Career Planning – Own It!

This is the first in a two part post on career planning. I want to explore this topic first from the perspective of owning your own career and then, as a manager, supporting the career planning of others. Career planning is not something that happens to you. It is something that you need to work at. You can’t sit idle and wait for opportunities to come to you. Your manager and others that can influence may notice your hard work and dedication but unless you tell them what you want to be doing and where you want to go, they will praise that success and assume you are content in your role. Promotions don’t come from tenure or because someone else took another role (at least not in a good organization), they come because a good performer asked, “What’s next?”   Interacting with your manager and expressing your goals is the single most important thing you can do with your career.

A disclaimer here for those of you that may be railing against the last sentence: I’ve worked exclusively in larger corporations and that is the perspective I write from.  I understand that in a smaller business or as a consultant, other things may trump. In larger business, maneuvering your way to the next level or onto a desirable project requires working within the management structure.

Expressing your goals to you manager is never an easy thing.  I believe it is best to be direct – even if this is not your normal communication style.  Being subtle about it won’t clearly convey what you desire and leaves room for misinterpretation.  And if there’s one thing you want to be clear about, it’s your career.  The first step is to understand what you want to be doing.  Is it the next level in your current role, a new project, a new team, or something else?  Having a good grasp on what you want is key to telling your manager about it.  Knowing where you want to be can quickly be followed by, “How do I get there?”  Mapping out your career with your manager is essentially those two questions – what? and how?  There may not always be the perfect opportunity so you need to be willing to take one step sideways in order to move forward later.  A new project might be possible if a promotion is not.

It is critical that, once you begin the conversation, it continues on a regular basis.  This doesn’t mean that every 1:1 needs to focus on it.  But it should be a topic of conversation at least once a month or so.  A good manager should give you feedback fairly often and a good contributor will ask for it.  Open ended questions (How am I doing?) are good but, the more specific, the better.  Talk to your boss after important meetings that both of you attend and ask how it went, what could have been better.  Learning what you do well is useful but learning from mistakes is better.  Correcting them is great and you should always mention a change in approach that yields a positive outcome.  It shows your manager that you recognize issues and are working to address them.

You have to be an active participant in your own career planning.  Sitting back and waiting for an annual review or other conversation doesn’t put you in control.  You have to take the reigns.  Good managers will guide you through, highlight their thoughts on your strengths and weaknesses, but you have to act.  As the title of the post says, “Own it!”