Are you a planner? While some may prefer a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants approach when it comes to figuring out what to do on a Saturday night, even the most schedule-averse person should consider creating a career plan.
Why? “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road can take you there,” cautions Gladys Stone, executive coach and recruiter and author of Goal! Your 30-Day Game Plan for Business & Career Success. Meaning, without clear direction, it’s hard to reach your desired destination.
Instead of getting lost along the way, create a map to help you get there with minimal roadblocks. Here’s how.
Search your soul
Marty Nemko, producer and host of NPR-San Francisco’s Work with Marty Nemko and author of Cool Careers for Dummies, believes that a career has to be fulfilling, whatever that may mean to you personally. “You probably spend the best hours of your day, the best weeks of the year and the best years of your life at work,” he says. It’s important to make them count.
How? By making sure your career aligns with what matters to you. “Identify your career non-negotiables,” he advises. You may require flexible work hours, need a big paycheck, long to serve your community or want a short commute. Whatever it may be, use this list of values to create a firm foundation for your career plan.
“If you know what you’re interested in, [you have] a very solid starting point,” assert Stone.
Set your target
From here, you can explore different industries, positions and markets to see what excites you. Nemko suggests looking at top-jobs lists, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook and other books for ideas.
“With the filters of your non-negotiable, you can go through those and not be overwhelmed,” he says of the goal-setting process.
You then can begin to create a list of jobs you want and companies where you’d love to work. After that, scour your network to find connections willing to give you an introduction. Once you hone in on your dream career and employers, then you can set a clear goal and get to work pursuing it.
Evaluate your skills
Once you know where your passions lie and where you want to be, it’s time to take an honest look at what you bring to the table. Nemko advises his clients to identify their skills and basic aptitudes, along with how well their education—or tolerance for returning to school—aligns with where they want to go.
“The first thing is the goal,” agrees Stone. “After that, the question is ‘What do you need to do in order to get there?’ Figure out the gaps.”
Then fill them. If you need better presentation skills to qualify for your dream job, try taking a workshop and volunteering to participate in presentations in your current position to gain experience. If your targeted career requires certain software or language knowledge, find a way to get it. Whatever the missing skills may be, make a calculated effort to obtain them so prospective employers see what a fabulous fit you are for their needs.
Create the basics
Once you have a clear vision for your future, it’s time to get it down on paper, so to speak. This means creating a resume—and supporting documents like cover letters—tailored to your ideal employer and job highlighting the skills and experience that matter to prospective hiring managers. Find a way to articulate how your total package can benefit their organizations.
Don’t forget your online presence. “Create an awesome LinkedIn profile,” says Nemko, complete with a headline, summary and key words that clearly describe what you are looking to do. And don’t forget an appropriate headshot. “The picture should be relevant and memorable,” he notes.
Then, take it one step further by participating in online forums and reading and commenting on blogs related to the organizations, industries and jobs you’re after.
Chart your course
In order to keep forward momentum as you work toward your goal, Stone recommends setting milestones between your point A—now—and your desired point B in the future.
“You might have two or three,” she explains, “and they should represent significant progress toward that goal.”
Milestones can range anywhere from adding to your responsibilities at work to gain experience to earning a degree or pitching a certain number of wish-list employers. Whatever they are, make sure their completion gets you one step closer to reaching your goal.
As time goes by—and milestones are met—it’s important to revisit your career plan on occasion. It will give you a point of reference by which to evaluate whether your decisions are getting you closer to succeeding with your goals.
Sometimes, though, your career plan may need an adjustment or two, and that’s OK. “It’s a living document,” says Stone. “As things change in your life, [your plan] will change, too.”
And if that change takes you in an unexpected direction, so be it. The most important thing, says Stone: “You don’t ever want to be stagnant.”