by Sarah Cunningham, Vice President of Mastercard’s Dublin Technology Hub

Having worked in a variety of roles over the past two decades, I have become a fervent believer that you can’t leave your career in the hands of fate: you’ve got to take control. After all, if you don’t own your career, nobody else will.

Today, I lead Mastercard’s only Europe-based Technology Hub which is based in Dublin and has about 450 employees, the majority of whom are technologists dedicated to global projects shaping the future of payments including payments security, APIs, emerging technologies
and more.

Own your direction
The first step to owning your career is taking ownership of your career’s direction.
But these days, that’s not as clear-cut as it once was. I was interested to read a report by Dell and the Institute For The Future (IFTF) which states that 85% of jobs that will exist in 2030 haven’t actually been invented yet. With such fast technological advancements I think we are the first generation to truly be faced by this challenge.

But the idea that your future role hasn’t yet been invented doesn’t change the fact that where you will be in your career ten years from now is going to be determined by the choices you make today and every day between now and then.

So you still need to be clear on your North Star – your ultimate career dream. And you still need a five or ten year plan to help steer you towards it. But today, more than ever before, it’s also critical that you invest in continuous learning. Figure out what skills you need to get from here to there and constantly refresh this list to stay relevant as new technologies and skillsets emerge. Flexibility in times of change is invaluable so be open to embracing new opportunities as they come your way. And revisit the definition of your North Star every couple of years – you might find it evolves as new industries emerge and your experience grows.

Own your opportunities
The headmistress of my old school had a mantra “What you put into it is what you get out of it” – I’ve recently realised that I’ve lived my professional life by that mantra. I’ve always contributed to committees and causes which relate to my personal passions. In doing so, I’ve gained new skills, increased my visibility with senior management, and expanded my professional network.

And I recommend anybody reading this does the same. If you want to improve, if you want to get ahead, you have to work for it. Success is not handed to anyone on a plate. So don’t be afraid to build your skillset outside of your current role. By joining a committee or doing pro bono work for charity, you can acquire a range of skills from coding, to presentation and leadership skills.

But it’s important to choose a committee or cause that you are truly passionate about and make sure you genuinely have the time to invest in the project. If the timing’s not right – either due to work or personal demands – then that’s okay, but recognise it and don’t put yourself under unnecessary extra pressure. You can always revisit the idea down the line.

Own your network

If you are truly engaged in your career, then chances are that you already have a senior mentor or sponsor who you meet with regularly. But have you also got a ‘peer’ mentor? While traditional mentors are a bit more senior than you, a peer mentor will be about your own level. These are the colleagues that have your back. And you have their back in return.

The best peer mentors are a bit like gold dust – they are the 1% who will never judge you; will never break a confidence; will always find time for you; and whose opinions you revere. And that goes both ways. If you want a great peer mentor, you’ve got to be a great peer mentor.

But choose somebody who is outside of your immediate team and remember that just because somebody is a friend, doesn’t automatically qualify them to be your peer mentor.

Own your feedback

We all know feedback is crucial to both personal and professional development. If you don’t listen to feedback, you’re not aware of your blind spots, and if you’re not aware of your blind spots, you can’t solve for them.

But if you’re an over-thinker, then don’t fall into the trap of fixating over every bit of feedback you receive. Take steps to distinguish the ‘value add’ from ‘feedback for the sake of feedback’.

A good tip is to run feedback comments by a trusted peer mentor – they’ll confirm if there is merit and you’ll have it from independent sources as to what you can work on. If they tell you it’s ‘feedback for the sake of feedback’ then don’t be afraid to disregard it. But if they tell you there is merit in the feedback, then try to take the emotion out of it and take the learnings on-board. But don’t over-rotate and let it rule who you are. While it’s important to course-correct, it’s also important to be true to your authentic self.

Own your achievements

We’re told all the time these days to take accountability for our failures but if we want to get ahead, we also need to own our achievements.

Some people – women particularly – find this difficult and uncomfortable. Growing up, many of us were told “nobody likes a show-off”. Society told us not to self-promote. When we did, we were told “You’re getting a bit big for your boots”.

But don’t listen to the begrudgers. When it comes to your career, if you don’t sell yourself and your achievements, nobody else will.
This is where a personal elevator pitch can be helpful. Develop and define what your strengths are and what makes you special. Be distinctive and back up your comments with evidence. Don’t be afraid to tell people the results you’ve achieved. After all, ‘evidence defeats disbelief.’

Beyond the career ladder
As workplaces flex, employers demand new skillsets and as societal norms shift, it’s clear that the ‘career ladder’ metaphor no longer rings true.

Too many people today think that the only type of career progression is upward. But often a sideways or lateral move can be the better long-term strategy. Certainly, some of the best career moves of my life have been lateral moves. And they have set me up for greater long term success.

That’s why Sheryl Sandberg uses the analogy of a “jungle gym”. On a jungle gym you don’t just move up, you can move from side to side (and presumably, between industries). Although I prefer the jungle gym metaphor to the ladder, I can’t help but think that a ‘jungle gym’ sounds like a scramble and your career shouldn’t be.

In my spare time, I am an avid hiker so I now think of my career in those terms. Yes, it is a long journey, but it should also be an enjoyable one. There are many paths to consider, and every year new pathways and opportunities keep appearing – occasionally causing me to reassess my North Star. And finally, no matter how driven I am, I always try to find time to pause and enjoy my surroundings. And I’ve found that it is often during these moments of reflection, when the best ideas come to me…

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