"When I ask friends to describe their ideal man, most of them can say, 'Someone who is funny, can hang with my friends, and makes a decent living.' But I'm surprised at the number of women who don't take the time to sit down and think about what they want professionally," says Nicole Williams, LinkedIn's career expert and author of Girl on Top: Your Guide to Turning Dating Rules Into Career Success. "Knowing what you want helps you control your career rather than letting it control you." Jot down your nonnegotiables so you'll know what your dream job looks like when you encounter it. What kind of people do you want to work with? What do you want your typical day to be like? Be sure to do an annual check-in with yourself, since your priorities are likely to change.
Williams believes that naivety is actually a huge advantage because it makes you much more likely to take big risks. "I remember facilitating a breakout group on how to get a reality show because I had done so myself early in my career as cocreator of the series Making It Big," says Williams. "One of the guys in the group pointed out that there are more than one million pitches that never so much as get read, and only 2 percent of pitches even get made into pilots. Had I thought that way, I would have never written a pitch in the first place, let alone gotten a reality show." So don't be limited by statistics or by other people telling you that the career you want is impossible to attain. Listening to those naysayers will only scare you senseless, and make it all too easy to play it safe.
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Show you can get results
Early on in working life, it's easy to rely on your boss or company to map out the direction of your role, but if you hope to move up to a leadership position, it's up to you to manage your track record. "You should be able to prove that you can get results," says Kim Eisenberg, MSW, a San Diego-based career coach and talent management consultant. "You want to be able to quantify what you've done and give specific examples so you have proof as to why you'd be a good fit for a different position." If you're looking to change course but lack the necessary skills, enthusiasm alone won't likely get you in the door. "Let's say you want to take the leap to marketing but have been pigeonholed as a programmer. Start contributing. It might be something as small as getting friendly with the marketing folks and asking how you can help," adds Eisenberg.
It really is about who you know
More than skill, talent, or anything else, relationships are what will truly help you advance in your career. "You can pretend that's not true, but many companies don't even bother to post job openings in the current economy," says Williams. "Why should they spend the money recruiting when the CEO has four friends who have the right experience for the position? So keep nurturing your connections." Rather than waiting until you're looking for a new job to focus on relationship-building, make it your mission to do it regularly.
Don't call it "networking"
The key to networking is to think of it as getting to know people. "It's not just about pushing yourself in an uncomfortable, used car salesman kind of way, but about asking questions and engaging people in conversation like you would with a friend of a friend," says Williams. "Networking events can be great, but don't use them as your only outlet. You may be better off taking a cooking class or finding someone you have something authentically in common with--and whose aunt just might be high up at a company you'd be interested in working for." In fact, Williams' first business investor was actually her neighbor. He agreed to invest $10K not necessarily because she was a savvy businesswoman, but because he knew her and liked her ideas.
You may think, Okay, I went to a networking event and gave out 100 cards or made it a point to meet someone new at the dog park today, so I'm all good. But unless you do anything with those connections, it is not going to be effective," says Williams. "It's the follow-up that matters, and that's where a lot of women let things slide. If you have a coffee meeting with someone, send over a book that pertains to something that the person is interested in to show you were paying attention. Or simply mail a handwritten thank-you card immediately after your meeting." Case in point: One young woman scored a key job interview when she sent Williams a handwritten note after getting some career advice. "This woman was on my mind when a colleague came to my office talking about a job opening she needed filled because I saw her note on my desk."
The misconception is that the most successful people are so big we can't reach out to them, but that's exactly why they don't get as many requests. "I mentored a young woman who said Meg Whitman, the CEO of Hewlett-Packard, was her career idol and I suggested she send her a LinkedIn note saying how much she admired her," says Williams. "This woman said that she couldn't possibly do that because Meg must be way too busy and have tons of connections. So we looked and the truth was that Meg had only 200 connections at the time." Williams encouraged the woman to write her a sincere note, and Whitman actually wrote a personal, gracious note right back.
But ask small
You may hate asking for things, but the truth is that most of us want to help others. If you start by requesting advice rather than a big favor, others will be more motivated to comply. That's because there's a definite buildup to relationships. Don't make a hard first ask, like requesting that a brand-new contact put in a good word for you at their company. Instead, start out by inquiring how she got into the business herself. "Sometimes I'll test people," says Williams. "Like, if another writer wants me to help her with a book, I'll say, 'Okay, draft the query letter for me before I introduce you to my publisher.' If she does the work and follows up, then I know she is serious."
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Have you ever felt like you had to wait until you've studied everything there is to know and had everything pretty much perfect before you would make a career move or take a risk? You're not alone, but here's the thing: You're never going to be perfectly prepared, and you will learn more through the act of doing the job than you will by merely studying it. "I was reading a book by George Lucas that said he basically learned the ropes of directing and producing a film by virtue of making his first Star Wars movie, and that there were phenomenal mistakes that happened there," says Williams. "There comes a time when you have to stop preparing for it and just do it."
Stay ahead of the curve
You don't want to be the last person to know about the latest hot app or a company merger. "If you work for a mid-size or large company, make it your mission to become the communicator of information rather than waiting for someone else in the meeting to bring up what's new and awesome," says Eisenberg. Set Google alerts for relevant terms, create lists of tastemakers to follow on Twitter, and look into industry newsletters you can sign up to receive.
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