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You do have a career plan, right?

What do you mean, “No”?

For most of us, the reality is that our careers seem to just ‘happen’ to us.

Careers are a little bit like a rollercoaster ride. We experience ups and downs, some huge thrills and also some scary moments along the way. But at the same time, we don’t have any real control over where we are going. We feel like we’re on rails, laid down by someone else. We’re strapped in. We are, literally, a passenger.

While rollercoasters are designed to thrill, though, this is hardly a thrilling metaphor for a career, is it?

Imagine that you are just starting out, fresh from university with a great degree (or two), and one week into your first real job. What if someone older and (presumably) wiser than you then confronts you and informs you that, over the next two, three or four decades, you will enjoy very limited control over where you are going. You’ll spend most of the time following someone else’s instructions, doing just what they want, not what you want. How desperately dispiriting does that sound? Just writing it makes me feel miserable!

Sadly, for most who follow a ‘traditional’ career, I think this picture that I’ve painted is uncomfortably close to the truth. A working life which might be ‘safe’ on one hand, but largely devoid of autonomy or purpose on the other. Of course there will have been a few highlights – the occasional promotion, a new job here and there, pay rises. But when stacked against the unrewarding drudgery of the other 99% of the time when these great things aren’t happening, the career slog really can feel like an uphill battle.

No wonder millennials are rising up against the traditional career path!

“In preparing for battle, I’ve always found that plans are useless but planning is essential”

The quote above, from Dwight D. Eisenhower, nicely captures the problem in front of us: how can you actually plan your career, given all the uncertainties in front of you?

The title I’ve chosen for this article obviously suggests that you should have a plan, but before we dive into what that could look like, take a moment to think about the following:

Look around you at the people whose careers do seem to be on the move. Who do you know who seems to be enjoying an extraordinary level of professional success? Who keeps getting promoted, or is smashing their targets, or is always being talked of a ‘rising star’ or top ‘talent’?

Look at these people and ask yourself if they are simply lucky, or do they seem to be the architects of their own extraordinary success? In my experience, small minded or negative thinkers choose to believe that the only difference between them and much more successful colleagues is luck. People whose glass is half empty are usually cynical in the way they judge others’ success.

Choose to believe in the art of the possible, however, and you might see a different story. Maybe those high fliers are soaring because they’ve made a purposeful decisionto fly high. Maybe they’ve decided that they can be better, and they’re planning to get ahead. Maybe they’ve set themselves some outlandish personal career goals and then set off in fanatical pursuit of those them.

If you’re a resolute pessimist, you’ll find it easier to accept your fate and stay strapped into the rollercoaster, a passenger in your own career. If you see your career glass as half-full, however, you already have the mindset to take control and design a rewarding and thrilling professional future for yourself. The rest of this post is for you.

Where to start?

All good plans have a framework, and a career plan is no exception. My framework for effective career planning draws on a system first introduced to me over ten years ago by my most inspiring and at the same time toughest ever manager (he will rename nameless here). The system was a great tool for business planning, and it was called “VSI” – Vision, Strategy, Implementation.

This system proved very effective for me over the years, and I have since re-purposed into coaching business owners on how to grow their companies (take a look here if you are interested in the details).

With VSI, the ideal place to start is at the end.

Regular followers know that I often turn to the wisdom Stephen Covey enshrined in his classic “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” – and indeed today is no exception. Habit #2 is “Begin with the end in mind”, in other words work out where you want to end up, and then work back from there. Decide on your final destination first, as only when you know where you are going can you begin to set off in the right direction. Set off with no concrete destination in mind, and you are sure to wander around ineffectively.

So what does this mean in the context of a career plan? Is this just another way to ask that standard interview question: “Where do you see yourself in five years?”. Definitely NOT. When asked that question in an interview you obviously have to tailor the answer to impress the interviewer (I show how to do that in this article here).

But when you ask this question to impress yourself, force yourself to think BIG. Think as far out as possible as you dare – ten years out, twenty years out or even more if you can (and if you don’t plan to be retired before then!). The point of looking far out is to untether your envisioning process from today’s reality. If you only look six months out, it’s obviously tough to imagine a future much different from today. Only by looking far over the horizon do you free yourself up to consider what’s really possible.

Once you have chosen a suitably distant time frame, start to add some flesh to the bones. What would seem like the pinnacle of a career for you? Owning your own company, or high up the ladder in someone else’s company, perhaps. Whatever your current function, there will be a C-suite or management team position representing high responsibility within your chosen field of expertise.

Add even more detail. Where would be your dream location to work? One of the big commercial cities of the world, or somewhere a little offbeat? What would you like to have achieved by then? Scribble down some ideas and see what comes out.

If you’re finding it difficult to paint a detailed picture of your perfect career destination – and it’s not always easy – find a close friend and try the exercise together, helping each other along. Brainstorming with an encouraging partner can yield some great insights.

Don’t get hung up on the idea that your super long range plan might not be right for you in a year or two. Think back to Eisenhower’s advice: it’s the planning that counts, more than the actual plan. Plans can change, and are there to be adapted. As your vision of a wonderful career is shaped by time and experience, adapt the plan. It’s that simple.

The real value of a vision – your vision – here is just that it is far better than no vision at all. For all those days when progress is tough and work seems dispiriting, your vision is there to encourage you to push on through the tough times. Focusing on good times ahead makes the bad times today more bearable.

OK, you have a vision, what next?

Now we zoom back to the present, and identify a clear near-term strategy which will definitely take you in the right direction, something you can focus on executing over the next six to twelve months.

If things are going well in your current organisation, the focus is most likely on your next promotion. Discuss this with your manager and agree a plan.

Ask “What do I have to do to put myself in the frame for promotion as fast as possible?”. If the closest chance is a couple of years out, discuss milestones that will show that you are on track over the next six to twelve months.

Maybe you need to improve your internal profile. Maybe your reputation needs to be polished up somewhat. Seek feedback and follow through with actions. Build relationships with those people who can vouch for your qualities and contribution when promotions come up. This is how you take pro-active control of your destiny.

Who out there in your organisation thinks poorly of you? Be honest to yourself, and then evaluate how to improve their perception of you. I had to do this quite a bit in my career. It requires you to put your ego to one side and accept that you probably aren’t as good as you think you are.

What if you’re short of some skills that are necessary to progress to the next level? Well, put your hand up and ask for training. You need to take the initiative here – so go and ask HR for guidance. Again, I did this when I was promoted to running a large team – I asked to go on a management training course and I did.

Don’t forget: while others are there to help if asked, the only person really looking out for your career is you.

What if things aren’t going so well in your current organisation? What if the ship is sinking amid poor leadership and a toxic culture? The answer, of course, is to get off that ship as quickly as possible and get on one that is heading in a better direction.

Easier said than done? Yes. Possible to achieve if you invest the time and effort into planning a career move? Yes.

I worked with a client earlier this year who was deeply frustrated with her current employer. We worked together on a plan of attack, she executed it brilliantly and within no time had an offer from a much better firm in her hands.

Remember, this is all about planning, taking charge and not accepting the status quo. Plans can change as circumstances change. Roll with the punches, as they say in boxing.

Planning is a discipline, and requires a commitment to keep at it. Set aside time in your schedule at least every month to review your plans, and fine tune them as necessary. Are you on track? What haven’t you done which is necessary to moving forward?

If you do this well, planning will be come a habit, and, like all habits, the more you practice it, the better you’ll become and the more naturally it will become part of your routine.

Finally, remember this: the alternative to planning is not planning, and, when it comes to something as critically important as your career, that is no plan at all.