Career growth often happens organically, but it does not occur automatically. Natural junctures for change happen, but it is up to you to recognize and capitalize on them. If you have leadership ambitions, you must pair thoughtful reflection with strategic action. I’ve seen individuals stagnate by staying put in a role too long. Others pivot at the wrong time, moving capriciously from one position to the next.
How can you tell when it’s time to pursue additional opportunities? I have found that there are four characteristics that reflect aptitude for advancement.
One initial indicator that you may be ready for a leadership position is that you feel unsatisfied in your current role. The work that you used to find immersive now feels stale. You are distracted by inefficiencies in the current workflow of your department. You are full of ideas of how things could be approached more effectively.
This signal comes with a significant caveat. For some employees, their aspirations for advancement boil down to resentment. They have a sense that they could run things better, with endless variations on the theme, “I think my boss is incompetent.” Your aspirations cannot be driven solely by discontent. There can be a healthy function of frustration. Dissatisfaction can alert you that you are not being adequately challenged. However, there is a key difference between restlessness and bitterness. Acrimony is not productive. Be attuned to the message of discontent without allowing it to fester and sour.
If you are emerging from a season of success and growth, it can demonstrate that you are ready for a new challenge. It may seem counterintuitive that if things are going well at your current job, it could be the perfect time for a change. However, like an athlete in training, as you hone your skills, you are ready to push yourself even further.
The experience you’ve had and the skills you’ve developed have equipped you to tackle more complex projects. You may be ready to build on your success through a new position. A leadership role not only provides personal opportunities, but allows you to better serve students and communities through expanded influence.
There is a dangerous mythology that truly great leaders are lone rangers, mavericks who forge their own path. Nothing could be further from the truth. A more accurate picture of an effective leader is the conductor of an orchestra. The musicians take their cues from the conductor, who guides them on timing, tone, and technique.
Leaders may be independent thinkers, but they are collaborative actors, working in coordination with others to carry out a mission. Communication and people skills are foundational for effective leaders. If you evidence an ability to work well with others to achieve an outcome, it shows you have the skills needed to operate on a wider level.
The most important indicator that you are ready for advancement is your ability to identify, articulate, and energize the mission of an organization. Managers carry out specific projects. Leaders steer institutions. Both are essential, but there is a categorical difference of scope and scale. If your bent is to approach issues from a macro level, you are a candidate for leadership.
A commitment to make a positive impact, coupled with the ability to motivate and mobilize others is what higher education needs in this moment. Individuals who are driven by a desire to serve the greater good always put the long-term good of the institution ahead of accolades for themselves. When benevolence, passion, and skill meet, there’s no end to what can be accomplished.
As you consider your career trajectory, an outside perspective can be invaluable. Discussing your past experience and future ambitions with a trusted colleague and mentor, can give you the insight you need to move forward. In my role advising leaders in higher education, I often act as a sounding board, enabling ideas to coalesce and solutions to emerge. Dialogue is just as profitable when you realize it’s not quite time to seek advancement, showing you where you need more robust experience. Having trusted colleagues and advisors will serve you at every point in your career. As you evaluate the four factors we’ve outlined, pairing personal reflection with collaborative conversation can allow you to recognize where your current career path is leading you.
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