The most important part of career success

Jul 13, 2011 by

Perhaps its not surprising that I think planning is one of the most important elements – if not THE most important element – in success. A good, comprehensive plan can make the difference between a winning issue advocacy campaign and a long, painful campaign that you ultimately lose. I talk about this stuff all the time to advocates around the country and I’ve been thinking more and more of the parallels between campaign planning and career planning.

To be clear, a campaign usually has a fairly limited time horizon (months) and it definitely has a beginning, middle and clearly defined end. Your career plan likely covers a much longer time arc, but it also has a beginning, middle and end – yay, retirement! Because it may cover 20 years instead of just 9 months, you’ll need to think about the shorter-term elements that build to the whole; nonetheless, the process is the same.

So what are the elements of the plan that you need to make your career a success?

First, an honest assessment of where things are now both internally and externally. Internally: your strengths, weaknesses, contacts, skills, knowledge and resources. Externally: the job market in your particular area both in terms of number of jobs and job roles that are available, practical implications of getting to where you want to go (will you have to move or change jobs?), the allies or opponents around you, etc.

Second – and maybe most importantly – the goal. You need to know where you’re going so that you know when you actually get there. But simply having a loose goal like ‘build management experience’ is not enough. The goal must be SMART:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Realistic
  • Time-bound

Maybe your goal is ‘Get hired as the Executive Director of nonprofit X by 2015.’ Now, I can’t tell you whether that is achievable or realistic, but others you work with probably can. Part of identifying a SMART career goal is doing the assessment and getting some feedback from others who have objective opinions and can help you determine whether your goal is achievable and realistic.

Third: targets. These are the people or things that can get you what you want. It could be your boss, who can promote you up the chain of command; it could be a master’s degree program that can get you the education you need to do your job. Once you figure out who or what can get you what you want, you can move onto…

Step four: strategies, tactics and activities. These are the basic steps you use to achieve your goals – the “business plan” of your career if you will. Strategies are the broad categories of things you will do to get to your targets (your boss, grad school, etc.); tactics allow you to build up to and enact your strategies; and activities are actual, measurable tasks. Here’s an example based on the ED goal above and the assumption that your boss is one of your main targets.

In order to get that ED position, your strategy is to cultivate a mentoring relationship with your boss.

One tactic to build that relationship is to have regular meetings with him/her to discuss your career.

Your activities will then include scheduling those meetings once a quarter.

This seems kind of intense, but to think about in a ‘flow chart’ fashion will help you identify what activities you absolutely have to do and which can be left behind. This is a key piece: Have you ever found yourself going to a happy hour and asking yourself why you’re going? If the answer is ‘to network,’ but its not associated with any specific strategy or goal – meaning if it doesn’t get you any closer to your goal of becoming an ED by 2015 – then it is a waste of your time. Period.

The other big mistake that people make is diving into tactics/activities first. Going to that happy hour to meet potential contacts for a new job is a good tactic…but only if your goal is to get a different job or if you know someone there can help you become an ED. Regardless, you need to have a plan and a goal BEFORE you move onto those tactics.

The natural end point of all of this planning is to actually execute and to periodically review it to see if its still relevant and accurate. It’s also helpful to have an accountability partner who can check you on your goals periodically.

As you start working on your plan, I’d love to know how its going – and I’d love to help you! I can offer personal and professional coaching to get you where you want to go; if you’re interested, contact me!

Flickr photo courtesy of user J’Roo.

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