12 Steps to Putting Yourself on the Road to Career Success
Getting a job is the relatively easy part. Turning that job into a fulfilling career is more complicated – and more rewarding. What will career success/fulfillment look like for you? Do you want to be a leader in your field? If so, how do you envision that leadership? Thinking strategically at the start of your career about what you wish to accomplish by the end of your career will help. Following the steps outlined below, will help you move forward, but your path probably won’t be straight – most people experience at least one detour along the way and some end up finding an unexpected opportunity that takes them places they didn’t expect. In Step One, you will identify a destination. From there, you may not actively engage in every step. If you wish to be a leader, it may be hard to reach your destination without moving through most of these steps. However, keeping your destination in mind will help you get there.
Step One – Set Goals for Yourself & Revisit Those Goals
Interviewers frequently ask “Where do you see yourself in five years?” Whether they ask the question or not, and though many view it as a “dreaded” question, as you begin your career you want to be able to answer that question; as well as, “Where do you see yourself in 10 years?” and “Where do you see yourself at the end of your career?” Pick a date each year – your birthday, the anniversary of when you started your job, or some other significant date – and make a practice of reexamining those questions each year. More than likely you will see changes, sometimes subtle and sometimes drastic, from year-to-year. That is why it is important. If you haven’t made any progress towards your long term goals, use that as a part of your evaluation of where you want to go. Did you NOT make progress because of circumstances preventing you from doing so or because you didn’t put in the effort? If circumstances prevented you, what can you do to avoid that moving forward? If you didn’t put forth the effort, is the goal really important to you? If it isn’t, establish a new goal. When you develop your goals, you must keep in mind that they are your goals as you see your life today – no one is going to come back to you in 5 or 10 years, or at the end of your career and say, “You lied. You said you would do ___ and you didn’t.”
Let your career evolve. If you plan is to stay in the role you are currently in indefinitely, how will you keep yourself fresh and engaged? Don’t stay where you are only because it is where you have always been. If you find that you reached where you thought you always wanted to be and it isn’t fulfilling, find a new goal. When new directions emerge, think about where that path could lead, and the skills, characteristics and experiences you will need along the way. Create a plan for developing those skills, characteristics and experiences. If faced with an unexpected opportunity, assess whether this opportunity moves you forward or takes you away from your goals as you decide whether to pursue it.
Step Two - Identify role models and mentors
Having professionals in your life who will advise you and who you can trust is key for any successful professional. You may be assigned a preceptor but a mentor is something different – your preceptor may become a mentor, but not necessarily. From day one, examine the professionals around you – not just in your immediate setting, but around the organization. Are there professionals who show strong judgement? Are there professionals engaged in roles or activities in which one day you’d like to engage? If so, ask them for a meal or “coffee” (you don’t have to drink coffee to meet someone for “coffee!”). Tell them what it is you admire about them and ask them if they would be willing to give you some advice and might be willing to serve as a mentor. Most people are flattered that someone thinks that highly of them and they are open to helping. Even if they don’t feel they can be a mentor, you can always consider them role models.
Once you find mentors actively maintain the relationships. Ask them about their career path. How did they get into their roles? What did they do, or not do, early on that may have set the stage for them to move into the roles they are in currently? Talk to them about the goals you have set and ask their advice regarding the steps you should take. Touch base with your mentor(s) at least every six months - even if it’s to tell him/her everything is going well – tell them why you feel things are moving in the right direction. When you experience challenges, ask their advice about how to respond. When things are going well, ask the mentors for input on any new steps you should pursue to reach your goals. Learn as much as you can from them about your organization, about professionalism and/or about the healthcare industry.
In addition, to the support and advice mentors provide, they often will let you know of opportunities they become aware of and may be willing to personally recommend you. As a bonus, frequently mentors will give you access to their professional networks – thus expanding your own network!
