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This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab.

Few people ascend to leadership positions by accident, and achieving one's goals isn't something that just happens. Navigating your career takes more than a little ambition and good old-fashioned hard work – you have to know who you are and what you want, and you need to develop a clear roadmap for getting it. Here is the roadmap I followed:

Develop a career plan and communicate clearly

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I always knew I wanted to be a senior leader. I didn't necessarily have my current position in mind, but early on in my career I craved the responsibility and accountability that comes with defining organizational strategy, leading people and driving growth.

Having this kind of vision is essential to career success, but even more critical is your ability to articulate your goals. This can be difficult for leaders, especially females, who worry about being pegged as overly ambitious, but let's be clear – there is nothing wrong with ambition. When I started at American Express, I was brought in as an individual contributor with no team to lead or staff to motivate. However, I was quick to communicate my long-term goals with management, sharing my desire to lead, and that ultimately led to opportunities within my career.

If you're not letting your managers and your company know where you want to go, chances are you'll never get there.

Keep short-term goals

In addition to a long-term plan, you need short-term goals. Perhaps you don't want to be one of those people who are overly concerned with their job title and salary, but promotions and pay raises are essential career milestones that define and articulate your success. You need these achievements to help identify if you're on the right path, so it's important to go after them.

When carving out your short-term career goals, however, always focus on developing the skills you'll need in the long run. I always asked myself, how will this deepen my knowledge? How will it broaden my experience? How will it increase my marketability both internally and externally?

Stay open to new opportunities

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I started my career in operations and had never once considered a sales position before a former manager suggested it. He told me "every interaction is a sales opportunity," and opened my eyes to the fact that I was already "selling" in my current role. Thinking back to that moment, I see it as the first real inflection point in my career, where I recognized a growth opportunity and went after it.

Knowing what you want doesn't always mean taking the path you mapped out for yourself. It's about having the confidence to take chances and the ability to learn, grow and produce in different roles. These are the things that will define your career.

Build and maintain relationships

No matter how well you've mapped your path, you're always going to need help getting there. That's why I'm an advocate of sponsorship. Sponsors advocate for your career, and unlike with mentors, you don't ask for a sponsor. Sponsors can only be earned, and it is interesting to know that you may not always be aware that someone is advocating on your behalf. These are relationships you build over time through hard work, great results and candid career conversations with your senior leaders.

I currently have two sponsors within my organization and I recognize the key role sponsorship has played throughout my career. When asked how to get a sponsor, I don't think there is any surefire piece of advice. You need to show you can make a positive impact both inside your organization and within your community. You also need to demonstrate a growth mindset where you're willing to learn from mistakes and are not afraid to take risks. Most importantly, you need to be authentic and stay true to who you are. For instance, I'm a working mother who puts her family first. While you'd think that core personal value might act as a career hindrance, I've always had clarity and confidence when articulating what's important to me. I didn't have to make career sacrifices, and I don't think anyone has to if you are clear on setting expectations and you find the right company culture that aligns with your values.

If you aspire to senior leadership, start by demonstrating that you're a leader. Map your path and build and maintain relationships with senior managers by clearly articulating your goals and consistently delivering results. And rely on your mentors and sponsors to point you towards growth opportunities, even if they're not exactly the ones you had in mind.

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The road to senior leadership can be challenging, but you can set yourself up for success by zeroing in on your goals, making them known to your organization and surrounding yourself with supportive senior leaders.

Kerri-Ann Santaguida is vice-president and general manager, merchant services, American Express Canada, Toronto.

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