My client Tina wanted my help to go for promotion to Managing Director. It was a big jump up and she wanted to do it on a fast-track timeline.

She had some key advantages like the right relationships and the right activities, but as we talked through her situation, it became apparent that there was one thing working against her.

Tina had earned her last several promotions by focusing on how she could be helpful. Her “how can I help?” mindset allowed her to add value and gain the support of key stakeholders and her team.

But while thinking of herself as “being helpful” got her this far, it wouldn’t be enough to get Tina promoted to Managing Director, especially a year early.

The key was making the mental shift from “helper” to “franchise builder”. She had to change her thinking.

This is one of the four things you need to have in place to get to the next level of your career:

  • Relationships
  • Activities
  • Thinking
  • Personal brand

In the previous posts, we focused on How to Build the Right Relationships to Get Ahead in Your Career and How to Raise Your Performance and Propel Your Career Forward. Those are the first two pieces of the puzzle.

Develop the skills to get recognized, promoted and paid more

Today we’ll home in on the third piece of the puzzle: your thinking

The way you think, the thoughts you focus on and how well you harness your mental capacity are key drivers of your success in your career and in life. In fact, your thinking is critical because your mindset affects your behavior which affects your results.

But the kind of thinking that got you to this level almost certainly won’t be the kind that gets you to the next level.

So, let’s take a look at your thinking to see if it’s fit for purpose to get you where you want to go in your career.

There are three areas to consider:

  • What you think about
  • The mindset you adopt
  • Your mental habits

Are you thinking about topics that will position you for the next level?

It’s natural to focus on the topics that are essential to excel at the job you’re in now. But if you limit your thinking to the nuts and bolts of succeeding where you are, you’re probably undermining your chances for advancement.

To show you’re ready for the next level, it’s time to zoom out and look at the business from a higher vantage point. See the whole forest rather than just your cluster of trees. 

This means upping the level of your thinking beyond the day-to-day tactical and operational needs to what’s strategic and important to your unit and the organization. It also means opening yourself up to new ideas and thinking about how you can innovate rather than focusing solely on the details of your current projects. 

I didn’t realize I was caught in the trap of thinking too narrowly until I attended a company offsite.

Senior management wanted our views as middle managers on questions like, “what would you do differently if you were running the firm?” and “what do you see as the biggest challenge for our division in the next 12-18 months?”

I had no idea, having never even thought about these questions. But as I listened to my colleagues share their opinions, it was clear that most of them did.

To develop this kind of next level thinking, start by putting yourself in the shoes of your boss and your boss’s boss. What are they thinking about, worried about, trying to do?

When you take time to think about bigger strategic issues and opportunities, you’ll feel far more confident to have a strategic conversation with senior management. The kind of conversations that help you get recognized and promoted. 

Which brings us to the second kind of thinking.

What kind of mindset have you adopted?

For much of my career, I lived in fear of failure. I was afraid of looking bad, getting it wrong, being ridiculed. While these are very human worries, they were holding me back from progressing as quickly as I wanted to in my career.

Without realizing it, I had adopted what Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck calls a “fixed mindset”. And it turns out that this fear-of-failure mindset is quite common for high achievers.

You’ve been told you’re smart, you’ve gotten good grades and you’ve been successful all your life. But that success means it can truly feel like you’ve got a lot to live up to and a lot to lose. No wonder failures, setbacks and mistakes seem scary and something to avoid at all cost.

Instead, you’re far better off adopting Dweck’s “growth mindset” where you see mistakes as a learning opportunity. Having a growth mindset will take you much further in your career and life. And you’ll be happier as well. When you adopt a growth mindset, it helps you to no longer fear “failure” but rather see them as learning opportunities.

For example, when I moved to the capital markets department midway through my career, I had to learn an entirely new set of skills – cold calling clients about the markets. The only way to learn was by doing it and getting help from my colleagues.

Already a Vice President, I felt embarrassed to ask for help from people who were junior to me. And I was afraid to pick up the phone and call clients in case I said something wrong. I felt incompetent, like I would never “catch up”.  

It took me hours to write out the script for my calls and pluck up the courage to pick up the phone to call a client, only to find he was away from his desk or had gone home for the day.

Eventually, I had enough client calls under my belt to become competent and confident. But I wasted a lot of time and emotional energy getting there.

I would have been better off making 10 sales calls in a day and learning and improving after each one rather than over-preparing and making just 1 “perfect” call.

If you have a fixed mindset too, don’t worry. Thankfully, it’s something you can change. It’s a matter of noticing what kind of mindset you’re in and then making adjustments.

As you keep reframing situations for yourself and learn to see the growth opportunities embedded in every mistake – hey, it’s how we learn! – then it’ll become your new default.

Which brings us to the third kind of thinking.

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Carol Vincent

Are your mental habits serving you well?

Related to your mindset are your mental habits. The things you regularly think or say to yourself, especially your reaction to challenges and setbacks.

Maybe your habitual thoughts and mental framing of the situation are helpful, like “I’m great at getting things done in crunch time” when you’re up against a big deadline. Or “I love solving problems” when obstacles come up.

Other times, they might keep you from performing at your best. For example, “the last time I did this, it was a disaster”, “I’m afraid to mess it up” or “they’ll fire me if I can’t get this right”.

Habitual thoughts can help or hurt your performance and progress, so it’s important to pay attention to what yours are.

For me, I was the “what if” habit that held me back the most in my career. Thoughts like “what if I’m wrong?” kept me from speaking up and “what if I look incompetent?” held me back from trying things outside my comfort zone. It wasn’t until I addressed these mental habits that my career took off.

Notice which mental habits serve you well and lean into them. And when you catch yourself indulging in negative self-talk, give yourself permission to question them and start building a new mental habit: Is that always true? What makes me say that? What else could I say or think? What strength would better serve me here? What if it turns out better than I could have imagined?

Remember, while you can’t control the first thought that comes into your mind, you can control what you do with it.

So notice your mental habits and cultivate the kind that serve you well. This will help you behave intelligently when you encounter problems, challenges, conflicts, tensions, uncertainty and the unknown in your career.

But what if you’re too busy to carve out time to think?

Sometimes, life just gets busy. So don’t stress if you can’t carve out time on any given day. You don't have to do it all in one day. You don't even have to do it all this week or month.

Just do a little bit at a time. Set a larger target date for yourself. A few minutes here and there is great! Up leveling your thinking is an ongoing process. It’s more like watering your garden than gearing up for a big presentation. So there’s no need to put pressure on yourself.

But if you consistently have no time to step back and think more broadly and deeply, you owe it to yourself to reassess the way you’re allocating your time.

Do you need more support? Are you taking on more than you need to? For me, it’s often about stepping back and allowing my capable team to take ownership.

Remember, career success is about playing the long game. With lifespans increasing, you’re likely to live and work longer than previous generations. So pace yourself and give yourself some grace. And that includes giving yourself time to think.

As you progress in your career, your success depends increasingly on the quality of your thinking

So as you think about your thinking, remember to consider these three areas:

  • What you think about – develop a strategic perspective beyond the day-to-day demands of the job at hand
  • The mindset you adopt – cultivating a growth mindset will help you advance faster in your career
  • Your mental habits – cultivate the mental habits needed to help you handle challenging situations effectively

As for Tina, she was a quick study and fast implementor of the mental shifts she needed to make. And in the end, Tina got that early promotion.

How about you?

Which of these ways of thinking would most help you advance in your career if you worked on it now?

Leave a comment and let me know.

In the next post, we’ll turn to the fourth piece of the puzzle: your personal brand.