Step Three – Enhance Your Skills
Studies of graduate nurses in the first year of practice find that many lack the clinical skills and judgement needed to be independent, productive nurses (Dyess and Sherman, 2009). Be intentional in your quest to ensure your skills are cutting edge. You are required to complete CEUs to maintain your nursing license. Pick opportunities that will enable you to expand your clinical skills and enhance your professional decision making. Volunteer to be a part of procedures that will test your clinical skills. Seek critical feedback and receive it openly. It can be difficult to hear when people think we need to improvement, but we won’t fix deficiencies if we aren’t aware they exist. If you feel the critical feedback is a matter of personal perspective, think about how that person is experiencing you and what you could do ensure others don’t experience you that way as well. After the emotional aspects of a difficult clinical situation or an issue with a patient, patient’s family member, co-worker or supervisor have died down, step back and assess what you feel you did well and what you feel you could have done better. This exercise is not designed for you to second-guess yourself or beat yourself up. It is designed for you to develop your competencies and your self-confidence. The goal is that the next time you are faced with a similar situation; you will have a better sense as to how you wish to respond. Acknowledge the things you do well and identify and change the things you could have done better.
Constantly work on your communication skills and conflict resolution abilities. The chief stumbling blocks new nurses experience surround dealing with people – patients, patients’ families, coworkers, and doctors all require different types of responses. Multiple videos done by nurses in their first year, cite negative interactions with these groups as one of the things they found the most challenging to deal with. When others react in a hostile or aggressive manner, remain calm, hear them out, and recognize what you can and cannot do to address their concerns. If the other party wants information or actions that are unreasonable or inappropriate for your role, address those concerns directly and tell them what you can do for them. Use empathy to try and determine what the crux of the issue is, and determine if there is a way for you to address that concern even if you cannot give them exactly what they want. If you are overwhelmed, stall for time to gather your thoughts. An effective tactic is to neutrally say something like, “That’s interesting. Can you tell me more about that?” or “That’s interesting. What makes you say/do/ask that?” (Connor, 2009).
Step Four – Be a Team Player
Treat others with the respect and dignity you would like to be treated with, regardless of role. If you were a patient, how would you want your nurse to interact with you? If you were a family member, how would you want a nurse to interact with you or with your loved one? Treat subordinate staff the same way you would like to be treated by your supervisors, doctors and leadership. In the early part of your career, CNAs and other support staff may have more practical knowledge than you do, show them you value them. Get to know the people around you. Even if you are shy, introduce yourself. Say hello at the start of every shift and goodbye as you are leaving. Not only are these the right things to do, failing to do so, may have serious repercussions as you may not be viewed as a team player.
See yourself as part of a team – a team committed to a common goal. Everyone has their role and all are significant. Build trust with your coworkers, the doctors, the CNAs, the patients, and the patients’ families. Strive to engage only in productive conflict – conflict that can be resolved to the satisfaction of both parties. Recognize that differing perspectives can lead to enhanced solutions and don’t take alternate perspectives as challenges to yours. Keep the end goal in mind and be committed to a positive outcome for the team. If that means helping someone who is overwhelmed, do it. In turn, hopefully they will help you when you are overwhelmed. Hold yourself and others accountable – not in a pejorative manner, but recognizing that we can only learn from our mistakes if we acknowledge that we made them. Pay attention to results.
Step Five -Understand Institutional Power and Politics
You may see yourself as the least political person you know, but if you don’t understand and appreciate the power and political structures in your work environment you are apt to be burned by them. The challenge is that workplace politics are not typically evident until after you are hired. Each workplace has its own political climate. During your clinical rotations and your job search, you should look for glimpses, but you will not get a full view until hired into a permanent role. Some of the things to look for prior to accepting a permanent role are:
- Do the employees seem happy – not when they are formally interacting with you, but when you observe them from afar?
- Do you hear grumbling about the workplace or co-workers?
- Are co-workers supportive of one another?
- Are there enough resources for the unit to be successful? If you observe shortages, how do staff members interact about the shortages?
