How to Get Ahead in Your Career (Without Stepping on People's Toes)

Let this expert advice propel you forward, no matter where you are in your career.

how to get ahead in your career
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Being ambitious in your career doesn't mean you need to be a ruthless workaholic who uses other people to climb the ladder; it means being curious, hardworking, excited, and open to new opportunities, even when you least expect them. It means taking an active role in your own process—whether that's going out on a limb to ask a senior staff member to coffee; proactively seeking feedback; or intentionally surrounding yourself with industrious coworkers you admire. Whether you're just starting out in the real world or looking for some guidance through a professional rut, read these simple, yet effective career-building strategies to help you meet the right people, expand your horizons, and ultimately land—and thrive—on the right career path for you.

Talk to Someone With the Job You Want

Are you new to the job market or looking to make a career 180? Don't underestimate the power of an informal informational interview. "Find someone in the occupation to speak with," suggests Deb Keary, the former vice president of human resources at the Society for Human Resource Management ( Pick their brain: Ask what the job entails, what skills are needed, what level of education you'll need, what professional organization you should join—and even if you can shadow the person at work for a day. Then take steps to qualify yourself for the position, and make sure the person in charge of hiring—whether you're applying for a new job or for a promotion—knows you've taken them.

Find the Upsides of Office Politics

"Whether you want to be or not, you're in the game," says career consultant Roberta Matuson, author of Suddenly in Charge: Managing Up, Managing Down, Succeeding All Around ($19, This doesn't mean you should be petty or step on people's toes; instead, make an effort to really absorb what's going on around you, learn who's in charge of what, and understand how work gets done in the organization. Build genuine relationships with others by being a team player, being professional, and avoiding gossip, and unprofessional outbursts.

Use Peer Pressure to Your Advantage

This probably isn't what you were expecting, but hear us out. "Hang out with the hard workers," advises Joseph Grenny, coauthor of the New York Times best-seller Change Anything: The New Science of Personal Success ($16, "The career-limiting habits that keep you back are likely enabled, tolerated, or encouraged by others." Use positive peer pressure by surrounding yourself with hardworking friends who share your career goals, encourage you, and inspire you to be better at your job (without being competitive).

Take Advantage of Your Connections

Sometimes it is about who you know—and that shouldn't be a bad thing. Think about the person who's hiring for your dream job. Do you know someone who might know them? Or someone who knows someone? Ask around: You want somebody to put in a good word for you. It's not cheating, it's smart and how so many great connections and successful careers get started.

"It's so much more valuable to [reach out to connections] than to only send out dozens of resumes that could get thrown into the reject piles," says Rita Gunther McGrath, a professor at Columbia Business School in New York City and coauthor of Discovery Driven Growth: A Breakthrough Process to Reduce Risk and Seize Opportunity ($16, Sending resumes can still help you find work, but using acquaintances to put yourself forward and get your name out there may help you land that dream job much more quickly.

Dream Big, Then Take Small Steps

"Dream big about your possibilities, but take small steps to meet your goals," says Rachelle J. Canter, PhD, author of Make the Right Career Move: 28 Critical Insights and Strategies to Land Your Dream Job ($26, "By choosing to take small steps, you won't feel overburdened with the demands of your resolution." Set aside, say, 15 minutes each week to help you work toward your goal—perhaps going online to research qualifications for the job you want or working your way through a book on your desired field. (Tackling your goal in bite-size increments is a particularly great strategy for procrastinators).

Find the Lessons in Setbacks

"Social conditioning too often leads us to believe that if we fail we should go home, hide our dreams under the bed, and never let them out to see daylight again," says career and success coach Margie Warrell, author of Find Your Courage: 12 Acts for Becoming Fearless at Work and in Life ($13, "But your failures won't define your success in the year ahead." Don't make a failure mean more than it does. "Reflect on the lesson the failure offers, making adjustments accordingly, then climb back on your horse!" Warrell says.

  • By Alexandra Kay
  • By Maggie Seaver
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