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Four Steps to Planning a Great Career

by Michael O'Leary

As if it were needed, 2020 proved beyond doubt that even the most robust and well researched plans fall aside when the unexpected occurs. But it doesn’t need to be a tragic global pandemic to make us stumble, changes in government or government policies, technology drive change, the economy, even the acquisition of our firms by another company can derail the best laid out intentions. The point of having a plan is that it is okay to rest it for a period to deal with what’s in front of you at any given time, but it provides clarity on where to step back to when it is time to continue with your momentum.

Putting together a personal career plan is not an easy process for some people. The lack of certainty, the fear of failure or the inability to structure such a plan, often prevents planning progress. If you are committed to the development of your own career, the following four steps will help you overcome these obstacles and enable you to fulfil your professional / leadership potential.

1. Have an honest conversation with you.

Initial reflection married to objective feedback from a senior manager is the best starting point for your plan. If your objective aligns to your personal values, you have a significantly higher probability of achieving it. Your career growth will be dependent on your ability to build upon current strengths while developing and honing your current skills and abilities. Begin your process by having an honest and thorough understanding of all of these.

2. Put time into planning and regularly reviewing that plan

Putting off planning is the number one reason planning does not happen. Allocate 3 to 4 “meetings” in your calendar devoted to the development of your plan. Set your objective and always know what you are working towards. Consider different paths that may be open to you. Who do you know that has travelled those paths, what can they tell you about their own experiences? Will any of these people be a willing mentor to you? Be realistic about timeframes and reflect on personal circumstances that may need to be considered when beginning the planning process. When you have completed your plan and commenced whatever actions you have decided upon, don’t worry if you get temporarily sidetracked in the event of a crisis or short term organisation need, you will know from your plan where to step back in.

3. Develop the essential competencies for career growth

The was a time when technical expertise was enough to facilitate upwards movement in a career. That all changed a few years back when firms started to see valued talent leave over poorly rounded leadership ability. Today, career progression is dependent on the professional possessing and being able to demonstrate four often overlapping competencies. i) Conflict Management – working with others to resolve differences and reach a valued compromise. ii) Communication – A commitment to continuous flows of feedback, active listening and clarity when sharing organisation of function vision. iii) Curiosity and a commitment to learning – Operating on the balls of your feet and being able to pivot or adapt on the move requires a mind that hunts out and is open to new ideas. iv) Self Awareness – maturity and reflection are essential to long term personal growth. v) The ability to influence and bring others with you – This can be the hardest competency to grow. If your career success and recognition to date has largely been as an individual contributor, having the patience not to take on all the responsibility or become frustrated at the perceived lack of pace by others can be challenging. How you develop these competencies will depend on your professional environment. Start by seeking feedback on how you measure up today in each case.

4. Make peace with your gaps and focus on transferable skills

There is learning in everything if you know where to look, even if the learning value does not seem relevant today, it may well be in the not too distant future. You are not perfect at everything and never will be. Many successful executives develop coping mechanisms for areas that they find more challenging. Often this comes in the share of whom they hire for key supporting roles. To develop in as rounded a manner as you can, plan your career growth by considering both internal and external movement. Time spent in other firms is essential to your learning. It helps if you target developing the most transferable skills, which aside from the competencies highlighted earlier, might include project management, customer relationship management, research and analysis, along with an effective understanding of technology-based applications.

Career planning is not easy, it takes discipline and the ability to put it up to yourself to be the best version of your professional self. If the questions you are posing to yourself are not tough and hard to answer, then they are not the right questions. 

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