Embracing strengths, being positive among ways to help advance careers: experts

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TORONTO - When her accounting firm made it known that it was looking for a new partner, Robin Peaker decided to put her name forward as a potential candidate.
"I went to them and I said, 'Why not me?"' she recalled. "And that's when I was surprised when they said, 'OK, sure."'
Peaker, who graduated with an honours bachelor degree in commerce from Hamilton's McMaster University in 2002, has been with Toronto-based accounting firm Stern Cohen LLP for just over 5 1/2 years.
In that time, the 30-year-old ascended the ranks from an entry-level staffer to manager. As of Feb. 1, she's a newly minted partner.
Her new role will eventually allow her to manage her own client lists, affording her more of an opportunity to interact with clients.
Peaker said there had been discussions surrounding her potential for partnership. She knew she wanted to stay on board with the firm, but also realized she wanted to go beyond her managerial role.
Still, Peaker admits to feeling a little nervous about initially raising the issue of becoming partner.
"I figured that the worst that I would hear would be, 'Not yet,' or 'Not quite now,"' she said. "And the bright side of that was that it fosters a discussion that I want to have."
"I want them to point out where I need to, I guess, make improvements, where I'm weak, where I'm strong, and what to work on, and focus on in the future."
Career coach Shirin Khamisa, founder of Careers by Design, said an important starting point for those looking to advance their careers is to ask themselves about their definition of career success.
"Often, we think it might be moving into management or moving forward on a certain track that you're on," she said. "But when you really ask that question, that really allows you to build or construct a career or advance it in a way where you're really going to be fulfilled."
Khamisa said the time early on in careers can be marked by some uncertainty or confusion. What can help is both knowing and embracing your strengths.
For example, she's seen people who have a creative skill set that can bring a lot of value to their role, but they believe there's a more direct career path for someone who is analytical.
"They may try to shape themselves into that person or they might try to fit into that skill set to advance further and not tap into that skill set they have that could really propel them further."
Associate professor David Ness is with the Student Counselling and Career Centre at the University of Manitoba, which offers services to students as well as recent alumni up to six months after graduation.
Ness, co-ordinator of career services, said one thing he consistently does with students is discuss how to create unexpected career opportunities for themselves based on the career-planning "Happenstance Theory."
That includes encouraging them to carry and represent themselves well and to bring positive energy into the workplace, as well as to try to work with others and get as involved as possible. Ness said it's about going beyond the job description to look for other opportunities.
"If you represent yourself well with energy, and you can connect well with people, that creates unexpected opportunities in any organization," he said. "More people will get to know who you are, hopefully will respect the work you do and the type of person you are, and that can provide opportunities for advancement or moves into other types of responsibility."
"What I really encourage students to do is to not be invisible."
For workers wanting to place themselves in a position where they're taking on new challenges, Khamisa said there should be an ongoing conversation between employees and their bosses on the subject.
"Sometimes I've seen the mistake that early career individuals make is that they're thinking about their own career development but they're not thinking about the organization," she said.
"The more that you can be proactive and identify opportunities where you can develop your skill set and experiences and benefit the organization as well... that's what's going to be the incentive for your supervisor or manager to be on your side and help you to get some of those types of opportunities."
For Peaker, who had been working toward partnership for 15 months, she said the partners of the firm got together and came up with a plan to help her reach that end goal.
It involved different partners who would mentor and work with her in their areas of expertise so she could learn from them and gain hands-on practical experience. Peaker would also have monthly meetings with the firm's executive partner to touch base and ensure everyone was doing what they were supposed to in order to help her move forward, she said.
Peaker said becoming partner has definitely boosted her confidence and encouraged her to keep forging ahead on her career path.
"I'm not sure myself what the next steps are," she said. "I mean immediately, it's just getting comfortable in my role as partner. But after accelerating so quickly ... I do not want to be stagnant. I will always continue to take initiative wherever I can find it and try and move ahead."

Organizations: McMaster University, Stern Cohen, Student Counselling University of Manitoba

Geographic location: TORONTO

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