This is not what I was going to do this morning, but yesterday I had the privilege of participating in a meeting that caused me to halt in my tracks and think about young people and what they need. I believe the most important graduation gift you can give to yourself is a plan.
If you are a student about to leave the academic world, there are lots of opinions on whose job it is to get you a job. Let’s start right here—it is your own responsibility to sort through advice, make mistakes, make good friends who you trust and who will help you, master the use of reliable basic tools, and above all to care about, think through, and reflect on your decisions along the way. You are accountable for yourself and all of your actions.
But how do you begin to organize yourself so that you can evaluate your own performance? First, you have to create a plan; your plan has to be written. It is not real if it is not written. As you know by now, documents are easily revised, so plans can be changed, but you do have to have one and it has to be real. Until you have a plan (and a plan is much more than a job objective), you are a bit anchorless and untethered, and that’s how you are going to look to others.
Your plan reflects your career strategy. A strategy is simply what you want to do with yourself and your resources. A career strategy, however, has to be integrated into your other plans and other things that you want for your life. A career strategy speaks to how you will fund your life and your purpose, whatever it is. Career is your professional, commercial, or economic platform.
Supporting that platform are your professional or commercial competencies and skills, political competencies and skills, social competencies and skills, and your resource management competencies and skills. When you go to school, much of what you learn in the classroom and via planned learning experiences is in the commercial arena. But the other platform support areas are just as important, and at times even more important. Career management and job acquisition depend heavily on social, political, and resource management competencies, which are far less likely to be taught, designed, or structured for you in the course of your formal education. If you don’t have an adequate supply, acquiring the right competencies should be one of your plan objectives. This is your plan: put into it what you believe is important.
The strategy part of your plan should answer three questions:
- Where do you want to go?
- What is on the road ahead?
- How will you get there?
Not easy questions, I agree. And you may change your mind tomorrow; no argument from me. But you have to have a distinct career identity and some clarity around your values in order to convince others to support you on your journey; “I don’t know” is not as good as “I believe” or “I think” or “I like” when the subject is what you want.
The rest of your plan should include:
- An appraisal of where you are right now; this is your starting point.
- Acknowledgment that the past is past; you’ve let the past go in specific ways.
- An inventory of your personal resources, assets, and attributes.
- A list of your allies and advocates.
- A description of your purpose and your values: what you will and won’t do.
- Your strengths and weaknesses as you understand them.
- Obstacles in your path or in your head.
- Three things that you absolutely must do to be successful.
- Long and short term goals.
- Performance measures and a timeline.
Notice that your resume is not on this list. There’s a reason. Resumes send our vision backwards, and tend to make us want to cling to our past accomplishments. You will need a resume, most certainly. But the best resumes are accompanied by forward-thinking and forward-looking cover letters that tee up the resume contents by pointing out what they mean for the future. You can’t do that very well until you know where you are planning to take yourself, and how, and why.
The most important part of the career development process is the plan; the plan leads you to an understanding of yourself. You can’t shortcut the plan, it’s like leaving the directions behind when you head for a place you have never been.
Does this look like a lot of work? It is. And most of you want to mention that no one you know has such a plan and they are getting exactly what they want (or exactly what you want). Now is exactly when you should turn off the Friend-O-Meter that makes you look around to see what everyone else got that you didn’t. It simply doesn’t matter, it isn’t a race, and you don’t have to run. What you do have to do is be prepared when your own opportunities pop up, and that is the function of a good, solid, well thought out plan that is all your own.