3 Keys for Career Success


career success blog illustration

Wouldn’t it be great if, after graduation, each step of your career path would lead you on an upward sloping line, eventually leading to you achieving your ultimate career goal?

Unfortunately, that is usually never the case. My career trajectory looks more like an EKG, with a couple of U-turns thrown in. So, what do I know now that I wish I knew when I graduated from college some 30 years ago?

Throughout my career, I’ve made it a hobby to study successful people. Some were people I worked for, while others were people I worked or volunteered with. Others were individuals that I admired from afar. I discovered certain skills, attributes, and characteristics these successful people shared, regardless of their chosen field. While there are many of them, I’ve distilled them down to what I believe are the top three. These are what I call Three Keys for Career Success. They will help shape you personally and professionally so that you’ll always project your best self—in essence, your personal brand. And they are easy to remember because they all start with the letter “C”:

  1. Communication
  2. Confidence
  3. Character

Career development, similar to lifelong learning, is an ongoing, ever-evolving process. And guess what? Yup! There’s homework, too. Embracing and incorporating the Three Keys for Career Success should be an aspiration for anyone who wants to work their way to the top of their field. Master them and chances are you will achieve great results.

The First Key for Career Success: Communication

The first key is communication. By definition, communication is the art of expressing oneself in an articulate manner.

Now, I don’t necessarily care how well educated you are, if you can’t communicate effectively, in both the written word and the spoken word, you may be doomed! STEM students today have brilliant minds, but ask them to present their findings and many are sunk. Put two equally qualified engineering majors in an interview room together and the one who communicates more effectively with the interviewer is bound to get hired. You see, it’s your resume that gets you the interview, but it’s your communication skills during the interview that will ultimately land you the job.

I’m not suggesting that everyone has to become a skilled public speaker. Far from it. However, you need to be able to effectively express your ideas up and down the organization.

Communication even goes beyond the written and spoken word. Research studies conducted on non-verbal communication have found that only 7% of the message is conveyed through words, while 38% is through certain vocal elements. A whopping 55% of the message is conveyed through nonverbal elements such as facial expressions, gestures, and posture.

And since communication is a two-way process, solid listening skills are a major component of a good communicator. You could even argue they are more important. Remember to be interested instead of interesting. The most effective communicators I know focus more on being interested in what others have to say instead of being interesting. Get my drift?

The Second Key for Career Success: Confidence

Confidence can be described as a belief in one’s ability to succeed.

Striking a healthy balance is the challenge. Too much confidence and you may come off as arrogant and stumble into unforeseen obstacles. But having too little confidence can prevent you from taking risks and seizing opportunities—in the classroom, at work, and in your social life.

So, what creates confidence? Three things, primarily:

  • Belief in your own competence.
  • Belief in your ability to learn and problem-solve.
  • Belief in your own intrinsic worth.

Psychological studies support the notion that confidence matters just as much as ability when it comes to personal performance. Now, this is not to say that just because you exhibit confidence you’ll succeed in anything you attempt. That’s certainly not the case. But, given two equals in terms of knowledge, skills, and abilities, the person who exhibits more confidence is generally the one who is more likely to succeed.

Confidence takes courage. (That’s my bonus fourth “C”!) The courage to stand up for ideas that you believe in. The courage to stand up for what you deem is fair and just. The courage to take risks. The courage to fail, and most importantly, the courage to get back up after you’ve been knocked down. Thomas Edison famously failed more than 1,000 times before he invented the lightbulb. Did he give up? No, sir. He had the courage to fail his way forward.

Even if you don’t have all the answers—and honestly, nobody really does—remain confident in your ability to seek them out. That’s what sets apart those who endure until the end from those who quit in the middle, or, worse yet, those who quit before they even start.

A final comment on confidence: Preparation breeds confidence. Bobby Knight, the famed Indiana University basketball coach once said, “I don’t believe in luck. I believe in preparation.”

The Third Key for Career Success: Character

The last key is character, and this is a big one: Character is the combination of mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual. When it comes to career success, character counts, my friends! Perhaps more so than one might think.

A person who is considered to have good character exhibits a long list of positive personal attributes, including but not limited to the following:

  • Honesty and Integrity (these are always at the top of my list)
  • Loyalty, Dependability, and Accountability
  • Patience and Being a Team Player
  • Self-control and Emotional Intelligence
  • Optimism through a Positive Mental Attitude
  • Enthusiasm and Persistence
  • Passion and Motivation

How many of these attributes do you possess and to what extent? Which ones do you need to work on? Character is a major component of your personal brand. It’s how you operate. It’s how you respond to various situations. How you handle victory, and how you handle failure or setbacks.

Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, speaking at his alma mater, the University of Wisconsin–Madison during its 2016 commencement, said this: “Remember that the moments when life tells you ‘yes’ aren’t the ones that define you. The moments that really matter are the moments when life tells you ‘no.’”

There they are. Three Keys for Career Success: communication, confidence, and character. Become a student of them. Embrace them. Incorporate them into your life each and every day, and I’ll see you at the top!

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About the Author
Tim Panfil headshot for the career success blog

Tim Panfil is the Senior Director of Graduate Admission and Enrollment Management at Elmhurst University. He has worked in higher education admissions, marketing, and enrollment management since 1993. He has also taught undergraduate courses for non-traditional students in management and marketing for Lewis University, Benedictine University, and Elmhurst University.

Posted April 6, 2021

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