When your career feels like it’s going slower than you’d like, it’s tempting to blame others. The boss who doesn’t get how valuable you are, the clients who don’t do enough business with you, the bad economy or a host of other external challenges.

While these kinds of thoughts are normal and you may even be right, focusing on what’s outside your control is not helpful. This kind of thinking leads to frustration and learned helplessness – and reflects a fixed mindset.

It’s far more energizing and effective to look at the things that are in your control. Including how you may be unintentionally standing in your own way.

As Marshall Goldsmith says, “What got you here won’t get you there”. And when it comes to your career success, sticking to what’s worked for you in the past might be keeping you from where you want to go in the future.

So if you want to shift the momentum and accelerate your progress, it’s time to assess where you need to make some changes.

Here are four essential areas to focus on:

  • Relationships
  • Activities
  • Thinking
  • Personal brand

We’ll cover each of these one at a time because they’re so important for your career that they deserve their own space.

Consider these as essentials for stepping up to the next level.

This whole series will help you to be seen as the obvious choice for exciting projects, top of mind when it comes to decisions about your pay and promotion, delivering strategic results that get attention and demonstrating you’re ready for the next step up.

Develop the skills to get recognized, promoted and paid more

Today, let’s focus on your relationships

Specifically, how to assess whether you have the right relationships for the next level and what to do when you find gaps.

As you assess whether you have the right relationships, here are three areas to consider:

  • Who are you learning from?
  • Who are you relying on?
  • What circles do you travel in?

Who are you learning from?

Think about the people who you’ve turned to as your mentors, advisors, role models, coaches and guides. They could be internal or external to your organization, peers or senior to you. Whether they’ve helped you with technical, job-related skills or tricky people issues, take a moment to appreciate them. They’ve helped you get this far.

The question is, are they still the right people for you to learn from going forward? For some, the answer will be a wholehearted “yes”. Like the top-level manager who has taken you under their wing and advocates for you behind closed doors. Or the wise aunt who’s been in the C-suite and acts as your “Yoda”.

Others will be a “maybe” or even a “no”. Maybe you feel they’ve taught you everything they know already. Perhaps you’ve taken their advice and have now risen to a level beyond their experience base, like the former boss who’s now a peer. And still others who you’ve held up as role models in the past but you’ve matured beyond their level.

Take a moment to assess who you’re spending time learning from and make sure you’ve got the right team of advisors and role models who will help you get to the next level of your career.

Make sure you include in the group at least one or two people you find inspiring. Especially when it comes to choosing role models. When I was coming up the ranks, there were very few women at senior levels and certainly no one who looked like me.

In fact, some of the women were examples of how I didn’t want to be. Like trying to be like the men and not quite pulling it off or putting off starting a family until it was too late.

In the absence of an overall role model for my career, I improvised and found different role models for specific aspects of my career. For example, my skip level boss became my role model for how to walk into a room. The head of another department was my role model for how to conduct myself in meetings. And my mother was my example for how to treat people, whether that was the person cleaning the bathroom, the CEO or someone in between.

Where do you need to find new mentors, advisors and role models to get where you want to go next?

Which brings us to the second area.

Who are you relying on?

To get to more senior levels your career, it’s no longer about simply accomplishing tasks and getting things done. That’s necessary but insufficient.

You also need to carve out time to think and act differently – at a more strategic level. That means you need a team of people you can rely on for support. People who give you leverage because they have the skills, motivation and desire to take on more so you can do the same.

So, who’s on your support team? Are they the right people and do you have access to enough of them?

The good news is they don’t have to report to you. Your support team can include juniors in another department who contribute to specific projects and even peers you collaborate closely with. This is about having people who you can trust to do their part.

For example, I had a few juniors I had been mentoring sprinkled around the organization and they were whiz kids at certain things. Like James who could put together a spreadsheet in minutes. And Lily who excelled at researching a problem and knew who to go to for just about any question.

There were also a couple of colleagues who had started in the training program with me years ago who I could turn to for advice on office politics.

To what extent do you have people you can rely on? Are you delegating to them, tapping into their areas of strength and nurturing them in their careers? And if you’re not delegating, why not?

