My very first job in HR was based on what I knew. Every other job offer after that was because of who I knew.

The rules about getting ahead at work haven’t changed. According to a survey from Right Management, 44% of employees believe the key to their success lies in “who you know”. Not far behind was job performance (39%).

I did find it sad and disappointing that 13% said no one ever explained what it takes to be successful. Anyone out there who doesn’t know the company criteria for promotions, transfers, performance appraisals and pay increases should ask their boss to explain it. If your boss doesn’t know or can’t answer, ask human resources. And if HR doesn’t know or can’t answer…well, you’ve got bigger questions to ask yourself about your long-term career plans.

This survey reminds us of the importance in setting career goals and communicating them.

Know where you want your career to be 1,3, and 5 years from now. You might not have a specific job title in mind but you should be able to communicate the kinds of projects you want to work on. While some managers only ask these types of questions during the annual performance appraisal discussion, it’s possible the question can get asked at any time.

I have to share this story with you. Years ago, I worked for a company experiencing a huge amount of growth. They had a long list of open positions and decided to hold a job fair. They asked me to fly up to the corporate offices and help out with the job fair. After the event was over, my boss asked my opinion of the job fair and I offered some observations and a few suggestions. My boss liked my suggestions and said she would incorporate them into the next event.

Couple weeks later, my boss asked me to attend another job fair at the corporate offices. When she picked me up at the airport, she started talking about autumn and how pretty it was this time of year (she wasn’t one for small talk). I went home and told Mr. Bartender – we’re gonna get asked to relocate. Let’s figure out our answer. And sure enough, one week later we’re talking relocation.

Build a rapport with people who can influence your career. This isn’t just your manager. It might be colleagues, staff, human resources, etc. Know who the players are. They are paying attention to everything you do or say. As a human resources director, managers often asked me about my working relationship with people they were considering for promotion. They wanted to know how a person being considered for promotion was viewed at every level of the organization.

Mr. Bartender tells the story of the first time he attended a senior leadership meeting. The president spent the entire meeting talking about a line employee’s shenanigans. Don’t think people notice what you do?!

Communicate your career goals. Managers will have ideas about the direction they would like your career to go. You want to be able to communicate your goals. Especially if they’re not the same as your manager’s.

Another story – I once worked for someone who I thought I had a great rapport. I thought he knew what I wanted out of my career. The day came when I tendered my resignation. A move I thought he expected. He said to me, “Sharlyn, I had such plans for you.” I’m thinking - ?!?! The exchange made me realize that neither of us had done a good job of communicating. Don’t make assumptions that everyone knows what you want and everyone sees all the hard work you do.

As more companies look for employees to take an active role in their own professional development, they will also want to have regular conversations about career management. “Let me get back to you on that.” isn’t a good reply. Always be prepared to talk at a high level about what you want out of your career.

The SHRM Blog does not accept solicitation for guest posts.

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