Once you enter the workplace, you will need to do a more thorough political assessment. Awareness of your political environment is important to your success in an organization. You may not be able to change the situation, but understanding what is happening will help you develop strategies that align with your goals and hopefully keep you moving positively. As you examine each situation, think about how you want to be perceived in relation to the situation – behave accordingly.
- Do you have a co-worker(s) that seems to have a stronger relationship with your manager than others do? How does this manifest itself? Do you feel that individual receives preferential treatment, such as preferred scheduling? Do you feel s/he is engaged at the same level as you or others (is s/he doing their share or more or less than his/her share)? How does that person interact with other coworkers? If you have a conflict with this person that evokes your supervisor’s participation, do you feel the supervisor can be objective?
- Is there a group that socializes together outside of work to the exclusion of some in the workplace? How does that play out in work? How are the members or the group perceived by others in the workplace? How do the members of the group interact with those not in the group? Have they reached out to you to be a part of the group? What are the ramifications of joining them or not joining them?
- How is your unit perceived by others? How is your supervisor perceived by others? How do these things manifest themselves? How might this influence your options internally?
- What do you experience as the organization’s priorities, in terms of dedication of resources, positive or negative attention from leadership, and public relations? How do these align with their stated priorities and values? How does this manifest itself in your unit?
- Have you observed coworker conflicts? What is at the crux of those conflicts (e.g., personality, misunderstanding, stress)? Do these conflicts impact the unit operationally? Is there an individual that is involved in a disproportionately high number of conflicts? How is s/he perceived by others not engaged in the conflict? How is s/he perceived by the leadership of the organization? What do you want your relationship with that person to be?
- How do the people in the roles you hope to rise to behave in the workplace? How do they interact with others and how do others interact with them? Are there behaviors they exhibit that you think help them to stand out in a positive way?
- How do people interact with other levels? How are the CNAs, ancillary staff or support staff treated? How are the nurses treated by the doctors and/or leadership? How do you feel about the levels of treatment?
- How does the leadership support the staff? If there is a conflict with a patient, a patient’s family, or a doctor, can you count of support? Do they seek to develop staff and have them participate in decision-making?
As you evaluate these situations you will form an assessment of the political culture and you will be able to either develop a plan for how you want to interact with that political climate or make the decision to leave. If you experience a conflict with a coworker or supervisor, unless the situation rises to the level of harassment or hostile work environment, try to resolve it personally. Quietly seek advice from your mentors, but be careful not to engage others in a manner that results in people taking sides.
Step Six – Check Your Behavior
Though it is easy to point out flaws in others’ behaviors, it can be a lot more difficult to identify our own behavior and how it impacts others. Are you frequently late or late for report? Do you seek out support for things that others at your experience level would do independently? Do you talk about others in the workplace? How do you behave when you are frustrated? As you think about these things, also think about how your coworkers, supervisors and organizational leadership perceive your behaviors? What are some alternatives to the way you behave? What are the consequences of those behaviors? Are there any adjustments you want/need to make?
Not everything is personal. If someone seems short tempered, it may have nothing to do with you. Think of your immediate and long-term goals. Is reacting to that person in your best interest and/or will reacting accomplish what you hope. If not, let it go and MOVE ON. Don’t hold grudges. No one can force you to stay where you are, so if you choose to be there, make the most of it and if you can’t make the most of it, accept that it is time to pursue a new opportunity.
Step Seven – Be Open to Learning Opportunities
Though your goal is to become an independent and competent nurse, this doesn’t happen overnight. You will learn more in your first months, than you probably did in six semesters of clinicals! Take in as much as you can. Seek out opportunities to push yourself – ask to work with complicated cases, see if you can observe work happening in other areas that you may experience down the road. ASK QUESTIONS. If your questions seem to be frustrating someone, ask for feedback. Is it because you tend to ask when they are at their most stressed/pressed? If so, hold your questions and ask if you can talk to them later. Is it because that person feels you should be more independent? Discuss it with your preceptor or mentor. Are you on track for achieving the level of independence they expect? Keep in mind that independence typically can take up to a year, and true competence a year after that.
