Updated on 10.08.14

Taking Control of Your Own Destiny at Work

Trent Hamm

One of the biggest fears I had during my time as a “9 to 5” office employee was the level of uncertainty. I was never completely certain that my job was secure, and I rarely knew what actions I should be taking next. Quite often, I’d just take my best guess and stab in the dark at things, hoping I was doing the right thing for my long-term career plans and my short-term desires for raises and bonuses.

Over time, I began to learn that I didn’t have to live in a sea of uncertainty. In fact, it was really up to me to take charge of things and manage my career security and career opportunities.

Here are ten techniques that I used over the years to clearly establish what I needed to do to succeed in the workplace. These techniques not only improved my job security, but pointed me towards raises and promotions and kept me open to other job opportunities that might pop up. Many of these are general guiding principles, so for each technique, I’m including a specific action you can take right now to get started in that area.

Ten Techniques to Take Control of Your Own Destiney at Work

1. Talk to your supervisor.

Don’t wait for your annual or semi-annual review to have a conversation with your supervisor. Schedule them more frequently than that and just go over where you stand in the workplace, what you’re doing well, and what you could work on. It doesn’t have to be a formal meeting, just an opportunity where you can interact semi-privately with your supervisor to find out where you actually stand.

Take action right now! Call up your supervisor and request a brief meeting or perhaps a working lunch together, and schedule it in.

2. Ask exactly what you need to do to succeed.

Don’t beat around the bush when you’re talking to your supervisor. Don’t bask in platitudes about what you’re doing well – those won’t help you to succeed. Find out your weaknesses and also ask what things you specifically need to do to become a success.

Take action right now! Imagine in detail the discussion you’ll have with your supervisor. Focus on getting your supervisor to mention the things you need to do to improve. Also, ask these things of others that you trust in the workplace.

3. Use this input to develop a plan for success.

Once you’ve discovered your weaknesses and have been given some indications of the areas you need to work on, use this data to construct a plan for success. Take each identified weakness or area for improvement and define some specific actions you can take to improve on that area. Then, keep this list of specific actions out where you can see it – use it as a source for inspiration and ideas when you’re running dry.

Take action right now! If you know some specific things you need to work on, come up with a specific action you can do to improve in that area, then execute these ideas.

4. Keep detailed records of your work.

Most people do a lot of significant work, then fail to really document it or keep track of their accomplishments. Then, when the annual review comes around, they’re reduced to remembering off the top of their head what they’ve done in the last year. You’ll be in a much better position if you put in the regular effort to record the things you’re working on so that you can refer back to this document later when performance reviews and promotion and raise discussions come around.

Take action right now! At the end of each work day, take note of your specific accomplishments for the day, and then each month, go through those accomplishments and summarize them into a paragraph. At the end of the year, you’ll have twelve paragraphs loaded with accomplishments that you can use to support your performance evaluation.

5. Establish (and maintain) professional relationships with as many people as possible in your field.

Many jobs give you a great deal of opportunity to meet and interact with people in the same field. Use these relationship-building opportunities well – get to know a lot of people and stay in touch with them. When you have the opportunity to do someone in your field a favor, do it, no questions asked. Do this enough times and you’ll build a strong positive reputation.

Take action right now! Give Never Eat Alone a shot – it’s a powerful book for those who are very awkward with building relationships with people in the same field. At the same time, look around for opportunities at work to meet people in your same field – conferences, conventions, meetings, professional organizations, and so on.

6. Keep a polished resume at all times.

No matter what’s going on in your current employment, it’s always useful to keep your resume polished and ready to go at all times. If you have a sufficient network of professional acquaintances, a great opportunity could come along at any moment, and preparation is the key to success. Every few months, take out your resume, update anything that needs updating, and add any new material that’s relevant and useful.

Take action right now! Bust out your resume and see whether or not there’s anything that could use a good refresh.

7. Never let a negative interaction in the workplace fester.

Everyone has a person or two in their workplace that they don’t get along with – some of us even have what we would describe as enemies. Don’t! Don’t let that kind of thing sit around, fester, and grow up into something that could potentially damage (or at least hinder) your career. Nip it in the bud now, and take the high road – apologize specifically for any potential indiscretions and put extra effort into polishing over that rough spot.

Take action right now! Make a list of everyone you have a weak or problematic relationship with in your workplace and then put some effort into polishing up each of those relationships. Identify the problem in each case, then work on making it better, even if it means sucking it up and swallowing a bit of pride.

8. Spend some amount of your free time on personal growth.

One big aspect of career and personal advancement that people rarely take into consideration is the use of some free time for personal growth. Activities like meditation, reading challenging books, and mastering interpersonal communication are great ways to spend free time – they benefit you not only in the workplace, but in every aspect of your life by improving your emotional balance, your mental strength, and your communication skills.

Take action right now! Go to the library and check out a challenging book you’ve always wanted to read, then give it a sincere shot. Look for online resources to help you through it, and think about what you’re learning and feeling as you’re reading it. You will grow as a person during this process.

9. Volunteer for optional tasks, particularly those where you represent the organization to others.

Any time you have a chance to step up to the plate, do it, especially when you are given the opportunity to represent the workplace. For most workers, these are things to shy away from, but they’re often the very things that separate the people who are the core value of the organization from those who are not.

