12 Steps to Career Success

What does career success or fulfillment look like to you? If you want to rise as a leader in your field, how do you envision this leadership? Thinking strategically at the outset of your career will help you with what you want to accomplish by the end of your career. Follow the steps outlined below to put yourself on the road to career success.

Keep in mind that your path forward may not be the straightest; you might encounter a detour or end up finding an unexpected opportunity leading you to an unexpected place. Though your path may not look exactly like these 12 steps, follow as many steps as you can to help you become the leader you envision yourself to be.

Your Path to Career Success

“Where do you see yourself in five years?” — the dreaded question frequently asked by interviewers. Even if you don’t encounter it in an interview, it’s a formative question to ask yourself at the start of your career, along with where you see yourself in 10 years and at the end of your career.

Pick a date each year — your birthday, the anniversary of your start date at work, or some other significant date — and reexamine those questions each year. More than likely you’ll see changes in your answer from year to year. That’s why this question is important.

If you haven’t made any progress toward your long-term goals, use this lack of progress as data to evaluate where you want to go. Did you not progress because of obstacles or because you didn’t put in the effort? If circumstances prevented you, what can you do to avoid them going forward? If you didn’t put forth any effort, is the goal really that important to you? If it isn’t, establish a new goal.

Let your career evolve:

» If you plan to stay in your current role indefinitely, how will you keep yourself fresh and engaged? Don’t stay where you are only because it’s where you’ve always been.

» If you find that you’ve reached where you thought you always wanted to be and it isn’t fulfilling, find a new goal. When new directions emerge, consider where that path could lead to, along with the skills, characteristics, and experiences you’ll need along the way. Create a plan for developing those skills, characteristics, and experiences.

» If you’re faced with an unexpected opportunity, assess whether it’ll move you forward or take you away from your goals.
Having trustworthy professionals in your life who will advise you is key for any successful professional. You’ll no doubt come across preceptors, but your preceptor will not always become your mentor. From day one, examine the professionals around you — not just in your immediate setting but around the organization. Are there professionals who show strong judgment? Are there professionals engaged in roles or activities that you’d like to engage in one day? If so, ask them for a meal or coffee (or tea or juice). Tell them what it is you admire about them and ask them if they’d be willing to give you some advice and serve as your 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. Inquire about their career paths and how they got into their roles. What did they do, or not do, early on that may have set the stage for them to move into their current roles? Discuss your own goals and seek guidance for the steps you should take. Touch base with them at least every six months, even if it’s to tell them everything is going well, and elaborate on why you feel things are moving in the right direction. When you experience challenges, seek their guidance on how to respond. When things are well, seek 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 health care industry.

In addition to guidance, mentors will often inform you about opportunities they come across and may be willing to personally recommend you. As a bonus, mentors will often give you access to their professional networks, thus expanding yours!
Studies show that many graduate nurses in their first year of practice lack the clinical skills and judgment needed to be independent, productive nurses [1]. Be intentional in your own quest to ensure your skills are cutting-edge: pick opportunities that enable you to expand your clinical skills and enhance your professional decision-making; volunteer for procedures that will test your clinical skills; and seek critical feedback and receive it openly.

It can be difficult to hear what people think we need to improve on, but we can’t fix deficiencies if we don’t know 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 to 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 on and what you could have done better. This exercise will help you develop your competencies and your self-confidence so that you have a better sense of how to respond going forward. You’ll recognize the things you do well and identify and change the things you could do better.

Constantly work on your communication skills and conflict resolution abilities. Many videos done by nurses cite interpersonal conflicts as the biggest challenge during a nurse’s first year. Your communication with patients, patients’ families, coworkers, and doctors requires different types of responses.

When others react with hostility or aggression, 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’re 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?” [2]
Treat others with the respect and dignity you’d like to be treated with, no matter the 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 your loved one? Treat subordinate staff the same way you’d 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’re shy. Say hello at the start of every shift and goodbye as you are leaving. Not only are these the right things to do, but 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, one that’s committed to a common goal. Everyone has their role and each role is significant. Build trust with coworkers, doctors, CNAs, patients, and 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’re overwhelmed. Hold yourself and others accountable, not pejoratively but instead recognizing that we can only learn from our mistakes if we acknowledge that we made them. Pay attention to results.
Even if you think you’re the least political person you know, if you don’t understand and appreciate the power and political structures in your work environment, you’re likely to get burned by them.

The challenge is that workplace politics are not typically evident until after you’re hired. Each workplace has its own political climate. During your clinical rotations and your job search, look for glimpses, but don’t expect to see the full picture until you’re hired for a permanent role. Some things you can look for prior to accepting a permanent role are whether:

» Employees seem happy, not when they’re formally interacting with you, but when you observe them from afar.
» You hear grumbling about the workplace or coworkers.
» Coworkers are supportive of one another.
» There are enough resources for the unit to be successful and, if you observe shortages, how staff members interact about the shortages.

Once you enter the workplace, you’ll need to do a more thorough political assessment. Being aware is important to your success in an organization. Though you may not be able to change the situation, you’ll be able to 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 and conduct yourself accordingly.

» Does a coworker seem to have a stronger relationship with your manager than others do? How does this manifest itself? Do you feel that the individual receives preferential treatment like preferred scheduling? Do you feel they are engaged at the same level as you and others (i.e., are they doing their share or doing more or less)? How does that person interact with other coworkers? If you have a conflict with this person that prompts your supervisor’s participation, do you think your 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 are your 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 who is involved in a disproportionately high number of conflicts? How are they perceived by others not engaged in the conflict? How are they 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’s a conflict with a patient, a patient’s family, or a doctor, can you count on support? Do they seek to develop staff and have them participate in decision-making?

