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I’ve coached thousands of MBA job seekers, and I’m often struck by how many focus exclusively on career management — day-to-day processes like developing a marketing pitch or researching employers. When executed well, tasks like these make a job search effective. But they are only part of the story. Career leadership is a complementary set of behaviors that are essential to your long-term success. They include creating a vision for the future and a strategy for getting there, communicating these ideas, and motivating yourself to move forward.
A similar distinction can be seen with organizations. Management enables firms to function on a day-to-day basis. Processes like budgeting, staffing, and problem solving allow companies to deliver products or services consistently. Leadership, on the other hand, enables organizations to navigate disruption, take advantage of opportunities, and avoid pitfalls. In a world where rapid change is the new norm, companies need leadership and management to work in concert.
The same is true in career development. Here are four of the most important elements of leadership in this area:
Set a Vision
If you aren’t clear on where you want to go, your job search will be a waste of time and energy. You’ll tread water or make a parallel move. Make a concerted effort to plot your future. If you struggle, examine your passions. Think about your talents. Then, look for a need in the marketplace. The intersection of these criteria will often lead you in a great direction.
Know What Matters to You
Carefully consider your core purpose in life and the enduring values attached to it. Your past experience may be a good place to start. What aspects of your work have given you the greatest satisfaction? Looking ahead, what impact do you want to have? Your career targets should fit this framework. People who’ve made significant career changes will often tell you that their original path ran counter to what is fundamentally important to them. Those who are able to adjust to better align with their needs tend to express a renewed sense of purpose on the job.
Few of us have excess time to seek out new job opportunities, so we look for shortcuts. And, these days, there is a plethora of information at your fingertips, which can exacerbate the problem. But it’s hard to effectively outsource career development. You may look to a recruitment service for access to exclusive job postings, for instance, but in the end it’s up to you to lead the process. If you don’t, your opportunities will be limited.
Change is inevitable. Career leadership is about finding the opportunity inherent in every disruption. Being flexible enables you to recognize inflection points and take advantage of new situations. This is particularly important during uncertain economic times or when the job market shifts.
Does following all of these behaviors guarantee success? Of course not. But when you take the reins of your career development, you stand a much better chance of advancing to an influential role in your chosen field. You’ll think more strategically, pivot more easily in the face of change, and, ultimately, feel more in control of the process. You’ll be leading your career—not just managing it.
Mark Horney ’97, PhD, is a leadership coach and the executive director of EMBA and MS career management at Columbia Business School. He is the author of Organization Men (Lambert Academic Press, 2011), a study of male MBA students entering high-intensity jobs.