Moving Up the Ladder: The Complete Career Advancement Guide

Follow these steps to boost your career progression and start moving up the ladder.

Reviewed by Melina Theodorou

Man taking career advancement steps

We spend a lot of time at work. Experts estimate that all those 40-hour weeks add up to a solid 13 years of our lives, with our social life only taking up a solitary year. While numbers like this stress the importance of work-life balance, it's also essential to do something productive and meaningful with those 13 years. The key is to avoid getting stuck in one place for too long.

It's not unusual to feel stressed, uninspired or unmotivated at work. You may have been in the same position too long, or your company is no longer the innovator it once was. You might have realized you're in the wrong industry altogether. Whatever your issue, it's time to make a move at advancing your career.

So, where do you start? We've put together this handy guide to help you reach your career goals, and add interesting challenges, new responsibilities, and personal satisfaction to your life along the way.

What is career progression?

Think about how 'dead-end job' is the phrase so commonly used by people unhappy in their current work situation. In contrast, we 'climb the ladder' with a promotion or 'take a big leap' and 'launch' our own business. We use terms of forward motion to describe positive career changes because everyone wants to feel that the time they put in every day is actually leading somewhere.

While pay raises and promotions are typical signs of progress, a lot depends on the specific career goals you've designed for yourself. If you want to be CEO of your current company, you'll be on a different path than someone looking to gain enough experience to do independent research in their field, or land a pivotal role with a company that shares their personal values.

Whatever your dream job, preferred work environment or expected salary is, any step you take that gets you closer to it is career progression. Look for opportunities that help you hone a necessary skill, make the right contacts or learn more about your industry.

How can I advance my career?

Begin right now, in your current position. There will be multiple chances for you to move ahead if you know where, when, why and how to look for them. It can be as simple as cracking open a new technical manual or logging onto social media. Check out these 12 ideas to get a running start on advancing your career.

1. Ask for opportunities

Talk to your supervisor about taking on an extra project, job shadowing a superior, attending a conference or booking a training course. Taking on additional responsibilities gives you added experience for your résumé, enhances your skillset, and can help you get noticed by upper management. Trying something new can also reveal unexpected strengths and interests and open more paths to career advancement.

2. Assist other departments

Bosses love a team player, and assisting another department shows off your teamwork skills to additional supervisors and a whole new set of colleagues. Whether it's simply helping with administrative tasks in a short-staffed sales department or lending your accounting skills to a big marketing campaign, take advantage of every opportunity to learn new skills and broaden your horizons.

3. Volunteer in other organizations

Look for industry-specific professional groups, charities, and pro-bono work that utilizes your skills. Volunteering helps you make important contacts in your field, learn from experts and peers, and can inspire a new direction for your career progression. It's also personally rewarding to make a positive impact in your community and can help keep you motivated for self-improvement.

4. Check for internal job listings

Landing the perfect job is often based as much on who you know as what you know. Applying for a job within your own company gives you an immediate edge. You already know about the organization's mission, goals and culture. You have contacts that will let you know what type of employee they're looking for, and have in-house references to vouch for your skills and work ethic.

5. Network

Your career won’t progress if you stick within your bubble. Engage with colleagues at company events and learn from experts at industry conferences and fundraisers. Social media platforms like LinkedIn make it easy to connect with key people ahead of each event.

One of the important basics of professional networking is to step outside your comfort zone. Meeting people with different points of view challenges and better informs your own world view. Engage with people from a variety of backgrounds to increase the chances of getting a lead on a new job opening, get advice on your career path, and discover business opportunities you may not have even known were out there.

6. Find a mentor

Why reinvent the wheel when you can learn from someone who's already achieved your career goals? A mentor helps you set a successful career path, offers advice along the way, and warns you about potential mistakes to avoid.

It's important to find the right mentor that meshes well with your personality, has relevant experience in your field or position, and can make the time to work with you.

7. Continue learning

Just as you can't progress by doing the same job forever, you can't just rely on the education and skills you have now. One of the keys to career success is to continue gathering knowledge. While formal courses and certifications are good for the résumé, you can also learn through books, trade journals, guest lectures, podcasts and more.

Keeping up to date with your field and the world in general will help you engage with interviewers, management and other professional contacts. Staying current also helps you learn about potential new career paths and opportunities.

8. Create a vision

You've probably heard of people creating a 'vision board' by putting together a collage of aspirational vacations, wedding plans, life goals and more. This can work for your professional ambitions as well.