Step Eight – Develop a Strategy for Handling Stress
Jobs in the nursing industry are inherently stressful. You will deal with patients and their families in what may be one of the most stressful times of their lives. You will deal with co-workers who may be coping with personal issues and/or feeling overworked, underappreciated and threatened by those around them. You will have managers that are being asked to cut costs and achieve more. The list goes on and on - you get the idea.
What do you need to do to stay healthy personally? What stress relief tactics work for you? How can you avoid drama in the workplace? Thinking these questions through early on, can help you avoid being tripped up by stress. Expect to feel overwhelmed about 3 months after you begin the job. If possible, plan to take some time off so that you can recharge your batteries. Make sure you get proper rest, eat healthy and work out. Those three things can take you far managing stress.
Step Nine – Demonstrate Your Ability to Use Sound Judgement
You may not realize it but even the most basic tasks require that you make dozens of decisions to accomplish them. Take some time to think about the decisions you engage in on a daily basis? Which ones are you confident of and of which ones are you less sure? What do you do when you are less confident? Is there a pattern to the types of things which make you feel less confident? If so, there may be training that would help you. As you face little decisions, take a moment, when possible, to think the situation and your options through, rather than jumping in immediately. That moment should be just long enough for you to begin formulating an appropriate response. Remember, taking the time to consider a situation, is almost always faster than having to redo something entirely. Over time decisions will become more instinctual and require less deliberate consideration.
In addition to demonstrating your ability to use sound judgement in daily tasks, demonstrate your ability to understand and engage in the larger issues of the healthcare industry, on a local, state and national level, as well as in the internal operations in your work place. Participate in discussions about these issues – offer your perspective, but be open to differing opinions. When possible, work towards action plans for resolving the issues. Talking about issues without moving towards actions can be perceived as whining, complaining or passing the buck. Additionally, keep these conversations to appropriate settings – i.e., discussion segments of staff meetings, committee work and/or professional development experiences versus, report when people are focused on other issues.
Step Ten – Network
At the start of your career a professional network seems like something you can focus on in the future, but knowingly or unknowingly you have already started to cultivate your professional network. You need to actively maintain this network and continually add to it. Your network includes all of the people you interact with professionally, our classmates and faculty from the Rutgers School of Nursing, as well as the nurses you interacted with during your clinical experiences. To maintain this network, stay connected. Over the course of the year, try to check in with as many people as possible. If you are involved in a committee or project, is there a place for others to participate? Did you appreciate a specific individual’s perspective on things? If so, seek out the person’s advice. If you become aware of an opportunity those in your network might be interested in, share it with them. If you haven’t had an opportunity to interact with people, consider dropping them a line on the anniversary of your graduation – thank them for their part in your development and for being a part of your memories. Part of networking is staying in the forefront of people’s minds.
Build your network by taking the time to follow up with the people with whom you interact in professional settings. Take the time to personally thank the nurses, doctors, CNAs and technicians with whom you work for their help. Make an effort to interact with professionals in your workplace with whom you would not normally have the opportunity to meet. Follow up with the members of the committees and/or professional development activities you meet, as well as the role models and mentors you develop. For the people you don’t see every day, employ the same maintenance methods described above. And, acknowledge the people you interact with daily. When you intentionally interact with members of your network for advice, ask if they could refer you to anyone else. A personal referral may get your foot in the door and expand your network.
In addition, don’t ignore your professional social media presence and connections. Make sure you have a strong LinkedIn profile that includes a summary that is more than a short biography. Summarize your professional experience and goals. Sign up for feeds for areas of interest, include “Featured Skills & Endorsements.” Connect with a broad range of people in your field(s) of interest – keep in mind that the purpose of LinkedIn is different than other social media such as Facebook or Twitter. Your LinkedIn account should contain minimal personal data. LinkedIn can be an excellent resource during your career and when changing jobs - premium or basic version, participation in LinkedIn is effective. Additionally, remember that employers and fellow professionals may have access to your personal social media presence (i.e., Facebook). Does your account represent you as you want to be represented professionally?
