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Making Smart Career Plans

3/28/2007 4:56:06 PM

By Peter Weddle -- It’s March. Given the way that national parks and resorts fill up, that means it’s time for many of us to start making our summer plans. These holiday excursions and family trips are important events, so almost no one treats them cavalierly. We browse the Internet looking for vacation rentals. We talk to friends and coworkers about the trip packages they bought, the hotels they stayed in, and the restaurants they enjoyed. In short, we invest a lot of time and effort to make sure it all goes well and that we have memories we can treasure for a long, long time.

Why, then, don’t we invest a similar level of effort in making our career plans? Clearly, they’re just as important, just as central to our happiness this summer (and the rest of the year) and for a long, long time after that. Yet, most of us treat career planning as something only slightly more palatable than a root canal. We do it only when we absolutely have to, and we wait until the absolutely last minute before we do so.

While there may be several reasons for this aversion to career planning, I believe that just one is the principal culprit. Most of us don’t know what career planning is or what it entails. The prospect of doing it, therefore, seems a whole lot more like work than planning a vacation.

Now, I won’t try and con you. Career planning does take some time and effort, and the gratification you get from doing it is very different from what you experience lying on the beach getting a tan. But, there are some similarities:

  • A vacation liberates you from work; a career plan liberates you from unexpected changes at work. In other words, a good career plan makes sure you are in charge of what happens to you in the workplace rather than its victim.

  • A vacation enables you to regenerate your enthusiasm and capabilities so that you can enjoy work once you return. A good career plan enables you to build up your enthusiasm and capabilities so that you can enjoy success in the job you have now and compete effectively for the job you hope to have in the future.

  • A vacation lets you spend some time enjoying hobbies, avocations and other interests that you have outside the workplace. A good career plan puts you in a position to spend your time at work doing something that is engaging and rewarding for you.

    What’s involved in building a good career plan? It takes just four steps:

    Step 1: Figure out what you want to do with your career. In short, what is your objective for that (significant) portion of your life that you lead in the workplace? As fundamental as that may sound, many of us spend our entire careers trying to earn an ever bigger paycheck rather than working to build up our sense of satisfaction and fulfillment at work. The U.S. Bill of Rights doesn’t promise wealth to all Americans; it guarantees them Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That’s what you want to focus your career, your work-life, on—the pursuit of employment in whatever it is that brings you real and lasting happiness—and it’s never too late to start that quest.

    Step 2: Identify your Achievement goal. This is a goal that you can accomplish in the near term, say the next 6-to-12 months. It identifies an outcome you can achieve in your current job or employment situation, such as the completion of a special project, the solution to an especially tough problem or the resolution of strained relations with your boss or a coworker. The Achievement goal enables you to make a meaningful contribution to your employer—that’s the only definition of loyalty that makes any sense in the 21st Century—and be loyal to yourself by advancing your own performance in the workplace—that’s the only way to achieve true career security in the 21st Century.

    Step 3: Identify your Advancement goal. This is a goal that you can accomplish in the mid-to-longer term, say in the next two-to-three years. It identifies the next job you want to hold or the next level of work you want to be able to perform. It may involve your current employer or it may require that you move to another work situation, but it will always represent a major step forward in your effort to develop and express your capabilities in the workplace. Identifying an Advancement goal is the best way to ensure that your career is always moving forward—not up some employer’s corporate ladder—but toward greater skills and experience in the one career field that enables you to pursue genuine and lasting happiness.

    Step 4: Identify your Development goal. This goal is a bridge that connects your Achievement goal and your Advancement goal. It enables you to build on the success you achieve in your current job by adding the supplemental capabilities and knowledge that prepare you to advance to the next challenge in your career. That might involve acquiring a new skill through training or a formal educational program; it might require that you develop greater stature in your field through participation in your professional society or association; or, it might mean that you gain more sight and understanding about certain aspects of your work through discussions with a mentor.

    Once you have these four goals in place, you need to revisit them from time-to-time to see how you’re doing. Just as we sometimes forget to make our plane reservations and thus lose out on that great holiday we’d planned, you can forget to focus on your career goals and lose out on the security, opportunity and, ultimately, the happiness you derive from your work. I call this review process a “personal performance appraisal.” It’s a candid conversation that you hold with yourself every quarter, just to make sure that you are still pursuing your own special form of Happiness. If you keep yourself focused on that outcome, you will always enjoy your career as much as you enjoy your vacation.

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