There are few common traits and experiences amongst people that succeed in securing highly-paid roles. Personality, innate talent, professional networks, education, available opportunities, even chance encounters, can all play a part.
To add to this, organisations are becoming increasingly meritocratic. This is a good thing, especially for those previously overlooked. However, for all those ambitious to secure more highly-paid roles, it increases the number of competitors potentially eligible for any given opportunity.
With so many variables at play and an increasingly level playing field, how can we ever hope to proactively plan our way to securing a highly-paid, senior role?
The answer lies in taking a more strategic approach to developing a career.
Instead of attempting to work on each of the many variables, some of which are beyond our control, we can simply focus on two big-picture areas. These are to develop our area of expertise and to improve our ability to leverage this, with and through other people.
Economics has long demonstrated that building expertise is a critical factor in our market value. It should therefore be a primary focus.
Thankfully, we know what elements combine to allow anyone to become an expert. These are knowledge, skills and experience.
Knowledge is the easiest to get started on, but is actually the one area that many people ignore.
Economics has long demonstrated that building expertise is a critical factor in our market value.
After leaving full-time education, most people never pick up another non-fiction book. Don't make this mistake. Reading books, papers and blogs, watching vlogs or attending seminars and conferences has to be a primary focus.
It is important to read widely into associated and non-related fields.
Breadth and depth to our reading provides more opportunities for us to make connections and be creative in our thinking and engaging in our conversations.
We mustn’t forget that much knowledge resides in other people and may not be written down.
Networking, exploring other people’s areas of interest and asking probing questions, is, therefore, also important.
Become good at what we do
Developing skills is next on the list. Proactively seeking out opportunities to practice those skills essential for our area of expertise is critical.
We mustn’t forget that much knowledge resides in other people and may not be written down.
These could include the so-called soft skills such as influencing or coaching, particular practices such as project management or financial accounting and manual skills, such as those needed by surgeons or engineers.
Let’s not forget the obvious when it comes to developing skills. Practically everyone uses computers and their associated word processing, spreadsheet and presentation software packages.
We must take time to go beyond the basics. Being able to utilise these tools creatively, effectively and efficiently can add tremendous value to our overall marketability.
Become the expert
The third of our factors for building expertise is to gain experience. It is through this experience, where we tap into our knowledge and put our skills to use, that we develop true expertise.
Over time, this strategic focus on knowledge, skills and experience gets us to a critical tipping point.
Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, put a number on the length of time needed to become an expert. He offered a figure of 10,000 hours.
This is when our knowledge banks are sufficiently mature, our skills sufficiently honed and, critically, we have experienced sufficient numbers of different workplace scenarios.
This then allows us to make intuitive judgements about what best to do in any given future context.
Not only do best practice examples come to mind, but we will also experience more creative and innovative thinking for those novel scenarios not yet encountered.
Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, put a number on the length of time needed to become an expert. He offered a figure of 10,000 hours. Some suggest this equates to 10 years.
Given the average working patterns, I would suggest this might be closer to 20. Putting in the hours, working hard and being very focused on what you do and don't do, are the only ways to shorten this time.
Emotional intelligence (EI) has been proven to be one of the few common factors amongst successful people, especially when their roles require them to work with and through others.
Add the magic ingredient
Developing expertise doesn’t guarantee promotion to highly-paid, senior roles.
In more recent times, this has increasingly become the case with the requirement to demonstrate expertise in both what we can do and how we choose to do it. The magic ingredient not yet discussed is, therefore, Emotional Intelligence (EI).
Often quoted, yet rarely fully understood, EI has been proven to be one of the few common factors amongst successful people, especially when their roles require them to work with and through others.
A common misconception about EI is that it is all about managing emotions and being able to get on with and influence others.
Whilst accurate, this is far too simplistic a description.
Working in combination, “emotional awareness” and “accurate [emotional] self-assessment” both underpin a critical factor in securing highly-paid roles.
I have worked with many people who would be deemed both experts in their field and highly emotionally intelligent under this loose definition, but have not achieved success, as we are defining it here, in securing highly-paid roles.
Cover all the bases
One of the competence areas often poorly developed is motivation. This can come from an underdeveloped “achievement drive” or level of “commitment”. In other cases, they lack “initiative” or “optimism”.
Don't get me wrong, I’m not saying everyone should be motivated to secure highly-paid roles.
The point I am making is that not being motivated to achieve highly-paid roles and knowing this to be the case, is actually to be emotionally intelligent. To want a highly-paid role but not recognise an underlying gap in motivation, is not.
Critically, it is in the area of self-awareness that many people fall short. Working in combination, “emotional awareness” and “accurate [emotional] self-assessment” both underpin a critical factor in securing highly-paid roles, this being “self-confidence”.
Developing and utilising expertise in an emotionally intelligent way is much easier if we have an affinity for what we are doing.
Without this, it is unlikely anyone would ever be able to convince themselves, never mind the powers that be, that they are a good candidate for a senior role.
Choose your market
With a foundation of expertise and the magic ingredient of Emotional Intelligence, our market value is increased and those highly paid roles are surely within our reach? Maybe, but it depends on our definition of ‘highly-paid’.
If our definition is ‘reaching the top of our chosen profession’ then absolutely, this should be the case, even if these roles are not actually that highly-paid in absolute terms.
If, however, our definition is ‘to be more highly-paid than most, across all industry sectors’, then we have to choose our sector carefully. In a capitalist market, not all expertise is recognised as having the same value.
Jumping sectors to be more highly paid can work well. As can choosing a particular sector from the outset with the aim of working our way through its ranks.
Doing something we love leaves us more open to learning and more likely to see challenges as opportunities.
However, it is worth noting that developing and utilising expertise in an emotionally intelligent way is much easier if we have an affinity for what we are doing.
Choosing a sector simply because it pays well, but in which we find the work boring or experience a clash of values, is a sure-fire way to leave those highly-paid roles just out of reach.
It is often said that if we love what we do, we should do what we love. That way we are more likely to develop our expertise and our Emotional Intelligence.
Doing something we love leaves us more open to learning, more likely to see challenges as opportunities and, ultimately, secure that highly-paid role.
Perhaps more important though, we significantly increase our chances of feeling a deep sense of fulfilment that only comes from being an enthusiastic expert in our field.
About Tony Nicholls
Tony Nicholls is a management thinker and change authority, supporting blue-chip and SME organisations. His expertise lies in combining commercial, organisation and contextual insights to support transformational change and sustainable business performance.
He typically works with or as part of the C-level team, leading, coaching, facilitating and mentoring. His impact is most felt in the development of leadership, high-performing teams, culture change and change management.
He is sought after for thought leadership in management, change and the field of Organisation Development. He has articles published in HRZone, TheHRDirector, Adiona Magazine and The Global Recruiter. He has also been quoted in The Times Raconteur, The Telegraph SME Home and TheGuardian.com.