There are typically accepted methods for achieving success in your career.  Things like attending a top-tier school, spending some time in the military, or internships with good companies.  Success is complicated to define and has different meanings depending on who you ask.  Success is enjoying what you do, being recognized for contributions in your field, even if that recognition comes only from those you work with or your direct customers.

One definition of success may be rising up through the ranks of the company or within the military structure.  Promotions and increased responsibility are perhaps an oversimplification of success, but they are easily measured.

Most will agree on the accepted or recognized methods for getting a great start on a career.  There is a common quote that has been around for years, and it goes something like this: “You beat 50% of the people just by showing up.  You beat another 40% of the people by working hard.  The last 10% is a dogfight.”  This quote would indicate that by having a desire to succeed in a career and a willingness to work at it, you are already destined to be somewhere in the top 50%.  Not bad.  Here are some additional, but not often talked about, drivers for personal career success.

How Hungry Are You?

An often overlooked success driver is your own beginnings in life.  No one chooses their socio-economic class, amount of family income, or place of birth.  It just happens and then it defines and shapes you.  For some, one’s early surroundings could simply set an expectation.  “This is what life should be, so I need to do the same.”  For others growing up in less fortunate circumstances, the early lesson learned may be, “I will do what it takes to have a better life.”  We have all seen examples of people who are born to privilege and simply walk into high-paying jobs because of who their family is.  We are not talking about them.  The early years can impact your future success by creating a determination to do what it takes to be successful, to provide for your family the things you did not have, or to provide the same things that you grew up with.  Early experiences can set a drive for success that will last an entire career.

The Mentor

If your goal is to be successful in your career, then you will attain and be successful at levels that require an understanding of varying areas of your field.  These include technical acumen, regulatory requirements, business processes, understanding and managing people, and so on.  Schools and military (depending on how long you wear the uniform) do not teach you all you need to know.  A mentor who is willing to share their knowledge and life lessons can be extremely valuable.

There is a reason some companies have instituted formal mentoring programs.  One-on-one time will help to reveal your weak areas and provide opportunities to strengthen them.  A mentorship program within your company can be a vital tool for growing capabilities within your company and should be encouraged.  As an individual, look for those who can be a mentor.  If you are able, be a mentor.

Learn from Failure

I often joke that I learned more about management from watching it being done wrong than from management classes.  No one starts out at the top.  Many start somewhere near the bottom, far from where decisions are made.  Observe the management decisions and how they are delivered and received.  Imagine company leadership entering an all hands meeting and going on for 20 minutes about how great the company is doing, followed by another leader who informs everyone that there will be no pay raises.  Maybe that message could have been structured a little better.  Lesson learned.  Failure is also opportunity.  In the business world, a technical or process failure can have serious negative impact.  Imagine the boost to your career if you step up and identify what went wrong and made sure that it never happened again.  It happens.  Look for those opportunities.

Take the Shot

Sports can be a surprising boost to career performance.  Success and individual performance breeds confidence.  In your successful career, you will at times need to step up and deliver briefings, pitch an idea, or perhaps even be the lone voice in opposition.  Stepping out there and delivering is kind of like your earlier experience in sports.  Success paves the way for future success.  My favorite sport was basketball.  I see a comparison between stepping out and knocking down a three-pointer – taking a chance and winning – just like having the courage to step up in the business world and inform everyone of your idea.  You can step out and be successful because you have done it before.   Sports involvement also teaches the importance of teamwork and work ethic.

Emphasis on People

People, Process and Technology are often identified as key components to accomplish business goals and that they must come together to drive success.  A very important aspect to your own career success is dealing with people.  If you want a process to be most effective, remove people.  If you want your career to be successful, you need people.  There are very few positions where you will not need to interface with others.  To be successful in your career, you will need to deal with and work with a lot of people.  People on your team, in your company, other companies, customers, etc.  The most important aspect of working with others is respect.  Respect everyone and treat them well.  Be honest.  Your staff will appreciate it.  So will your customers.  Give others a hand up.  Offer encouragement.  Be a mentor.  These things establish who you are as a person and will also strengthen the company.

Success itself is complex and complicated.  How success is defined, measured, and achieved can be and should be debated.  Career success, while perhaps more easily identifiable, has many contributing factors.  Individual life experiences in our early years or early career are varied and have a role in shaping who we are, what we believe, and how we contribute.  What drives you to succeed?

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Todd Keys is a Program Manager at Cantada, Inc. He has been in the intelligence Community for 30 years, as a member of the military (USAF), and as a contractor for top 100, top 10, and small business federal defense contractors. He has held multiple roles, CONUS and OCONUS, ranging from technician to executive, providing site O&M, system administration, engineering, supervision, contract management, and Capture/BD for the DoD and multiple intelligence agencies.
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