Plotting Your Career When You've Jumped Off the Corporate Ladder

The corporate career ladder allows you go up one step at a time. From trainee to team leader, then moving up to regional manager then vice-president – tugging along pay raises and increased benefits as you go up. Unfortunately, a web working freelancer’s career path isn’t as conveniently laid out. How do you know you’re moving up the ladder without measuring promotions, raises, and increased employee benefits? What, exactly, does a freelancer’s career ladder look like and which way is up?

The first thing you need to do is to write down your definition of success in your field. For web designers, it could be winning web design awards or getting a few high-profile clients. Freelance writers might define success as getting a book deal. Include the things that qualify success in your field and rank them as if they were the ladder rungs you need to climb. It’s very important that your initial definition of success comes from you, and not from anyone else. After all, the only person you really answer to at the end of the day is yourself.

Another way to define success is to think about the kind of work you want to do. Are you doing the “dream projects” that you’ve always wanted to do when you started freelancing? If you’re unsure, list your dream projects and include them in your ladder. The more ambitious a project is, in terms of time, effort, and skills required on your part, the higher up it goes on the ladder.

Also, what tasks are on your to-do list on a regular working day? Do you spend more time doing the work you love or do you focus on the nonessentials? For example, I love writing, but this doesn’t mean that I like to deal with the client support that comes with it. Narrow down your definition of work to the tasks that you enjoy doing, and make it your goal to only perform those tasks when you reach a higher point in your career ladder. The goal here isn’t laziness once you reach the top, the goal is to focus on the work that really matters to you.

It also helps to look at successful people in your field, especially if you see them as your personal mentor. What steps have they taken to get to where they are now? Have they reached the peak of their career or can they go higher up? It helps to compare yourself with other freelancers you admire because often enough, your admiration exists because there’s something about their work that you wish to attain yourself. However, keep in mind that when you’re looking at the personal career ladder of others as a basis for your own, take only what applies to your personal goals.

Surveys and statistics are also a good way to find your place in your personal career ladder, especially when it comes to compensation. Are you paid more or less than the average freelancer?

As you move ahead with your freelancing career, you’ll need to evaluate yourself regularly. Include the following questions in your evaluation:

  • Are you getting any public attention for your work? This includes a wide range of things including backlinks, popularity among social bookmarking sites (like Digg, StumbleUpon, etc.), recommendations from a high-profile blogger, or being interviewed by the media about your work. While compliments and criticisms from the public at large shouldn’t dominate your evaluation, there’s a lot you can learn from other people’s comments.
  • Are your clients satisfied? When you’re a freelancer, your clients are the equivalent of a boss. I hope you’re not forgetting about customer service – whether you take care of it yourself or you outsource to those who can deal with your customers more efficiently (and make them happier at the same time). Perform a routine client satisfaction survey to find out what your clients have to say about your work.
  • Looking at your list of goals, ask yourself: did I attain them? What percentage of your goals did you actually achieve? Did you have any accomplishments that weren’t in your list of goals but they’re worth mentioning anyway?
  • Where do you want to go now? Sometimes, you find yourself moving in a completely different direction, career-wise. Look at the rest of the steps laid out in your freelancing career ladder. Do you still want to go in the same direction? If not, adjust your plans accordingly.

Step up
After your routine evaluation, you’ll often find that you’ve “moved up” your personal career ladder. When this happens, there are some things you can do to go higher or improve your current position:

  • Learn something new. Attend workshops, seminars, or get certified – whatever applies to your field. You’ll find that taking your skills up a notch can improve your performance and prepare you for the next step in your career ladder. Plus, it’s a refreshing break from your daily working routine.
  • Farm out the non-essential tasks and focus on the work you want to do. But only if the non-essentials, such as marketing or customer service, are things that you don’t like doing or if they take up so much of your time.
  • Raise your rates. If you’ve attained your career goals, this means that you’ve gained more experience in your field and can provide better value to clients. As a result, you can increase your fees.
  • Reward yourself. It also helps if you reward yourself with something that also helps you become more productive. Whether it’s a larger monitor , a new graphics tablet (for designers), or an ergonomic keyboard (for writers), if it’s going to help you become more productive and you can afford it, get it for yourself. You can also stash some extra funds in your retirement plan. You deserve it. Also, rewards don’t need to have a monetary value attached to them. It can be a week-long vacation of leisurely reading or time spent with your family and friends.

Defining your goals, career comparisons, and personal evaluations can help you pave the way for a clearer career path ahead. By going through these different steps regularly, you’ll have a better chance of having a thriving career that is just as measurable, but more fulfilling, than anything you can find in the corporate world.