on the future and ask yourself if the position you’re in will help you gain more get to the next level of MRC or if it’ll make you plateau.

In my field, I’ve seen lots of great writers get stuck by writing for almost any publication that offers a job or story to them. While it’s great to be stable, you don’t want to be moving horizontally from job to job. Always keep yourself focused on what could keep helping you catapult upward.

Another pro tip: Actively look for extra ways to get to the next level of MRC with no extra effort. For me, this was having my work syndicated on The Huffington Post, TIME, Forbes, and a couple of other impressive publications after I started working for Her Campus, The Daily Muse, and my college admissions website The Prospect. As you can imagine, having those names on my resume and cover letter immediately boosted my cred (without me having to do any extra writing or work).

3. Talk About Your MRC

You’ve invested time gaining MRC, so don’t be afraid to tell people how far you’ve come and what you can offer them! If you’re moving up the ladder quickly, people are going to want to know more about you.

For me, in the case of USA TODAY College, I ended up applying for a program and being offered a contributing writer position instead and soon convinced them to let me start a sassy weekly article roundup called the Quad Report. How did I persuade them to let me do it? I was able to show the broad range of experiences I had in a short period of time. In other words, I proved I could handle it despite my young age.

No career goal is out of reach if you go into the game with a strategy. Paying dues is important for any industry, but so is saving your energy and not getting burnt out over years of hard work.

Photo of person climbing ladder courtesy of Shutterstock.

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