The One Thing That Can Really Change Your Career

Businesspeople in office

By Susan Price

You've decided this is the year you're going to land that great new job or finally get that big promotion. Whether you call them resolutions, goals, action steps or anything else, you've probably made a list, at least in your head, of what you have to do or should do to get ahead.

You're going to get a mentor, do more networking and become an influencer on social media. You're going to learn how to give or take better feedback. You're going to be a more powerful negotiator.

Even if you manage to do all those things – and that will make you a rare person, indeed – the result may not be the dramatic shift you really want. A bunch of small changes may improve how much you enjoy your work life or boost your bank account, especially over time. But if you really want to propel your career forward, you need to think big. You need to complete a project: one big, interesting, results-getting, attention-grabbing thing that makes you stand out from the crowd.

Designing a project that will push you, build your skills and confidence and get attention from higher-ups in your company and industry can give a big jolt to your career. Getting a handle on your inbox and spending more time on social media aren't going to do that.

In "Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies," Jim Collins and Jerry Porras advise companies to come up with a "Big Hairy Audacious Goal." That BHAG would focus a company's employees on an overarching goal that is both strategically sound and emotionally resonant. It would energize teams and set the company apart in the market.

A personal BHAG can do the same.

Bozi Dar, a career coach and founder of Career10X, says he often advises clients who want to get a big promotion to tackle a big project, "to focus, starting from today, on something that will carry you to your next role and that you will get known for," he says.

How to Choose a Big Project

You are going to be putting a lot of time and energy into your project, so make the effort at the start to determine the best one for you. Brainstorm options that not only make sense for your career, but that also really ignite your passion. Remember you are looking for both strategy and emotion. The biggest career leaps come from projects you are excited to start working on, but that scare you a bit, too.

Your instincts are the ultimate decider, but it might help to evaluate each idea according to the list below. The best projects will hit several of these points:

  • It is something your company needs.

  • It is something the marketplace needs.

  • It is something you are enthusiastic about.

  • It is something that builds on your strongest talents.

  • It is something that forces you to stretch or learn.

  • It is something that builds your network.

  • It is something that will get noticed.

  • It is something that helps others.

  • It is something you are committed to finding the time and resources to complete.

Now Do It

The best idea doesn't mean anything until it comes to life, of course. You need to make it happen.

A big project takes commitment, so it's crucial to first take that mental leap. Promise yourself you will get to the finish line. And then you can figure out how.

Depending on how you work best, you might prefer making a rough outline or a detailed one, but you'll likely want at least a high-level plan that includes milestones and a clear finish line. The end doesn't mean the project can't be tweaked or improved – just that your goal was achieved.

If your project has the potential to help your company, you will need to discuss it with your manager. Ideally you will work together to adjust your priorities and to draw on help you might need from other departments. But you'll need to be careful, as you don't want your manager to think you will neglect your current responsibilities or that you're looking to grab the spotlight.

If the project is more about your own interests or a side gig, or you don't feel you will get support from your company, draw careful boundaries between it and your job. Your goal is to push your career higher, not to sabotage it. Work on your own time and use your own resources.

Know that you'll face obstacles – even fears – along the way. When they do crop up, simply recognize them as part of the process and keep going.

If you've chosen a project that really aligns with your talents and skills, you're likely to find the energy to drive it to the end. And then watch your career take off.

Susan Price writes about work, money and entrepreneurs. She covers careers for Ivy Exec.