It is a common question at those Friday night after-work gatherings of young PR professionals. When the pressures of the week have abated slightly and the conversation has been properly lubricated with a few mojitos, it comes up in one form or another: "What does it really take to get ahead?"
Some will argue passionately that it's all about who you know. Others will fight just as hard that instead it's what you know. Both will have great anecdotes to support their claims.
In speaking to a number of young pros who are making steady progress on their own upward trajectory, I have a slightly different take. As I hear them describe their own histories, I am struck by a common theme. They have each taken personal responsibility for their own development. Their goal has been to increase the value they bring to the organizations they serve.
One young woman put it this way: "I want to be considered indispensable to my agency. In the last few months, I've been learning everything I can about new media. Some of this I do on the job, but most of it I do after I get home. I want to be the person that everyone in the agency turns to when they want to know something about new media and its impact on our clients."
I completely agree with her. Too often I see situations in which entry-level professionals and even mid-managers seem to be waiting for someone else to define their next step. While enlightened employers do place a high priority on training and development, it is only one of the many responsibilities of management. Anyone who relinquishes responsibility for individual career development does so at his or her peril.
While some struggle with defining the path to personal growth, others discover that once you accept this responsibility, the resources available are endless. The Internet has opened up an incredible wealth of information that young people can use to broaden their knowledge base. Networking sites like LinkedIn allow additional opportunities for sharing best practices and meeting others with similar professional interests.
Becoming indispensable may sound like a lofty goal, but with it goes the need to maintain perspective and balance. "When our management team gets together to discuss talent development, we often talk about two categories of employees," one mid-level manager told me. "The first type is always asking, 'What does it take to get promoted?' The second asks, 'What can I do to learn a new area of the business?' Most who ultimately do get promoted come from this second group."
This isn't surprising. Those who succeed in any business do so through a combination of personal initiative, integrity, and determination. These traits aren't bestowed by a university or an employer. Colleges can help prepare us, and employers have a responsibility to continue developing our skills, but in the end, we are our own most essential coaches. And the best locker room speech is the one we give ourselves.
Tom Martin is an executive-in-residence, Department of Communication, The College of Charleston. He also serves as a senior counselor for Feldman & Partners. He can be reached at