Series of words about goals (purpose, dreams, ambitions, etc.)

Now is a perfect time to reflect on your career goals. Not your work goals, but your personal goals. (Seriously, take advantage of the quiet time while everyone at work is distracted by sugar cookies.)

We’ve all heard that failing to plan is planning to fail. We wouldn’t dream of implementing communication tactics without a strategy, but how many of us do exactly that with our careers? I’m as guilty as anyone. I found my current organization purely by chance. I moved to a new city when my husband took a job here, and answered an ad in the newspaper.

I had never worked in biotech, and didn’t expect to like it, since I was looking for a non-profit position. But a funny thing happened. The more I learned about how biotech research is saving lives with new discoveries, the more I wanted to be part of that.

Most successful people I’ve talked with admit that their career progression involved a bit of luck. A trainer from a class I took yesterday quoted an entrepreneur friend saying, “the harder I work, the luckier I get.”  In the same class, he quoted a former Lockheed Martin CEO who said, “hope is not a strategy.”

While we can all hope for luck, a strategy is never a bad idea. Make a career plan right now. Write it on your grocery list or the back of an envelope if you’re afraid to commit, but put something in writing. Answer these questions:

  1. How many more years will you be working? Assume you’ll be in each new job roughly 5 years, then figure out how many more jobs that is until you turn 65 (or whatever age you expect to retire).
  2. What is the last job you want? This is your dream job–the one you’ve worked your whole career to have. Write it down. If you can’t pick just one, list two or three options.
  3. What’s missing? What skills do you still need to master? What industry do you need experience in? Who do you need to connect with in your network now to make the dream job a possibility?
  4. How will you get there? Make a bulleted list of next jobs/positions (referring to #1 for how many) that could help you get there. For example, if you wanted to transition from nonprofit communications to biotech, you might target a nonprofit research organization supporting biotech research as your next job, to help you learn the industry. The job after that might be managing communications for a small biotech company, and so on, with the ultimate goal of leading global communications for a big pharmaceutical company before you retire.

Think about what you want to be known for, and look for opportunities to share your knowledge. Volunteer to speak at conferences or mentor young professionals. Chair a committee for PRSA, or your professional organization of choice.

What makes you different? Think about your unique experience and skills and what those offer to your employer (current or future). Figure out now what training you’ll need for the next step–or the last one–and learn those things as soon as you can.

Find a trusted friend who will keep you on track and give you honest feedback on your plan–maybe even do this exercise together. Meet periodically to track your progress (this is a great excuse to set standing coffee or lunch dates). Set small goals to accomplish before each meeting, maybe attend one networking event, write a blog post about a certain topic or sign up for a class. Anything that gets you closer to your goal is fair game.

It might be a good idea to talk about what success means to you as well. Not everyone wants a 50-foot-yacht and three vacation homes, so don’t assume your friends understand your ultimate goal. Talk them through it. If nothing else, talking about it will help you understand your own perspective.

And if you do happen upon an opportunity that doesn’t exactly fit your plan but sounds intriguing and pays the bills, take it. Your career plan should be flexible, if nothing else. The older I get, the more certain I am that few of us ever really figure out the answer to the question “what do I want to be when I grow up?” Maybe “what do I want to do for the next 5 years?” is the question we should ask instead.

Note: I made a career plan based on the above questions a couple years ago. (I’ve since changed my mind about the ending, and made it more of a choose-your-own adventure of possible choices. But it still helps to have a plan.) I wish I could remember where I got this excellent advice. If you happen to know where to find the original article posing these questions, please let me know so I can credit the author (and thank him/her for the tips!).