How Can I Take Charge of My Career?

Practical ways to fast track your own success, on your own terms.

Can I guess something about you?

If you care enough to read this article, then I’m willing to bet that a successful, fulfilling career is important to you.

I get it. I’m wired the same way.

But I talk to a lot of leaders who feel stuck in their career and don’t know how to move forward.

And almost always, the reason is this: they’re letting other people dictate their career trajectory – often without even realizing it.

They take the promotion that’s offered instead of asking for the job they really want. They accept the terms of a role even though they wish they were different. They get stuck doing tasks they don’t love just because that’s the job description.

Sound familiar?

The truly great leaders I know aren’t afraid to take charge of their own career. They’re assertive. They know their abilities and believe in themselves. They go after what they want instead of waiting for it to come to them.

If you want to be THAT kind of leader, keep reading. I’ve got three ways you can fast track your success by taking charge of your own career.

1. Be the CEO of your own career.

Too many promising leaders get stuck because they’re waiting for someone to give them that next big opportunity.

And sure, sometimes we need our mentors and bosses to take a chance on us. But here’s the reality: it’s up to you to manage your own career. Nobody else is going to do it for you.

Let me tell you about Maritza Montiel. She trailblazed a career at Deloitte as the first woman to become partner and eventually Deputy CEO and Vice Chairman. Along the way, she had to assert herself and what she wanted.

I love how she put it when I talked to her on my podcast, How Leaders Lead. She said, “You’re the CEO of your own career.”

Think about that for a moment.

Just like a CEO leads a company, you’re ultimately in charge of your career.

You get to set a strategy and a vision. You get to make the big executive decisions. You get to decide what resources you need to make it happen.

All the agency – and all the responsibility – lie with you, not anyone else.

Maritza lives this out in her career. At one point, she was asked to relocate to Washington, D.C., in order to run the division of Deloitte that served the federal government. Her supervisor said it was necessary; managing partners always lived in the region they were leading.

She told him her plan to continue living in Miami while working in D.C.

He said it was impossible.

But she stuck to her guns, saying, “Let me try it for two years. And if I’m not successful, you can fire me.”

Well, of course, she was successful – not only in the role itself, but also in having the courage to ask for what she wanted.

Maritza reminds us that ultimately, we get to decide what’s important to us. Don’t let other people define your potential or dictate your opportunities. Reframe your role in your own career as the CEO and you’ll realize just how much power you have over where your career goes next.

2. Raise your hand for the tough assignments.

I remember the day I was offered the job as the division president at PepsiCo, heading up KFC. My phone was ringing – but people weren’t calling to offer congratulations. They were calling to offer me condolences.

See, the business had been in the tank for about eight years. There was no same-store sales growth or long-term strategy. Nobody wanted to touch it.

But with my incredible team, we managed to turn it around.

And because I was willing to take a tough assignment, I distinguished myself as a leader. It ultimately helped me become the CEO of Yum! Brands.

This is a common theme when I talk with great leaders. Marvin Ellison, the CEO of Lowe’s, told me something astounding: in every position he’s ever accepted, including his current role, he replaced someone who was forced out.

Now, if you’re replacing someone who was forced out, that typically means you’re walking into a challenging role. But as Marvin said, “I’ve taken a lot of those tough assignments because I want to demonstrate that I can lead.”

And he’s absolutely right. As your career develops, keep your eye open for the assignments nobody else wants. That might just be a golden opportunity for you to stand out and make your mark as a leader.

3. Know what brings you joy.

If you want to take charge of your career, you need to really understand yourself and what makes you tick.

That self-awareness is a key trait in all the great leaders I know.

So ask yourself: what tasks do you look forward to? You know the feeling. These are the tasks that give you energy and make the time fly by. It’s the stuff you do where work almost doesn’t feel like work. And when they’re done, you get a deep sense of satisfaction.

Those are what I like to call your “Joy Builders.”

My greatest Joy Builders are a love of learning and a love of sharing what I’ve learned – as well as time with my family.

What are they for you?

Make your list of joy builders, and you’ll have a compass that can help you decide which opportunities you want to pursue. It can lead you to roles where you can contribute most meaningfully and find the most success.

This is one of the most important parts of coaching yourself – and it’s something I go into a lot more detail about in my book, Take Charge of You.

This is your “one wild and precious life,” in the words of the poet Mary Oliver.

And it’s way too important to leave your career to chance or to the decisions of others.

If you want to lead well, you have to start by leading yourself: That means owning your career. Speaking up. Taking risks. Being responsible for what happens next.

It’s not easy. You will feel uncomfortable along the way. But the very fact that you’re reading this tells me you’ve got the courage it takes to build a career you truly love.

November 1, 2022