Monthly Archives: February 2011

What is a Career Plan?

It sounds so formal, a little daunting, the kind of thing you’d like to put off, maybe forever.  When you are in the middle of something active and important—like making the best of a great job opportunity, or preparing to take the bar exam, or planning your wedding, career planning seems out of place.  But in fact, everything you do in your life has a place in your career.  You just have to link it all up, once and for all.  You can change your mind, revise any and all of your plans, or chuck it all in the manner of Eat Pray Love (which was, by the way, a very well-planned plan).  But you have to start with something.  Yes.  Sigh. Even–or even especially–in a recession.

A career plan starts with your life strategy, and includes your life partner’s strategy if you have a life partner and you intend to walk any part of the path ahead together.  Or if you prefer to holler at each other from different paths from time to time.   You can all change your minds—stuff happens—but articulating who you are and what you are about makes your intention real, and renders it far less debatable.  It is, for the record, who you intend to be.  Here are some examples of 21st century adult life strategies, useful in some parts of the world:

  • Raise a large and well-adjusted family
  • Retire as early as I can
  • Travel the world
  • Start a family business and spend all of our family’s time together
  • Dedicate our lives to our church
  • Make as much money as I can as fast as I can
  • Change the world in a specific way
  • Get the best education I possibly can; then give back
  • Restore health and wealth to our community
  • Give our children everything we can
  • Seek adventure
  • Make amazing art
  • Serve my country
  • Save enough money to buy a house
  • Build our own house with our own hands
  • Start a band
  • Work from home

Everybody is different.  I know that Daniel Pink doesn’t think about planning quite the same way that I do.  But you don’t have to do what everyone else does, do it in a suit, do whatever you want to do on a timetable that makes sense to anyone but you, or make a lot of money at it.  You do have to take responsibility for getting yourself where you want to go, and understanding that if you don’t head somewhere, it’ll be just your luck not to end up where you want to be.

I know people who have planned their lives and careers around things like staying sober, having day to day access to their parents, children, and grandchildren, building a substantial bankroll for an early retirement, writing a novel, and driving expensive cars.  Whatever works for you, and you don’t have to apologize to anyone, or tell a living soul your reasons.  The point of the plan is the alignment of your decisions with the place you want to be.  The plan amplifies and highlights what is important, and sends background noise to the background where it belongs.

On to your career plan—how will you fund your life strategy?

Your career represents your economic life—if it does not produce income (or sustenance, as a missionary or cleric who has taken a poverty vow might receive) whatever you are doing is an avocation or a hobby, or maybe even an internship.  And it may be important to your career or the ramp up to it, but it isn’t your career, at least not yet.

Your career plan answers three main questions:

Where do you want to go?

When you look toward the future, what do you see yourself doing, every day? The physical geography of where you want to do whatever you see yourself doing is part of the question. If you are committed to a profession or industry, you will want to be flexible about where you live. If you are committed to a community or region, you are better off being flexible about what you do.  It’s not easy to become a movie actor while living in Pittsburgh, as an example.

What is on and along the road ahead?

Is yours a highly competitive field? Do you live in an expensive and challenging community with few jobs? Are changes in the industry or region expected in the future? What will it take to get your ticket punched in the field? What are the implications of age and experience in your field? Is travel or frequent relocation likely to affect the career or plans of your loved ones? To do strategy right, you have to look down the road and anticipate the terrain, the traffic, and the other travelers.

How will you get there?

This is the key question. It addresses the choices you make, the ones you are likely to have to make, and the things you will give up. Your timing, your family and friends, your health, your age, your financial resources, and other factors play a part in how you proceed. It’s important to establish your career identity. In doing so, you are best served by being clear and focused, so that there is no confusion about your values and what you stand for. Your career itself, similarly, should be an unambiguous series of decisions that sets forth and provides context for your unambiguous identity.

Strategic career planning is a process of identifying the big picture, and then illustrating to yourself how you will manage the details in order to make the picture real. Ideas can be energizing, dreams are important, and affirmations are helpful, but actively managing a series of steps will bring you results.

What to Believe and What to Ignore

In the world of information, there is a difference between what is real and what is spin.  Real is substantial, backed with facts you can act on, and distributed without bias or filter; it just is what it is, and someone can explain it to you without editorial comment.  Spin, on the other hand, says “Buy me.”  Meaning the spin itself.  When someone wants you to believe something, you ought to think about why they want that so very much.

In a job search or a career management context you may come across A LOT of spin.  Here are some examples of what you can safely ignore:

Promises or guarantees.  Whether you hear them from a recruiter, employer, or your bff, promises are not real in terms of a job, this one or the next one.  A good example is a promise to move you to a higher paid position when one opens up, if you just take this lower paid one right now.  That almost never works out very well for anyone.  The antidote is an employment contract that spells out what is going to happen, when, and under what contingencies.

Feedback on your interview. As in, you are one of the top candidates but the hiring manager is going on an extended vacation and the decision won’t be made until he or she gets back.  As in, he really likes you but we have four other people to see.  As in, you did great but hang in there for six more months.  It doesn’t matter, you see.  You can’t do anything with that information except convince yourself you might get this job, which can only encourage you to stop looking for other opportunities.  Not in your best interest; spin designed to give the employer the upper hand.

Self-reported salary information. Not useful ever, whether on a website, in a newspaper article, or over lunch when delivered by a coworker, mentor, friend, or stranger you met at a party.  No one gives good numbers, no one knows what they include (like pay at risk or ssi benefits), and the only useful numbers are on your own check or in your own offer letter.

News of the lousy economy. It will not help you at all to bring The Economy into your job search.  Spin like that renders you helpless and erodes your confidence.  Lots of people get great jobs and opportunities when The Economy sucks.  That said, do your own research on your field to find out where the best chances are.  Clues are in the news, but you shouldn’t over-personalize the drama that sells news.

Anything you hear about gimmicky solution sets. Elevator speeches.  Speed-networking.  Expert Resume Writing Services.  Please.  You are you and if any of these things provide you with insight into how you can be or do better, by all means accept a free new tool.  But don’t get on elevators with the perpetual hope that your next employer is riding up and down 27 floors looking for you and your 50 second summary, or that instant karma is at the Chamber of Commerce event that you have paid a fast $20 to participate in…er, get whiplash from.  And,  don’t ever pay anyone to write a resume for you.

It’s not easy to sort through the voices and the language.  Take it from a woman who loves feedback: it’s hard to be objective and harder still to be patient when you are looking for hope.  You can be hopeful, though, without being naive.

Get commitments in writing and have an attorney check the language.  Validate and verify all claims of truth.  Read for ideas and understanding, not pat solutions or blanket philosophy.  Push yourself out of your comfort zone but not into a circus.  Pay attention to who is getting paid for what, before you buy into whatever you think you just heard.