As you evaluate these situations, you’ll form an assessment of the political culture and you’ll 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.
It’s almost always easier to point out the flaws in someone else’s behavior than in your own. 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’re frustrated? As you think about these things, consider 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 or 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 without holding grudges. No one can force you to stay where you are, so if you choose to be there, make the most of it. If you can’t make the most of it, accept that it may be time to pursue a new opportunity.
Becoming an independent, competent nurse is a worthy goal that requires much time. You’ll 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, but if your questions seem to frustrate someone, seek feedback. Perhaps your questions are untimely or don’t reflect independence. 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 to achieve, and true competence a year beyond that.
Jobs in the nursing industry are inherently stressful. What do you need to do to stay healthy? Which stress relief tactics work for you? How can you avoid drama in the workplace? Contemplate these questions early on to get a better handle on stress.

You can expect to feel overwhelmed about three months after beginning your job. If possible, plan to take some time off so that you can recharge your batteries. Get proper rest, eat healthily, and work out. These three things can take you far in managing stress.
Every task, from basic to complex, is an involved process requiring you to make numerous decisions. Consider the everyday decisions you make. What do you do when you encounter a task you’re less sure of? Is there a pattern to the types of things that make you feel less confident?

Try this exercise: when facing a small decision, take a moment to think the situation and options through before jumping in to solve it. Taking the time to consider a situation is often faster than having to redo something entirely. Over time, decision-making will become more instinctual for you.

In addition, demonstrate your ability to understand and engage larger issues of the health care industry on a local, state, and national level, along with the internal operations of your workplace. Participate in discussions about these issues, offering your perspective while being open to differing views.

When possible, work toward action plans for resolving the issues. Talking about issues without moving toward action can come off as whining, complaining, or passing the buck. When you do discuss the issues, keep your conversations to appropriate settings, like discussion segments of staff meetings, committee work, and/or professional development experiences.
From your professional interactions to classmates and faculty to clinical experiences, you’ve already begun cultivating your network. And to keep it, you must maintain it, adding to it continually.

Over the next year, try to check in with as many people as possible. Did you appreciate a specific individual’s perspective on something? If so, seek their advice. If you become aware of an opportunity that people in your network might be interested in, share it with them. If you haven’t had an opportunity to interact with many people, consider reaching out on the anniversary of your graduation, thanking them for their part in your development. Networking requires staying in the forefront of people’s minds.

Build your network in your professional setting, personally thanking nurses, doctors, CNAs, and technicians — any- and everyone who has helped you. Interact with professionals in your workplace whom you don’t normally encounter. Follow up with members of committees and/or professional development activities. Seek personal referrals from those you interact with to get your foot in the door and expand your network.

In addition, build 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 your personal data to a minimum on LinkedIn and remember that employers and fellow professionals may have access to your personal social media presence, like on Facebook.

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 maintenance activities may feel forced at first, as you experience the camaraderie you build, they’re feel more natural and positive.
Nursing is a diverse and ever-changing field with nearly 100 specialties to choose from. If you want to be a leader, stay active both inside and outside your organization:

» 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 field(s) of interest.

» Engage in research activities and clinical ladders.

» Serve on committees, either within your workplace or in your professional association.

» Be a sponge wherever you go, taking in as much as possible (the positive to emulate and the negative to avoid).

Keep in mind that often committee work will add to your daily work. Even if it’s not additional time, it may mean additional work, but 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.
Some days will overwhelm you. Some days will question your competency. Some days will feel as though the whole world — or at least the nurses around you — are out to get you. This is all too common in a nurse’s first year.

One of the main motivators for joining the field is the desire to help people. But the workplace realities of any organization can feel counter to that desire. Add to this a mix of interpersonal conflicts, staff shortages, a lack of resources, difficult patients and families, competition in the workplace, and stress, and you’ll find that the workplace you encounter is different from the workplace you imagined. Just as this list of stressors affect you, it affects everyone else around you, and everyone will react differently.

Though you may strive to be a team player, you may find others to be more negative. First, keep your personal life separate from your work place, at least until you have the opportunity to assess your surroundings. True friendships take time to build. Sharing information before you know whom to trust can be repercussive.

Should gossip or bullying arise, stand up for yourself in a professional manner. Speak 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. As you address the situation, seek out constructive feedback on whether they feel you have done anything that upset them to the point of engaging in this behavior. When someone engaging in bullying behavior is confronted, they usually back down. If they don’t and the behavior continues, 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 you begin to dread work on a daily basis and don’t feel fulfilled, then it may be time to reevaluate. Is the work leaving you unfulfilled or where you are doing the work that’s unfulfilling? Work enjoyment is a major component in excelling and moving forward. When you encounter difficulties, 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 can’t find positive things to focus on in the workplace, and there is no openness to change within your organization, 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 don’t like the work, don’t assume that you should leave nursing altogether — there may be another nursing setting or specialty you may find more fulfilling!

It takes time to become fully acclimated. Studies show that the first year is the toughest because there’s much to adjust to. Expect this, especially when you’re new to the role and the workplace. If you become overwhelmed, seek support from your supervisor, preceptor, and/or mentors. Assess if it’s part of the transition or something more. If it’s something more, it may be time to explore your options elsewhere.


[1] 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.

[2] Connor, Dan. (2009, July 27) 4 Magic Phrases You Can Use to Respond to ANYTHING. Retrieved from YouTube.