The fact that I couldn’t answer a career coach’s simple questions showed me I’d been making a crucial mistake at work

Confused man
It came as a shock. Flickr / Marco Arment. Licensed under Creative Commons 2.0

In a recent Facebook Live interview with Business Insider, human-resources expert Toni Thompson shared one of the best ways to get ahead at work: Talk to your boss about what you want.

If you’re hoping for an eventual title bump, or a raise, or simply more opportunities, Thompson said, make that clear to your manager.

Taking this step can be harder than it seems — and here’s one reason why: It can be challenging to set clear goals for yourself.

It’s something I learned during the two months I spent working with Rebecca Fraser-Thill, a career coach with the Pivot coaching team. Even before we met, Fraser-Thill emailed me to learn about my specific goals and the obstacles standing in my way.

I could articulate my main goal pretty quickly — at some point I wanted to become a senior reporter at Business Insider — but I wasn’t entirely sure what those obstacles were.

Once Fraser-Thill and I hopped on the phone, I realised I’d been running toward a pretty blurry goalpost. Fraser-Thill wanted to know when I’d like to earn the senior reporter title; I didn’t know. She asked what my day-to-day would be like once I got there; I told her I’d never thought about it before.

The conversation went on like this for a while, and Fraser-Thill helped me gain clarity around my goals and the process of hitting them. Over the next few weeks, she’d check in on the progress I’d made and any challenges that had come up.

Once I was able to articulate my goals — and had what Fraser-Thill called a “vision” of what hitting those goals would feel like — I could communicate them both to my boss and to some senior coworkers. Those conversations helped me further refine my objectives and figure out exactly what I needed to do to get there.

If I could elaborate on Thompson’s advice, I’d say that before you talk to your boss about your future at the company, you should make sure you’re clear on what you want.

Not everyone will have the chance to work with a career coach — but talking to a close friend or colleague can probably help, too. They will be able to spot the holes in your story about where you’ll be one, two, or five years down the line. The more detail you can provide to fill in those gaps, the more empowered you’ll feel.