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What It Takes to Build Your Career

Rising to the Top Isn't Easy or Impossible

When you kick off your career with an entry-level gig, getting your career to the place you imagine it can seem like a long, impossible road. You dream of winning the lottery, or if all else fails, moving somewhere that allows you to do minimal work while living on the beach. While these fantasies can help you through your daily grind they'll do nothing to catapult you up the career chain. Sure some people are naturally lucky in the connections they make or being in the right place at the right time, but most of us rely on a solid work ethic to help us stand out and propel our careers from neutral into drive. The Wall Street Journal recently profiled Nilofer Merchant who started her career as an administrative assistant and at 40 is the CEO of her own technology consulting firm. To see what she says about getting where you want to go in your career, just


In her interview with the WSJ, my favorite thing Nilofer said was, "I've never been one to be focused on doing bigger. I have been one to focus on being better. So, I've been thinking about how to add more value to the industry, be a greater thought leader for the industry." If you aspire to follow in a path similar to Nilofer's, this is what she says about how she got to the place she is today.

  • Best advice: "Be the business person first. Every firm has a context of what is going on: early market or late market, leading player or not, many competitors or few. These all set the context for every single decision that is made," says Ms. Merchant. "But do we talk about it? Rarely. Marketers at all levels must know what matters to the firm. Is it growth or profit?"
  • Skills you need: Chiefly, says Ms. Merchant, you need "that gut, intuition or analytic mindset that helps you to find the 'thing' that will allow you to know your customer incredibly well and thus meet their sometimes unnamed, sometimes unknown needs."
  • Degrees you should go for: MBA
  • Where you should start: "Your first few jobs should be about learning," advises Ms. Merchant. "Make sure there are lots and lots of smart people who believe in a meritocracy model."
  • Professional organizations to contact: "I'm not much of a 'joiner' but I read about 30-plus publications, blogs, and magazines a day," offers Ms. Merchant. She suggests figuring out who the leading-edge thinkers are and pay attention to them.
  • Salary range: $200,000 plus


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