Having a strong professional network will enhance your career. It will give you a greater sense of connection to your field, strong working relationships and access to opportunities. Though the maintenance activities described may feel forced at first, as you experience the comradery you build, you will find it more natural and positive.
Step Eleven – Get/Stay Active in the Field
Nursing is a diverse and ever-changing field with approximately 100 specialties. If you want to be a leader stay active within and outside the boundaries of the organization for which you work. Learn the policy making and organizational development processes in your organization. Seek opportunities to engage in the process. Join professional groups that will connect you with others in your fields of interest. Engage in research activities and clinical ladders. Seek out the opportunity to serve on committees – either within your workplace or in your professional association. Be a sponge wherever you go – take in as much as possible (the positive to emulate and the negative to avoid). Keep in mind that often committee work will not lessen your daily work load but be an addition to it. Even if it is not additional time, it may mean additional work. Consider the extra work an investment in your future. Engaging on this level increases your skills, provides an arena for you to demonstrate your ability to use sound judgement, and helps you build your network of contacts within your profession.
Step Twelve - Stay Positive and Be Patient with Yourself and Others
Keep in mind that there may be days when you feel totally overwhelmed. There may be days when you question your competency. There may be days when you feel the whole world, or at least the nurses around you, are out to get you. This is typical in the first year. One of the things that motivate most nurses to join the field is the desire to help people. However, the workplace realities of any organization can feel counter to that desire. Add to that, personality conflicts, staff shortages, a lack of resources, difficult patients and families, competition in the workplace, and stress, and you may find that the workplace you encounter is very different than the workplace you anticipated. Keep in mind that just as this list affects you, it affects everyone else around you as well, but each of you may react to these things differently.
Though you make effort to be a team player, you may find others to be negative. First, keep your personal life separate from your work life – at least until you have the opportunity to assess your surroundings. True friendships take time to build. Sharing information before you know who you can fully trust can give gossipers and bullies ammunition. If you find yourself the subject of gossip or feel you are being bullied, stand up for yourself in a professional manner. Try speaking with the person(s) privately, directly and calmly. Remember that you don’t have to be friends but you do have to be productive colleagues. In addition to addressing the behavior you’ve experienced from them, seek out constructive feedback on whether s/he feels you have done anything that would upset them to the point of them engaging in this negative behavior. Usually when someone engaging in bullying behavior is confronted, he or she backs down. If not and the behavior continues, your options are to seek and follow advice from mentors, confront the behavior again, or report the person(s). Think through the pros and cons of each option.
If work was fun every minute of every day, we’d call it play! If you start dreading work on a daily basis and are not feeling fulfilled, than it may be time to reevaluate. Is it the work that leaves you unfulfilled or where you are doing the work? To excel and continue to move forward, you should find enjoyment in your work. However, being realistic about the workplace can help you not overreact to the negatives. When you encounter the difficult things, try to counter your thoughts with positive ones. Additionally, when possible, seek to make positive changes in your organization. If you like the work but you can’t find positive things to focus on in the workplace, and you don’t feel there is an openness to change; it may be time to change environments. However, keep your negative concerns out of the public sphere. Talk with a supervisor, preceptor or mentor one-on-one. If you find you don’t like the work, don’t assume that you should leave nursing – see if there is an alternate nursing setting you may find more fulfilling.
It takes a while to be fully acclimated. Studies show that the first year is the toughest because there is so much to adjust to. Expect this – especially when new to both the role and the workplace. If you become overwhelmed, seek support from your supervisor, preceptor and/or mentors. Assess if it is a part of the transition or something more. If it is something more, it may be time to explore your options elsewhere.
- Connor, Dan. (2009, July 27) 4 Magic Phrases You Can Use to Respond to ANYTHING. Retrieved from YouTube
- Dyess, Susan and Sherman, Rose. The first year of practice: new graduate nurses' transition and learning needs. Journal of Continuing Education in Nursing. Sep;40(9):403-10
- Johnson & Johnson.