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How to Move Up at Work: 5 Strategies to Help You Advance

By Ashley DiFranza
April 18, 2019

Research shows employees are motivated by the possibility of career advancement. The idea of moving up at work keeps us engaged with our tasks, innovative in our approaches, and excited about future opportunities, whether those opportunities include increased responsibility, new projects, or even a promotion.

But what happens when you feel like you’ve done all you can to demonstrate you’re qualified and ready for career advancement, and still can’t manage to move up?

If you are committed to making this kind of positive career move, there are steps you can take to hone your abilities, refine your goals, and invest in your company and yourself to advance your career. Explore the following five strategies to get started.

Strategy 1: Advance Your Education

No matter where you are in your educational journey, choosing to go back to school can have a tremendous impact on your career. Whether this means completing a degree, enrolling in a graduate or doctorate program, or even just taking career-specific courses to expand a tailored skill set, any effort you put into improving yourself and your knowledge will go a long way toward increasing your chances of advancement.

The Necessity for Continued Education in Today’s World

According to a 2016 study, “35 percent of workers say they don’t feel they have the education and training they need to get ahead in work.” To take ownership of their careers, many of these workers are re-enrolling in school and trying to obtain the knowledge and skill sets they need to move up in their jobs. This practice is becoming commonplace in society today, with a total of 45 percent of employed adults opting to invest in continued training to improve the skills most relevant to their duties at work.

Americans are also starting to understand that, in order to stay on top of changing trends, they need to continue learning and developing new skills throughout their careers. In fact, 54 percent of adults acknowledge that they will need to pursue future training in their fields to “keep up with the changes in the workplace.”

For adults without a bachelor’s degree, the correlation between career advancement and continued education is even more substantial. There are 57 percent more job opportunities for college graduates than non-graduates and, for those who consider advancement a marker for increased salary possibilities, research has also concluded that the average college graduate earns roughly $1 million more over the course of their working life. For this reason, those who are looking to move up in their careers but do not currently have the educational background to do so should consider returning to school in order to reach their goals.

What Employers See When You Go Back to School

So why exactly do employers value education so highly? Companies are often looking to promote people they can invest in, who will grow with their company and become the types of employees that can actively fulfill the needs of the organization. Going back to school shows employers several qualities which make you ideal for advancement, including that you:

  • Take ownership of your goals
  • Are willing to work hard to achieve those goals
  • Are a lifelong learner

Once you show an employer that you are willing to do what it takes to move up in your organization, including expanding your skill sets to better align with the career you aspire to have, they’ll begin to look at you as a prime candidate for more responsibility.

The Benefit of Education in and Beyond the Classroom

There are many ways that completing a bachelor’s degree program can benefit your career, but the expansion of specific skill sets relevant to your chosen career path through an efficient and well-rounded curriculum is perhaps the most significant. These types of programs are led by professors that actively work in the industry they teach, which means they not only have real-life experience in their subject but also know precisely which tactical skills they need to pass along so that their students can thrive in that field.

This approach to undergraduate education has led to a new level of confidence among graduating college seniors who are about to enter the workforce. According to a 2018 study, 93 percent of the college seniors surveyed reported they felt what they learned in their undergraduate courses was “relevant to their career paths.” More than half also reported that they “strongly agree that their major would turn into a good job.”

While experience-based learning provides students exposure to a clear and well-defined set of skills needed to succeed in their field of choice, there are ways students can expand their knowledge and abilities outside of the classroom, as well. Through certifications, webinars, or other online courses, those who want to learn have flexible options to do so.

Whatever approach you choose to continue your education, making this type of investment in yourself is a great way to show your employer that you’re ready for advancement.


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Strategy 2: Invest in Your Abilities as an Employee

Taking the time to develop the qualities valued by employers will help you advance more quickly in your role.  Work on improving your “soft skills,” such as communication and writing, critical thinking, and problem-solving abilities, as well as more general qualities that make an employee easy to trust, work with, and rely on.

One way to improve these skills is by earning a bachelor’s degree. According to a 2018 study, “nearly half (47 percent) of seniors said their college experience contributed ‘very much’ to their critical and analytical thinking abilities,” for example.

However, a university setting is not the only place you can hone these essential abilities. You can actually work on improving these skills from the comfort of your own desk, as long as you know how.

Be Observant

If you’re looking to develop your soft skills, your best classroom may actually be your existing workspace. Look to leaders on your team and observe how they handle conflict, organization, and prioritization of tasks.

