Don’t waste your time thinking that opportunity is going to come find you. The value of your network is extremely important. Many jobs in the private sector get awarded to people who know someone within the company. Referrals are worth their weight in gold. But this also goes toward obtaining opportunities to prove yourself.
The chief of department, when he has a sexy project, isn’t going to come hunting you down unless he is familiar with your track record. If you are some firefighter toiling away in obscurity at your designated “vacation station”, no matter how clever and innovative you think you are, the choice projects aren’t going to you. Why should they? The chief knows there’s a dozen guys who will kill for this opportunity; why search someone out and reward them with the plum assignment?
If you want those good assignments, you are going to have to sniff out and handle some unpopular ones first. If you can prove your worth on one of those, the next time a less-horrible project comes up, you could possibly end up on the list for that. If you handle THAT one well, expect a bump up on the list. This is called developing political capital. It spends, just like money. As you gain this capital, what is really happening is that you are building a relationship between you and the chief, and the relationship is evidenced in the trust he has that you will be the right one for that challenging, but rewarding position.
I don’t care who you are, how long you have worked here, or how smart you think you are, if you can’t handle a small assignment, why should I stake my reputation on whether or not you are reliable, and the only way I can know that is by having some evidence in my pocket.
Can’t get the powers that be to feed you even the most lousy of projects? Go out in the community and make yourself valuable. By that, I mean, find some non-profit or civic group and join up. These guys are ALWAYS looking for able bodied people, especially those who want to help for free. For FREE? That’s what I said. This, however, is an investment you are making.
The experience you gain from managing projects in the community will pay you back multi-fold, and in addition, you build up people in your network, people that later in your career you will be comfortable calling up directly on the phone and having a conversation with them. A genuine conversation, not, “Hi, remember me? Can I get you to give me a reference…?”
When opportunity comes knocking, if you aren’t prepared by being qualified to be the one to take it, don’t expect everyone to be knocking down your door to appoint you the next best thing since sliced bread.