By Cynthia McCauley
Most professionals think they have to change jobs every three years to get ahead. But you really don’t have to move to a new job or company to advance your career. Chances are, your current job offers challenges and opportunities you haven’t yet tapped. By taking on new assignments in your current position, you can expand your skill set and develop your leadership capabilities—and thus your marketability—without spending all that time and effort job-hunting.
The key to making progress in the workplace and in one’s career is to identify and take on developmental assignments. These are roles and activities that provide opportunities to learn new skills, expand your knowledge base, try new behaviors and improve on weaknesses. Because they usually involve an element of challenge or risk, they stretch you out of your comfort zone. A developmental assignment might lead you to work that is broader in scope than what you are used to, such as a project involving more people or coordinating with groups across the organization.
Developmental assignments can also come from the experience of starting something new, such as a new project or a new product line or championing a change, such as adopting a new technology or restructuring the workflow in your business unit. Taking on a "high stakes" role—one with a tight deadline, pressure from superiors, high visibility and responsibility for critical decisions, such as managing a big technology upgrade—will also take you out of your comfort zone and drive significant learning.
Here are some tips for identifying the developmental assignments that are right for you, for discussing these opportunities with your supervisor and for managing your new workload.
Find the right challenge. Before you jump into a new role or task, clarify what you are trying to learn. Ask yourself what skills, behaviors or actions you need to develop to be more effective. What do you need to learn for future assignments and opportunities? What are your strengths and weaknesses?
For each area you want to improve, brainstorm different ways you could learn and practice new skills or behaviors. If, for example, you want to improve your people skills, you can create an endless stream of developmental assignments by learning new ways to deal with people, face and resolve conflict, and coach employees. Serving as an IT liaison to the business is a great way to improve your people skills as is working with people from different cultures, races or ethnic backgrounds.
Look for opportunities to reshape your current job. There are a number of ways to go about doing this. You could trade tasks with a coworker or volunteer for a task that would normally go to a more experienced person. For example, if you’re a programmer, you could take on more project management responsibilities.