Also, consider observing your colleagues’ daily practices and learning from how they deal with conflicts, problems, or success in the office. If you’re looking to become better at inter-office communication, for instance, pay extra attention to the format and style of the emails you receive from coworkers daily. Or, if you’re hoping to become a better problem solver, pay close attention to issues that your colleagues—or, even more beneficially, those who currently work in the role you wish to advance to—face daily, and the methods they use to overcome them. One of the best ways to learn is through real-life, relevant scenarios like these.

Ask Questions

If you still find yourself struggling to understand someone’s thought process or tactical approach to resolving a problem, ask them about it. As long as you do so from a place of kindness, respect, and a genuine desire to understand and improve in your work, they will likely appreciate that you noticed and acknowledged their successful resolution of the problem, and may willingly share their approach.

When asking questions to leaders, always be sure that the inquiry is appropriately within the scope of your role. As long as you do that, your leader will likely both answer your question and positively note your observation and interest in understanding something new. Asking questions demonstrates your desire to learn and improve—qualities you’ll want them to remember when considering candidates for future advancement opportunities.

Strategy 3: Develop Your Leadership Skills

Employers promote or grant new career opportunities to workers who have shown they can handle being a leader because the higher you move up in an organization, the more people you will likely have to oversee. For this reason, one of the best approaches you can take to set yourself up for career advancement is to embrace and hone the tactics successful leaders utilize.

Some adult learners acquire these coveted skills by earning a degree in leadership. This is a popular option for professionals who already have some work experience, as these programs can provide leadership insights specific to the industry in which they work. Making such a major investment to improve your leadership skills will prepare you for a more advanced role while also demonstrating the effort you’re willing to put in to qualify yourself for such a position.

For those that are not interested in completing a full leadership degree, however, there are ways to embrace leadership from within your organization to show your employers that you have what it takes to thrive. Many leaders are collaborative, inspiring, and inclusive—all qualities you can work on within yourself as a team member even before getting the opportunity to apply them as a leader.

Successful leaders also are known for making their own opportunities. Join a new team or committee within your organization, or take it upon yourself to identify a part of your company that doesn’t have proper leadership, and volunteer to assemble a group to oversee it. Even simply spearheading the organization of the company holiday party or volunteering to help organize a company outing can go a long way in showing your employer how well you handle leadership responsibilities.

Strategy 4: Network

Having a strong professional network in place is vital in today’s society, where 85 percent of all jobs are filled through networking. The common misconception about the practice of connecting with others in your industry, however, is that its purpose is limited to helping you land a new role.

In reality, your network can provide you with much more than that. By staying closely connected to others in your field, you are opening yourself up to many opportunities to improve yourself as an employee which can, in turn, help advance your career.

Some of the most common benefits of a strong network are:

  • The exposure to other like-minded individuals who share common professional goals
  • The ability to stay on top of changing industry trends
  • The opportunity to attend and learn from industry-relevant events  
  • The introduction to potential future employers, colleagues, and mentors

Find a Mentor

When it comes to networking, one of the most beneficial outcomes is the development of a relationship with a mentor. A mentor is someone who can guide you through your career, provide you with advice, insight, and feedback on your professional decisions and work, and help to set you up for success in the future.

A mentor will likely be someone who has already been through the stage in their career that you are currently in or are about to enter. If you’re lucky, your mentor will be in the same industry as you are, although that is not mandatory for them to be impactful. The only factors that are mandatory when picking a mentor are that they’re open to your questions, knowledgeable of the industry you’re in, and understand what you’re trying to accomplish in your career.

From a career advancement perspective, there are unmatchable benefits to having someone with this type of insight who can help you structure a plan to move up at work. If your mentor happens to be someone above you in your own organization, there are even more potential benefits, the most substantial of which is having someone on the inside who can speak for your career goals, as well as all the steps you have taken to properly prepare yourself for advancement.

Strategy 5: Step Out of Your Comfort Zone

If you’ve invested the time and energy to prepare yourself to move up in your career and there still don’t seem to be any opportunities on the horizon, it may be time to step outside of your comfort zone to implement real change.

Consider making a bold move like going back to school, applying for a role at a different company with more advancement opportunities, or even simply working up the courage to ask your boss how you can put yourself on the fast track for a promotion. No matter what you do, choosing to take control of your future in this way is the first step toward achieving the career you aspire to have.


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About Ashley DiFranza

Ashley DiFranza is a content marketing producer for Northeastern University’s Lifelong Learning Network.