By Stuart R. Levine

Published In, The Credit Union Times

When you get a pit in your stomach, it means you have the courage to step out of your comfort zone. Get used to this feeling, as it’s where you need to be to grow professionally and advance your career.

What happens to your career path when you check your ego at the door, take risks and resolve to discover and grow in new areas of knowledge and skill? LinkedIn economist, Guy Berger, PhD examined the career paths of over 450,000 LinkedIn members globally and uncovered some meaningful insights. He tracked professionals that had worked at the largest well-known consulting firms between 1990 and 2010 and then moved to industry. About 64,000 became a Vice President or C-suite officer at a company with at least 200 employees. Dr. Berger correlated their varying traits, such as career transitions, work experiences, gender and educational background, with their advancement to senior levels. The study captured the following key data points worth exploring:

  • Broad and multidisciplinary career experience significantly increased the chances of achieving a senior leadership position in the fastest amount of time;
  • An MBA from a top 5 U.S. program was the factor most correlated with a person’s likelihood of becoming a senior executive;
  • Men had a slight advantage over women;
  • Chances were higher for becoming a senior executive if you worked in New York, followed by Los Angeles, whereas chances were diminished in Houston and Washington D.C..

However, correlation was not causation and there are certainly exceptions to these statistically relevant data points. Graduation from an elite program is feasible for only few people, and location involves other personal factors beyond career. But dedication to continuous learning is feasible for all.

Those who became senior leaders in Dr. Berger’s study had a wide-ranging view of the business world with interdisciplinary and multifunctional experience. Here are some additional key points from the study that provide guidance on increasing your potential for career progression;

  • Experience across as many of a business’s functional areas as possible;
  • Perspective and organizational knowledge of management systems, supply chain, marketing strategy, information technology, finance, regulatory environment, human resources and how others do their jobs;
  • Broad industry knowledge;
  • Staying within your industry as networks and knowledge are hard to rebuild quickly;
  • Deep personal networks.

Many companies have long rotated employees through various job functions to develop their talent. However, effective leaders can make sure they learn through other people both within their organization and outside of it. For example, the technology specialist that regularly interfaces with the sales department to gain perspective on the organization’s customers is better positioned to understand to meet both the needs of their customers and the demands of the modern complex market environment that the company faces.

Creativity occurs when you move outside your comfort zone and take a risk to learn. Pulitzer Prize winning author and columnist, Tom Friedman in his recently published, “Thank You For Being Late” attributed the concept for the book itself to conversations with an Ethiopian political blogger, immigrant and garage attendant, Ayele Z. Bojia. He asked Friedman how to communicate more effectively about the quest for democracy in Ethiopia, Bojia’s passion. In return, Bojia inspired Friedman to more deeply explore his own values and their origins, his model for how the world works and how different peoples and cultures are being impacted by the acceleration of technology and networking. Friedman said of his time with Bojla: “I learned an enormous amount from our encounters—more than I ever anticipated.” Learning can take place at all levels of the organizations. You just need to be open to listening intently and learning from others.

The LinkedIn survey illustrated what numerous other studies show. Those with potential for leadership are intellectually curious, open and flexible in their thinking. They recognize that they don’t know it all, which creates a certain humility and courage to express interest in learning new things and asking for guidance. Stepping out of your comfort zone through assignments that may create a “pit in your stomach”, may just be the ones that although risky, put you in a position to evolve, grow and advance your career through greater understanding and knowledge. The insights you gain, will allow you to connect the dots to new possibilities, business models and innovations.

Marc Andreessen, tech entrepreneur and venture capitalist, observed: “The most successful corporate leaders almost never are the best product visionaries, or the best marketing people, or the best finance people, or even the best managers, but they are in the top 25% in some set of those skills.” Having an interdisciplinary approach qualifies a person to lead. Your continuous learning can be circuitous, but know that once you are on this path, you are putting yourself in a position for great things to happen.