In my case, it was about addressing my own perfectionist and micro-managing tendencies. In other words, I was the main contributor to the problem. But for you, it might be not having the right people around you, whether that’s due to skillset, trust or something else. Figuring this out is the first step to solving it.

Which brings us to the next area.

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What circles do you travel in?

When you’re looking to advance to more senior levels, it’s important to travel in the right circles. Having a network of connections who can give you insight into the way people at the next level think. And spending time with people who can provide access to opportunities that allow you to deliver next level results.

Almost by definition, you’ll need to develop your network every time you’re ready to move to the level beyond the one you’re on right now. So don’t worry if you look around and realize that you aren’t traveling in the right circles … yet. It’s normal. But you do have to take action.

Let’s take my coaching client Cynthia for example. Cynthia had recently been promoted to lead a small client relationship team and wanted to position herself to lead a bigger region in the future. To succeed, she needed to elevate her relationships beyond the CFO and CEO levels to cover the chairman level of her clients.

This seemed insurmountable at first. Cynthia wondered why a chairman with decades more experience would want to meet with her as she was still a junior partner at her firm? And how could she get those meetings without upsetting her existing contacts at the CEO and CFO level?

We put together a plan that involved building up her team to step up and cover more senior people within the client team, leveraging her existing relationships to create connections and elevating her personal brand (which we’ll cover later in this series). And now she’s well on her way to traveling in those more senior circles.

To rise to the next level from wherever you sit right now, it’s essential to expand your network to include the aspirational people and relationships that will help you get there and thrive once you do.

For example, the more senior you become, the more you’re expected to have a robust external network. As in beyond the people who help you do your current job, which are usually internal. Knowing people who can link you and your organization to new opportunities will help you grow the size of the pie for your company. And this will help you add value by being able to connect others in your network too. 

In addition, think about including people with diverse interests and who give you a chance to broaden your horizons beyond your job. Not only will you feel at home talking about a broader range of topics, it’ll also make you more interesting and well-rounded as a person. All of which is increasingly important as you get beyond task-oriented “do-er” roles and into top leadership positions.

But what if you’re too busy to even think about building relationships?

Successful careers are built on relationships. But don’t think you have to invest huge amounts of time cultivating them. You don’t need to become close personal friends with everyone. It’s about making a genuine connection and finding an easy way to stay in touch. In fact, if you’re building relationships with senior people, they’re likely to be even busier than you!

So don’t set the bar too high on the depth or quality of every single interaction. I’ve found it’s better to have a series of brief touch points over the course of a year than just one or two big meetings where you’ve said everything you can say, leaving no natural opportunity for follow up.

And don’t let being an introvert or feeling shy to approach others stop you

It’s natural to feel afraid to approach new people who are more senior than you are. Human beings are wired to fear rejection.

But feeling uncomfortable with reaching out isn’t a good excuse for not doing it. To get ahead in your career, you’re going to need to show you can get beyond your comfort zone. Or if you prefer, you could frame it as expanding your comfort zone.

While your life may not depend on it, your career success does. So go on and reach out.

Just don’t take your relationships for granted

Relationships aren’t a “just in time” kind of thing. People know when someone comes around only when they want something. It’s much better to make small gestures periodically… as in before you need someone. This applies to friends, family and team members as well.

Now it’s time to consider the extent to which your relationships are fit for purpose

As you assess whether you have the right relationships for the next level, here are three areas to consider:

  • Who are you learning from? The mentors, advisors and role models that got you here may or may not be the ones who will help you get to the next level.
  • Who do you rely on? Having the right support team frees you up to think and act strategically. And they don’t all need to report to you.
  • What circles do you travel in? Think ahead to the kinds of people you’ll need to bring into your network to succeed at the next level. And don’t be afraid to be aspirational.

Take a moment to identify which relationships you need to work on to ensure you are surrounded by the right people to learn from and rely on, and that you’re traveling in the right circles to help you reach your goals.

Once you have the right people on board, you've completed the first piece of the puzzle

Then it’s about doing and saying the right things at the right times to make the most of your relationships. That’s why the next article of this series is focused on your activities.

We’ll look at how you’re investing your time and energy, what you need to do more of and less of, and whether your activities are contributing to your future success or holding you back.

In the meantime, check out Career Mastery™ for more ways to build your network and relationships.