The Basics of a Successful Career

We enter the business world with the expectation that we are starting up a trajectory that will always climb to the next promotion, a continual progression of responsibility and authority. This belief is a myth. Rarely is a career path a constant climb up the ladder? A career path is a “hero’s journey,” one beset with all kinds of threats, setbacks, and obstacles before we attain a logical pinnacle of our career.

With every “hero’s journey,” there are things we need to learn and do to be successful in our career:

  1. Accept that we will learn a lot of valuable lessons while on this journey – think of every setback, every obstacle, every layoff, every coaching session as a learning opportunity.
  2. Accept criticism with dignity – not every job we do will we be successful. Our failures or setbacks will result from our lousy judgment, poor leadership, wrong directions, or mistakes. The sooner we learn how to manage our emotions and ourselves as we learn from our mistakes and failures, the sooner we can move beyond this setback. Criticism and coaching are necessary tools for learning and developing.
  3. Know when to redirect our efforts – not all job assignments fit our skills or strengths. Sometimes we need to seek a reassignment, even when that means a lateral move or a step down to a lower rung of the ladder. To try to “fake it ‘til you make it” is a formula for ultimate failure. Know yourself, be honest with who you are and where you can best contribute to the organizational goals and strategies, and seek that role, even when it may be perceived as a career setback.
  4. Learn how to manage and lead up – managers and executives aren’t always right, and they are also suffering from the same human frailties of bad decisions, poor judgment, and mistakes. Learn how to help your manager become better and, therefore, more successful in their role. This effort is a diplomatic endeavor that requires you to be sensitive to the manager’s insecurities and fears. Success in leading/managing up requires you to exercise your influence but also to learn how to lead the conversation to a point where the manager self-discovers what you may already know. If you confront and tell, you will fail in this endeavor. It takes a very thoughtful, sensitive approach. Learn to lead into this conversation with phrases like, “This conversation may feel a little prickly…” or “I would like to share with you a concern that I am having. It is not meant to be critical of you, but it may feel that way…” Having this conversation in a neutral space is helpful when possible, maybe over a cup of coffee or in a conference room instead of in the manager’s office. Make sure you are very clear on your motives; don’t leave them to try to interpret what your reasons are.
  5. Seek and use Mentors – having a voice of experience and objectivity is a necessary part of the “hero’s journey.” Different mentors will be needed at various stages of your journey. Seek out mentors that can provide you with a frank and candid view of your seeming reality. A good mentor will require you to work and learn from their counsel but will also need you to be introspective. They won’t solve your challenges but will help you identify strategies and tactics to work through them.
  6. Be honest with your mistakes – we all have worked for managers that cast off blame like Teflon. They always have someone or something to blame for errors or failures. Don’t be that person. If you make a mistake, have the courage to admit it, do your mea culpa, and then enlist the help of others to mitigate any harm or damage the error has caused. Saying I’m sorry is a learned skill. Now, this isn’t to say you should make a lot of mistakes so you can practice this skill. But learn the elements of a sincere “I’m sorry.”
    1. Start with eye contact as you say, “I’m sorry” or “I made a mistake.”
    2. Clearly state what was done without making excuses, “I made a judgment call, and it was the wrong one.”
    3. Acknowledge what you know has resulted from this mistake, be specific.
    4. State precisely what you have learned from this mistake.
    5. Identify what needs to be done to correct the mistake; be specific.
    6. Ask for the specific help you need to “fix the problem.”
    7. Thank everyone impacted for their understanding.
  7. Become the expert in your role – regardless of where you are in the Org. chart, take the time and initiative to become an expert at the job you are doing. Become a resource for others new to the job and become a voice of how to improve the processes and systems that are essential to your situation.
  8. Know how your job impacts the organizational goals – take the time to understand how expert performance in your role helps drive some of the important critical measures to your organization. I know this line of sight is often tricky, but by using curious inquiry with your manager or others in the organization, you will discover the connections and strategic alignment you desire.

Whether you are a seasoned employee or a new hire, whether you have been promoted, transferred laterally, or even demoted, learn from the experience, apply these eight points to your role and accept the reality that you have a chance for a fresh start with only one focus, that of being an expert in that role.

Companies don’t manage your career for you; you have to manage your career for yourself. If you have applied these eight steps to your role and you find that how your manager or the organization perceives you have not changed or you have been boxed out of your chosen career path, seek a new employer. Sometimes this “hero’s journey” requires a change of scenery…


Rich Jones is the Founder/Principal of Leading2Leadership LLC. Before starting his strategic planning agency, he spent over 20 years in leadership roles in the financial services sector. Before becoming an executive in the financial services sector, Rich was an entrepreneur, building and selling two businesses and working for early-stage start-up companies in executive roles in marketing, business development, and seeking investment partners. With more than three decades of experience, he brings innovative thought to companies and executives. Rich published “Leading2Leadership, a Situational Primer to Leadership Excellence.” The book is available on and was designed to be used as a book study for leadership development programs; it breaks leadership skills into manageable situations for discussion and reflection. Rich works with credit unions, CUSOs, and vendors, designing digital, data, culture, marketing, and branding transformation strategies. In 2014, Chosen as a Credit Union Rock Star by CU Magazine, and in 2018, Rich received the Lifetime Achievement Award from CUNA Marketing and Business Development Council. A Marine and graduate of Colorado State University, Jones shares his expertise at


  1. Michelle Payne on January 29, 2016 at 1:10 pm

    Truly love this one, Rich. I’ve heard you share these tips before, but to have all of them in one spot is tremendously helpful. There are many things here I need to remember and practice daily. Reading this felt like a personal coaching session with you. And I miss those! Thanks for continuing to share your influence and wisdom through this blog.

    • Rich Jones on January 29, 2016 at 1:25 pm

      Thank you for your very kind comments. You are an amazing leader and do so with humility and kindness. I know you as a great mentor for a lot of people, keep up the great work!

  2. Randy Schultz on January 29, 2016 at 1:18 pm

    Great article and thoughts, Rich. Spot on as always. There have been few things more important in my credit union life than some of the mentors I’ve had…and still do to this day.

    • Rich Jones on January 29, 2016 at 1:23 pm

      Thanks Randy. Great comment.

  3. Miranda Rizzo on January 29, 2016 at 2:22 pm

    I’m so thankful that I had the opportunity to see you put these helpful tips to work. Your leadership and inspiration continues to grow and shape me. Thanks, Rich!

    • Rich Jones on January 29, 2016 at 4:16 pm

      Thank you for your kind and generous words Miranda. You were a joy to work with and bring a great attitude to the table every day!

Leave a Comment