Design Your Strategic Career Path
I help people take a strategic approach to their career. But what does that mean exactly? How do you know whether you are doing that already?
If you don’t know whether you’re being strategic about your career, you’re probably not.
A strategy is “a plan of action or policy designed to achieve a major or overall aim.” So, a strategic approach requires two main things: 1) a clear goal, and 2) a plan of action to achieve that goal. And both of those pieces require intention and attention. They don’t happen accidentally.
While many people have a vague idea of where they’d like to be in 5-10 years (higher up!) and a general strategy to get there (do good work!), most haven’t put in the upfront legwork required to get them where they really want to be. I’ve broken down the components of a career strategy below to help you get started.
A Clear Goal
Anyone who’s spent time in Corporate America has heard about SMART goals. And as terrible as they can be to work through at the end of the year when you have deadlines and holiday vacations to get to, they are extensively required in the workplace because they work! So, in case you’re not sure what a SMART goal is, here’s a brief overview as it applies to your career plan:
Specific: Your goal needs to be clearly defined and precise. This is the most important step in your career goal. You should be able to picture your future working self if you want to take a strategic approach to your career. Start with what’s in your head now and drill down as much as you can until you can no longer. That’s how you know you have a specific goal. You don’t have to know your future title or company, but you should be able to picture as many aspects about your future career as you can. That’s why I help my career coaching clients create a framework to support their ideal career. It’s not a specific career, but outlines all of the concepts they need to consider for what their future does look like.
Measurable: You must have some way to measure whether you’ve hit your goal. For a goal to be measurable, you must be able to identify what determines success. For instance, if you say you want to lose weight, what does success mean? If you lose 2 lbs., is that success? Your measurement system will also help determine your progress along the way. If you want to lose 10 lbs. in 10 weeks, then you know you need to be at about the 5 lb. marker at five weeks. If you’re not there, you’ll need to step up your game in the final five weeks.
Achievable: The goal needs to be realistic. You need to be able to come up with a way to achieve this (your plan, which I’ll discuss below). If you can’t possibly come up with a way to achieve your goal after brainstorming and help from third parties, you need to adjust your goal.
Relevant: When we’re talking about a strategic approach to your career, this just means that your goal must be about your career. We all have multiple goals we are trying to achieve all the time. What is the goal that is relevant to your career path?
Time-Bound: There must be a time limit on your goal. Timing provides incentive and allows you to monitor progress. Open- ended goals do not get achieved. I read a great quote somewhere that said “A goal is a dream with a deadline.” I’ve never considered myself a dreamer, but a goal setter? For sure.
That’s it! A goal is an absolute must when it comes to taking a strategic approach to your career and SMART goals are more likely be achieved than those that aren’t. Though they may take more time upfront and a few iterations, considering each of the pieces above will make your achievement of your goal much more likely.
The second part to being strategic about your career path requires a plan. If you have a SMART goal, the planning becomes much easier. You already have your timeline and how you will measure success. Now, you need to work backwards from your goal and consider the steps you will need to take and resources and skills you will need to acquire in order to achieve your goal.
Your plan should have milestones along the way to help measure your progress. Your milestones should be clear and trackable objectives. In addition, milestones are mini goals you can aim for when your overall aim feels too far out of reach.
For instance, if you are a litigation attorney and your aim is be the general counsel of a company one day, you know you’ll need to acquire other skills – a basic understanding of contract law, employment law, working with and advising executives on complex issues, and depending on the industry you want to support, there may be other specific skills you need to acquire. Your plan might include a milestone of working on a commercial litigation case that involves a complex contract in the next three years. This will be easy for you to track and will give you a mini goal to reach for within your larger aim. It will also help develop the skills you need to achieve your overall goal.
Once you’ve nailed down what your milestones within your plan are and when you want to achieve them, take each milestone and identify what actionable steps will help you achieve those milestones (and thus, your greater goal). Using the example above, one actionable step you could take would be to set up an alert for any new breach of contract claims filed in your jurisdiction. When you receive an alert, contact the defendant to see if they have counsel (or even know about the claim yet). Another would be to let others you work with know that you would like to work on a contracts case in the next three years.
Your steps should be actions you can take consistently that will get you to your milestones (and ultimately your goal). Consistent action against your plan will provide the foundation for your success.
If you feel a little overwhelmed trying to create a SMART goal for you to achieve in your career in ten years, fear not! The important thing to remember about all strategies is that they are not set in stone. You must walk the fine line between consistent pursuit and stubbornness.
If you find your plan isn’t working, change it. If you’re no longer driven to achieve the original goal you set out to achieve, change it. Make sure the reason for your change comes from a true need for change (because you’ve been following the plan and it’s not working) and not just that you’re tired and want to give up. But, if you’re clear on that, then changing your plan can be way more strategic than sticking to a plan or goal that no longer works for you.
How strategic is your approach to your career? What challenges have you faced with this approach? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.
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