Building your career strategy

What do the terms ‘insider information’ and ‘high potential’ really mean? Kimberly Cummings, author of Next Move, Best Move, outlines what you need to know and why it’s important to put together your own career strategy

When we think about career strategies, we often expect the strategy to be handed to us by senior leadership, human resources, a direct manager, or a mentor building it out on our behalf. I want to empower you to understand the importance of putting together your strategy.

This strategy will focus on your goals and align with your career opportunities, not only for your career at your current company but for your overall career. Additionally, relationships are a key part of your career strategy to help you navigate new situations and easily move into your next opportunities. If you do not believe in the power of relationship-building in your career, I hope digging into the concept of ‘insider information’ will help you understand that this career concept is non-negotiable for you.

Insider information

I affectionately call my email newsletter ‘insider notes’ because it’s my way of sharing career-related stories, insight, experiences, and tips with my subscribers. In your everyday life, insider information is the same thing. Essentially, insider information is the 15-minute coffee chat when you learn more about a stakeholder and his or her preferences for receiving information for a new business proposal, or those quick after-hour drinks when you get some helpful feedback to learn a better way to approach your role.

As you build relationships with peers, coaches, mentors, and sponsors, the insider information you receive will make or break your ability to take advantage of various opportunities. For example, whenever I learned about a new career opportunity, the first thing I would do was go through my network to determine if I knew anyone working with or for the company to conduct an informational interview.

As a professional in the workforce, you know there’s a big difference between the beautiful job descriptions and testimonials on the company website versus the actual experience working at a company, especially as a woman or person of colour. Once I locate a contact or request an introduction from someone we have in common, I prepare key questions to inform my next steps. Typically, I ask questions like these:

  • Would you share your current experience in the company?
  • Do you feel your experience has been consistent since day one?
  • What are the policies for upwards movement at your company?
  • Would you share more about your experiences with senior leadership?
  • Do you feel like you have opportunities to grow at this company?
  • Do you feel like there’s a glass ceiling for women and people of colour? If yes, why?

If the person works in the same team or department that I’m seeking to work in, I also ask the following:

  • Would you tell me more about the leadership style of the manager?
  • What are the biggest challenges your team faces?
  • Who are the key stakeholders and external teams your team works with?
  • Does your manager have any red flags he or she looks for in candidates? If so, would you identify them?
  • What do you believe the first 90 days in this role will look like?

When you rely on your company to build your career strategy, you allow it to have a singular focus for your career. Your company spends thousands upon thousands of dollars recruiting and onboarding its talent. So, of course, it likes to ensure it keeps it, which means its priority will be to keep you in your role, or a more senior role within that same department or company at-large.

High potentials

Moreover, companies frequently focus exclusively on developing their high-potential talent. ‘High potential’ can have several meanings, depending on the company, but what I’ve seen, especially for women and people of colour, is that although they do phenomenal work, they may not have the talent designation of high potential.

High potential is short for:

  • Ready for an opportunity for promotion
  • Ready for a new, lateral opportunity
  • Ready to begin managing people
  • Ready for a stretch assignment
  • Needs more development but is very promising, and efforts need to be made to retain the talent, so the employee does not pursue external opportunities

After more than 11 years of career development experience in higher education, talent acquisition, and coaching hundreds of clients, I have seen that many companies do not have strict guidelines on the definition of high potential. Without high-potential definitions to remove bias and allow managers to make an objective assessment of their talent, that talent is being evaluated at the mercy of the managers.

I’ve had some great managers and some terrible managers in my career, and one of the best pieces of advice I received was from one of my mentors, a senior executive at a Fortune 100 company. She advised that not all feedback is about me. When she shared this during a conversation, my mind was blown. I had an experience in my office that I wanted to review with her, and she changed the way I thought about performance appraisals and feedback in the workplace. Managers are responsible for providing feedback and insights about their teams that can make or break a team member’s career. However, a biased opinion can paint a picture of a team member that does not align with that member’s skill set, performance, and career objectives.

This is an edited extract from Next Move, Best Move: Transitioning Into A Career You’ll Love by Kimberly B Cummings (Wiley, 2021).

Kimberly Cummings is an author, career expert, and the Founder of leadership development company, Manifest Yourself. She has a background as a career development adviser for US universities, and as a diversity and inclusion professional at a Fortune 100 company.

BGA members are able to receive a 20% discount off the RRP for Next Move, Best Move: Transitioning into a Career You’ll Love, courtesy of the BGA Book Club. Click here for details.

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