Take action right now! Look through your recent correspondence within the office and see if there are any good volunteer options, particularly those where you represent the organization. Then jump all over them and see what you can do!

10. Express thanks to the people who subtly help you.

In the average workplace, there are lots of people who do little tasks to make your life easier. The janitors keep the floors clean and the wastecans emptied. The administrative assistants screen calls and keep track of paperwork. The electricians keep the power running. Even the guy down the hall who knows how to keep the copier running does a little bit to help make your day smooth. Thank them. Bring them a cup of coffee once in a while. Let them know that their efforts are genuinely appreciated. You’ll be surprised how effective these people are at keeping the gears running, and in subtle ways, they’ll show you.

Take action right now! Identify someone in your office that quietly does little things that keep the whole engine running smoothly and tell them thanks.

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  1. Andy says:

    Thanks for the advice. I just decided on a career (at least for now) in accounting, so this will definitely come in handy. I am going to read Never Eat Alone soon after hearing you talk about it so much. Maintaining relationships is a weak point of mine and I know networking is important.

  2. Ben Dinsmore says:

    #1 is definately talking to your boss. I learned long ago that the semiannual reviews were the most riculous waste of time for all parties involved!

    Why wait for up to six months to tell the employee were he/she can make improvements! Tell them now!!

  3. Michael says:

    I worked two years without a review because I assumed my boss would bring it up.

  4. #7 -is one that can turn a good place to work into a bad place to work. Related to this is listening to co-workers gossip about others’ work habits in a negative way. Avoid getting involved with those conversations.

    Regarding #9, what is your opinion when the volunteering is of a political nature? I am not a huge fan of this, but many professional service companies try to maintain relationships with local politicians (for obvious reasons), and sometimes ask employees for help @ election time. (I’m not talking about monetary donations, but assisting with the campaign-like helping out on election day for a few hours). I do know that the upper level management at work appreciates, so I have done it a few times.

  5. lorax says:

    I agree with most of these points, particularly talking with the boss.

    But be aware that even your boss may not know exactly what you need to do to succeed. He can give you an idea, but you often need to be flexible. A constant dialog with the boss really helps here.

  6. Eric says:

    Trent, I think you are right on with this. You would be surprised how sending a quick “thank you” email to someone and adding a CC to their boss works out. If you are shy you can of course do a BCC to the boss. I’ve done this with people as low on the totem pole as administrative assistants and as high as department chairs at my college, and it is universally appreciated. One of the administrative assistants told me that she included some of my emails in her paperwork when she applied for promotion.

    I wouldn’t say to overdo it, but if someone goes out of their way, saying thank you is the right thing to do.

  7. Step 5 is definitely important. Networking has gotten me 99% of the freelance work I have. I think people actually have an innate desire to help others if they can.

  8. These are good points of advice. Being able to talk with your supervisor is crucial, it’s unfortunate that a lot of people out there are either too afraid to discuss their status or do not have a good enough relationship to feel comfortable talking about it with their supervisor. It’s one of those things that you should always make a point to do.

    The other two that I especially agree with are networking and keeping a resume ready at all times even as you progress throughout your career. Those are two things that I’ve been able to do really well, and it has worked wonders for me.

  9. SuperSonicSuccess says:

    Excellent advice.

    The ones taking charge of their future rather than waiting around for something to happen are the ones who succeed.

    Talking to your boss about your weaknesses is a must. There may be something preventing you from being promoted that you don’t even know about.

  10. PEC says:

    I agree with all these points, I have integrated them in the past and present. I have noticed that supervisors if insecure will always find things that you need to work on. As a sales person, I generally do not interact with my peers mainly with external customers…I have been criticized by not collaborating…when the rare instance occurs, you cannot notify the supervisor..LOOK…LOOK…I am doing it….we cannot be blind to the fact some managers do not want their people to be their best…because it threatens their longevity.

  11. Heidi says:

    This is excellent advice, Trent. I follow most of these steps daily (I’m especially good at saying ‘thanks’ to those who help me along the way – recognition is so important). I had several rather frank visits with my leader before deciding to accept an offer for a position in another part of the firm where I work. That’s how I knew that I was making the right choice.

    Well done.

  12. Gary says:

    Trent this is all very good information and I intend to start using some of it tomorrow, thanks.

  13. Lenore says:

    One of your best articles yet, Trent. Wish I had read it when I was floundering at my old job. I passed it on to a friend who feels like the black sheep of the office, and I hope it helps her take action to improve her standing and/or attitude. There are definitely some difficult personalities (and outright sociopaths) in the workforce, but you hit on several tactics anyone can use to stand out or at least get along with most people. Isn’t it great how separation lends perspective? Thanks for sharing, and best wishes for your new solo career.

  14. Loy says:

    This is an entirely good stuff! I’ve been able to use #8 to improve my communication pattern and inter-personal relationships. Thanks!

  15. Ruth says:

    Excellent tips for taking control of your career. I especially like points 1 and 2, when dealing with a pushy boss. I just finished a really great book — Dealing With Divas by Shelley Anderson — about how to deal with celebrities and other pushy bosses, and those two tips really will help in making sure that the relationship flows as smoothly as possible.

  16. Way cool! Some extremely valid points!I appreciate you writing this post and also the rest of the site is really good.

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