Career Conundrums (the art of planning for a career path that may not yet exist)

At some point in our career we all face the question of ‘what is next for me?’ Contrary to what we may have been told by career advisors at school, there are few people who have a clear line of sight from where they are now to where they want to end up. In fact, now retirement is a life choice rather than an age milestone, few of us know when the end point will actually be. Some folk may indeed have clear views of what they want to achieve by a certain age in terms of grade, salary, possessions or recognition, but the vast majority find planning a distant career ‘destination’ confusing. After all, things change and we may end up planning for a career that no longer exists by the time we reach the magic ‘age’ when we should have ‘arrived’.

So is it realistic to engage in career planning beyond the medium term of say 3 to 5 years? As skill needs, technology, economics and lifestyle expectations change so will the choice of career paths on offer. In today’s world, people in their 20’s and 30’s will most likely be working into their late 70’s or beyond. The chances are that they will not just experience one career, but several. This means that career planning may be better served by focusing less on a specific profession or role and more on what an ideal role may enable and then to create a benchmark against which to measure potential career opportunities. My own experience and research suggests such a benchmark requires us to focus on 5 elements:

  1. Emotional Fulfilment

Instead of focusing on what I want to be, or do, or have? Perhaps the key question is ‘how do I want to feel?’ as the other questions are enablers for this. We may study to be a specialist in our field to feel fulfilled, proud, valued, respected, or confident. We may go for a higher salary to feel secure, free of money worries or confident we can provide for our families. We may seek promotion so that we can feel recognised, influential, powerful, credible or successful. We may be drawn to roles which make us feel useful, benevolent, needed, respected, valued and so on. Recognising how we want to feel gives us a starting point for creating a benchmark against which future career opportunities can be tested. What would be on your list?

  1. Values Alignment

If we are to make career choices that we can really feel invested in, that we will gladly invest time, energy and perhaps be prepared to endure some hardship to succeed at, then we need to choose roles that align to our values. So how do we identify what our values are? Well one way is to sit and consider what is important to us, what our core beliefs are. However, often we do not have the language to describe our values. A shortcut to this is to access a free assessment tool, the Values in Action survey. This helps identify your character strengths and may give you a good start on working out what values are most important to you. You can access this tool here. By identifying your most important personal values you can then use these to consider if future roles and organisations will align with your own values. Lack of alignment may cause us to disengage from our work, leading to under-performance, disruptive behaviour and potentially stress.

  1. Performance Strengths

If we ask ourselves what we are good at, the chances are that we can all identify a number of things that we do well. Examples may include financial acumen, motivating others, planning and so on. But are these our true strengths? True strengths are those underlying qualities that we possess, which we are not just good at, but that energise us and we have the potential to excel at. Our strengths are what drive us, they tap into our passions and help us overcome adversity, enabling us to keep going through challenging and difficult times. There are a number of Strengths assessment tools available on the market which help identify your strengths. In MindSightUK we use StrengthScope as it focuses on 24 strengths directly relevant to high performance in the workplace, enabling you to identify what you do well and importantly, identify the things you do less well which may be limiting your ability to succeed. By identifying our strengths we can crosscheck which roles and career choices will use these strengths (so giving us energy and increase our likelihood of success) and also what limiting weaknesses may prevent us succeeding. If you want to know more about strengths assessments or undertake one then contact us here.

  1. Job Satisfaction

What is job satisfaction? Well the chances are that your view will differ to mine. It may be about working in a team versus working alone. It may entail being absorbed in specialist detail versus envisioning big picture strategy. It may be about being artistic or being academic. Whatever rocks or does not rock your boat, it is important to be able to articulate it. For this I suggest two columns on a piece of A4 paper. Head column 1 ‘what I want from my ideal role’ and column 2 ‘what I don’t want’. Once you have filled out both columns, revisit each column and identify your ‘must have’s’ for column 1, or ‘must not have’s’ for column 2 (i.e your ‘red lines’). Having this list will keep you ‘real’ when someone dangles a job title of your dreams in front of you (whilst skipping over the painful detail of what is actually involved in the role).

  1. Work/Life Balance

What does work/life balance mean to you? For some it is about never working away from home, for others it is not working weekends, and for others it is about hours worked, or location of work, or flexible working and so on. To identify these, go back to the two columns in the previous section and now add to the ‘what I want’ column, those elements of work/life balance that matter to you. In the ‘what I don’t want column’ list those things that represent poor work/life balance. After this, if you are brave enough, show your partner (or a close friend) and debate, discuss, challenge and negotiate to identify if you have the right elements in the right column (this may require several visits to a couples guidance counsellor to complete!!).

Once you have your benchmark…

Having completed the above you will have your benchmark list, tailored to your needs, which will enable you to assess future career options as they arise. Remember though that life changes so what matters now may change as your circumstances change. For example, young children grow up, releasing us to explore different choices, elderly parents become more frail, adding to the demands upon us, marriages take place or breakups occur. For the list to be effective you need to revisit it regularly and check it is still relevant to your circumstances.

Finally, when ‘designing forward’ our careers, in addition to the benchmark list, it is also important to ask ourselves some key questions and then answer them honestly. Here are some which you may wish to consider:

Can I complete the sentence ‘I will know I have made the right career choices if…’?

What is on my benchmark list that is most important to me and is missing right now?

Can I identify the skills and behaviours I currently possess which are transferrable between organisations (or professions), so that I know how they will support me in my future career choices?

What further development opportunities (skills, behaviours or experience) would support me in my future career choices and crucially how will I access these?

How do I tap into future opportunities? Am I utilising my networks, mentors, coaches, professional bodies and market intelligence?

How flexible and adaptable am I? Am I willing to move sideways, downwards, relocate and so on? What am I willing to sacrifice in the short term to bring my benchmark to life?

What barriers am I likely to put in my own way and who will challenge me when I am doing this?

What will my first step be and when will I take it?

Following the above steps is not a guarantee of success, that said, it will significantly increase your opportunities to navigate towards career choices that brings you joy! Enjoy the journey!