Take time to contemplate your loftiest goals and develop a vision for your career that addresses all aspects of your dream job. What environment do you want to work in? What kind of people do you want to work with, or for? Create a complete picture of your perfect goal to guide and motivate you to make the right decisions for your career progression.

9. Get a sponsor

While a mentor brings valuable advice and guidance in your career, a sponsor has a direct effect on your advancement; they are someone with power in your organization or industry who can refer you for important projects and promotions.

Some of the steps above, such as asking for additional opportunities and volunteering for other departments, can help you get noticed by influential people in your organisation. Once you've created a good working relationship, be direct and ask them to assist you. Whether it's presenting your manuscript to a publisher, assigning you to the highest-profile case at your law firm, or putting your name forward for a promotion, a sponsor can help catapult your career.

10. Get a promotion

Don't fall into the trap of thinking you'll automatically get a promotion once you've put a few years in, or the moment a higher position becomes available. Consider the competition you'll have from both colleagues and outside candidates, and work to surpass their qualifications. A lot of what we've discussed here, like adding educational qualifications and being a team player, can help you get noticed by the higher-ups in a positive way. Above all, show that you are exemplary at your job by meeting quotas and deadlines, maintaining high standards, and avoiding workplace drama.

11. Start your own business

You can learn a lot from working for others but taking that knowledge and experience to start your own business can be a huge leap forward in your career. Working for yourself allows you to be as creative and innovative as you choose with the products and services you provide as well as the work environment you establish. Running your own business is an exciting and rewarding challenge, but it's also a big commitment. Research your niche, plan carefully and get your finances in order before you take that leap.

12. Change careers

After an honest self-assessment and creating a vision for your future, you may realize you want pursue a completely different role in your industry — or to work in a different field entirely.

There are multiple ways to successfully change careers. A contact in your professional network could help you find a new role quickly and put in a good word for you with the hiring manager. You can also start more gradually by volunteering, job-shadowing, or working part-time in the new industry to make sure it's what you really want.

How can I create a professional development plan?

As you utilize these 12 different methods of moving ahead, it can be tough to assess how much progress you're actually making. Putting together a professional development plan that's unique to your strengths, needs and career aspirations will help you stay on track. Here are five important steps to get you started on your plan:

  1. Self-assessment: How does your current job align with your goals? Evaluate your work skills, especially those that are transferable to a better position. Be honest about areas in your skillset that need improvement.
  2. Goal setting: You've developed a vision for where you want to be in your future life. Now break this into smaller, actionable goals like getting promoted to a higher level at your current job.
  3. Strategy: List the steps necessary to achieve those short-term goals. Be specific. Do you need certification or further training to get that promotion? Can you only break through with a sponsor?
  4. Collaboration: Share your professional development plan with anyone that can help you assess the best way forward. This includes your boss, a mentor, or potential future business partner.
  5. Timetables: Hold yourself accountable to your goals by establishing deadlines for each step. Set dates to re-evaluate those steps and adjust the timeline if necessary.

How often should I reevaluate my professional development goals?

It's important to regularly assess where you are in your career path. It's typical to check your progress at six-month or yearly intervals. Set fixed dates to follow-up with your boss or mentor and consult on potential new goals going forward.

Depending on your personal circumstances, you may want to evaluate your goals more often. If you've completed the next few steps more quickly than expected, it makes sense to establish new targets as soon as possible. It's also important to re-evaluate if you're feeling unmotivated, or you career interests have changed.

Take note of any shifts in your industry that will affect your goals. For example, new technology could render a job obsolete, but those 12 million new jobs related to AI could also open up new paths you hadn't anticipated. Address these changes immediately so you don't get stalled by a long-term strategy that no longer works.

Key takeaways

It's time to start making the most of the many years you will spend in your work life. Let's review some of the key points to career advancement and reaching your ultimate goal:

  • Start right away: Every step you take forward gets you closer to your dream job.
  • Be assertive: A key to career advancement is to keep asking for what you want. Approach a potential mentor, ask for new assignments at work, and consult your contacts about any new job openings.
  • Don't assume anything: Career advancement doesn't come automatically. Keep learning, working hard, and sticking to your goals. Show your bosses why you deserve to be promoted.
  • Plan ahead: It's tough to plot a course without knowing your destination. Take the time to assess your skills and interests. Create a professional vision for your future. Then develop your short- and long-term goals to help you get there.

Do you have any tips about advancing your career? Which of the above steps have worked well for you in achieving your goals? Let us know in the comments below!

This article is an updated version of an earlier article originally published on 17 November 2016.