The Smartest Leaders Make Their Own Opportunities

Harvard Business Review

We all know no one posts the best jobs. The really juicy positions usually get handed around like a treasured prize within social networks. Maybe you'll see a notice on LinkedIn, or a posting on your alumni listserv — but probably not. The most exciting jobs have an infinite number of aspirants, so unless you've been personally recommended by someone close to the action, it's difficult to get noticed.

But what I learned again and again during the course of researching my book, Reinventing You, is that the smartest, savviest professionals don't wait for a posting to appear. They make their own opportunities, and get rewarded handsomely for it.

When Joanne Chang graduated from Harvard in the early 1990s, she took a tried-and-true path on campus and joined a prestigious management consulting firm. The problem was, she hated it. Thinking back on her passion for cooking — in college, she'd become known as the "Chocolate Chip Cookie Girl" — she decided to give the restaurant world a try. But she didn't scour the help-wanted ads. "I sent a bunch of letters to chefs in town that I didn't know, but I knew their reputations," she says. "I wrote, 'I have no formal training, but I love cooking and I'm interested in getting into the restaurant world, and I'll take any position.'"

Impressed with her chutzpah, intrigued by her resume, and short an employee who had just left, Boston power chef Lydia Shire called Joanne literally the next day and invited her for an interview. Indeed, every single chef she wrote to eventually responded. She got the job with Shire and started as "a bottom-of-the-ladder prep cook." Two decades later, Joanne is one of Boston's most celebrated restaurateurs.

Kevin Roose, now a reporter for New York magazine, also made his own break by interning for A.J. Jacobs, a well-known author and editor at Esquire magazine. Kevin emailed him cold, explaining that he was in New York for the summer working as a waiter, they'd gone to the same college, and would Jacobs like a part-time personal intern? Jacobs probably would have been inundated with offers if he'd posted a notice with their alma mater. But he didn't — and Kevin's direct outreach made it easy to say yes.

Joanne and Kevin were at the start of their careers when they took a chance and reached out to those luminaries. But asking for opportunities, inventing your own, and seizing the ones that present themselves is something you can do at any stage of your career. Too many senior leaders are held back by concerns that they might lose face by trying something different or stepping outside of their comfort zone. But it can be a worthwhile process. Susan Leeds, a longtime investment banker who shifted into the energy efficiency field, told me you have to "accept the fact that sometimes you have to take one step back to take three or four steps forward. It would be incorrect if I said I made a lateral shift: I went backward. But because of the benefit of my years of professional experience in a competitive field, even though I went back, I was able to move forward fast — to leapfrog forward."

The truth is, because so many people limit themselves, there's often not a lot of competition at the top. If there's a senior executive at your firm you really admire, reach out and see if he'll agree to be shadowed for a day. Unless you're writing to the worldwide CEO, there's probably little demand and he'll be flattered. If there's an initiative you'd like to see at your company, offer to head it up. And if there's a skill set you'd like to cultivate, don't be afraid to make a lateral move (or even go backward, as Susan did) if you know it will serve the long-term interests of your career.

We're entering an era where the rules of business are both opaque and fast-changing. There's not one single playbook you can follow and expect to succeed. The only alternative is to be nimble and create your own opportunities, and your own success.

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