While most people understand that that a proactive and engaged approach to career development is important, it’s not something that people intuitively come to understand or grasp, especially without training or guidance. The topic of career development can also be overwhelming, especially if you aren’t quite sure of what you want to do, or where you want to go.
Ideally, organizations would do more to foster career development – teach their employees how to build career development plans, develop clear performance criteria, provide resources for learning and development, etc. The reality is that the bigger burden is on employees.
The Reality: You Own Your Career
What this means is that at the end of the day, you and only you are responsible for managing your career, and ensuring that you are getting what you want out of your career. This does not mean that you are the only one who can control your career, you’ll certainly need to rely on the help of others to achieve success, but what it does mean is that you are solely responsible for articulating what you are looking for.
Knowing where to start with career development is not always easy. In fact, trying to answer the question “what are your career goals?” can be fairly paralyzing, but over the years, I’ve refined my own method for doing career development planning, and have identified a number of actions and steps that are helpful to articulating goals and aspirations, which then can be used to build a plan for action. Here are some of them:
Step 1: Understand The Measurements and Metrics You’re Evaluated On
First and foremost, you need to understand how you currently are progressing in your role, and to do that, it helps to know what you are being measured against. Understand what you’re evaluated on. What does success look like in your position? What are your job goals and success metrics?
It’s best to identify these with your manager, but if that’s not happening, then write down what you understand the goals and measures to be, and take the time to align with your manager to get feedback. This will help you understand if you are progressing on the right path.
Another evaluation tactic is to review your job description, or a job description that is similar to your current role. Doing this helps in a number of ways. First, it helps you see how your current projects and responsibilities map to the job you are being asked to do. If you see any gaps, or see anything that’s missing, write them down, and bring them up with your manager just to confirm that you are focusing on the right skills and projects.
Second, it also helps you understand if you actually want to keep progressing in this role. If you take a look at the job description and realize that what you are doing is not aligned with what you actually want to do, then it serves as a starting point to finding another opportunity that is more aligned with your interests.
Step 2: Write down your key projects, and identify your breakthroughs
This sounds (and is) really basic but you might be surprised at what you forget you did amidst all the busyness of trying to get things done. Take the time to write down everything you worked on in the last month/quarter/year to get a complete list of everything you worked on.
From there, start to identify the metrics behind each of those projects, and identify the ones where you had the most enjoyment as well as the most impact. The simple exercise of writing down on paper what you’ve done and quantifying where you’ve made an impact in your job can be very helpful to understanding what other goals you want to achieve.
“People who focus on their strengths every day are 6 times more likely to be engaged in their jobs, more productive and more likely to say they have an excellent quality of life.” – Gallup
Step 3: Identify the skills you used that you really enjoy
Research suggest that when we use our strengths at work we become more fulfilled, engaged, and productive, so identifying those strengths will be a really great place to start when thinking about how to define your role moving forward. For those projects you identified that you really enjoyed, start writing down the skills that you used to make that project successful.
These skills will be a good basis to both understanding your own strengths, as well as how you can find other projects that use those skills in your role. For example, if you recently worked on a project where you enjoyed leading the team and handling the project management aspects of the project, identify other opportunities where you can flex your project management skills. Or, if you just helped re-launch your company’s website, and you helped re-write the copy for the webpages, try finding other projects where you can use your written communication skills.
Note: I know sometimes that trying to answer “what are my strengths?” is actually a little harder than it sounds. If you need some help, I highly recommend Business Chemistry by Deloitte as a good place to start. I’ve used this with hundreds of practitioners in a previous job and it’s a good way to do a self-assessment and understand not only your style but what makes you tick.
Also, if you’re still struggling to figure out what your strengths are, ask for feedback. Find 3-4 peers, and ask them the following questions
- What are my strengths, and where are examples of when I’ve used them?
- If we were to work on a team together, what role would you want me to play?
- What’s a unique skill I have that you don’t see in other people?
Step 4: Set Some Goals
Now that you have a good sense of how you are performing, the things you like doing, it’s time to build out some measurable goals for how you want to develop in your career. It can be easy to anchor in on a specific job description or role (ex: Move from Associate Product Manager to Product Manager) but another way to look at goals is around specific skills, experiences, or opportunities that you want to have, such as publishing a paper, speaking at a conference, or leading the strategic planning process for your department. Sketch out a general timeline of goals that you have for yourself, and make sure that they can be measured (see Smart Goals for more details).
Step 5: Do a Gap Analysis
A gap analysis is where you figure out the differences in the qualifications between where you are right now and your goals/next steps. It’s also a way to identify what you need to work on in order to achieve your goals. One way to do this is by anchoring your goal around a specific job or title. Take out a job/role description of a job you want in the next year or two, and assess your current candidacy for that job, with special emphasis of where you are lacking. Use this as a means to figure out what skills or experiences you need to build in order to make you qualified to have this role.
Once you have done this, identify all of the items where there is anywhere from a fair amount to of development needed. Look for commonalities and clump those together as a category. This is the basis for your career development plan. This is also a good place to do a sanity check. For example, if you’re dead set on becoming a product manager in 2 years, but when you do your gap analysis you realize you don’t have enough of the qualifications or experiences to achieve that goal, it allows you to reflect and examine the goals you’re setting and if they are realistic.
Note: If you aren’t quite sure what role you want in the next 1-2 years, this exercise is still valuable. Instead of using a job description, start sketching out the skills or experiences you want to have in 1-2 years, and then identify where you are today against those specific skills or experiences.
Step 6: Build Your Learning & Development Plan
Now that you know where you are today, what you are good at/interested in, where you want to go in the future in terms of career goals, and what’s currently lacking, you now have all the ingredients to build out a holistic action plan. The key is to ensure that you for each of your goals, you’re putting together some sort of specific and measurable set of actions that you can take that will help you make progress towards achieving that goal.
Those actions can be a combination of experiences and projects that are in your job, learning opportunities such as online classes, or e-learnings to help bring you up to speed, or perhaps even “side projects” that will help you build competency in skills you need to achieve those desired goals. As time progresses, you can revisit this plan and your goals to see how you are progressing, and make adjustments as needed. You can also use it as a way to leverage more experiences/projects in your day to day role that align to your career goals. For example, if one of your goals calls for more strategic work, highlighting that with your manager is a great way to identify more opportunities in your current job that will allow you to develop your strategic thinking skills.
Step 7: Find Some Advisors
While each individual is inevitably responsible for their own career development, you’ll eventually have to rely on many other people in the process to help you get to where you want to go. Other people include your manager, mentors, sponsors, or other colleagues at your level. As you start to build your own career development plan, or articulate your goals, take the time to speak to others to get feedback.
Peers you can trust can be helpful in providing feedback based on knowing you and your own skills, strengths and personal interests.
Managers can be helpful to providing feedback about how you can go about achieving some of those goals, especially as it relates to crafting your current job with projects and experiences to help you achieve those goals.
Mentors are critical to providing you with an honest and objective voice into your plan, as well as giving you practical advice as to how to achieve it.
And Sponsors can be helpful to identifying and providing you with opportunities that you need to achieve your goals that you may not have access to.
The most important thing is that you take the time to define what career success looks like for yourself. This is especially important in large organizations, where it can be easy to go along with what the majority of people are doing because it feels like we have to do that. Furthermore
Where do you stand when it comes to your career? Are you ready to make a change, or start your journey, today? Whether you’re just beginning on your career journey, or you’re considering changing career paths or jobs, developing an effective career plan will help you get to where you need to go. Reflect, set goals and make your decision, and you’ll find yourself on the right path.