Every day, I have the privilege of talking to many highly successful professionals. And, whether they’re senior leaders or emerging talent, entrepreneurs or big company veterans, in very stable positions or in transition, there Is one thing that far too many have in common: Despite a history of success in managing the businesses under their charge, very few have done a good job of managing their careers and personal success. To make matters worse, the tight economy often encourages people to do even more of exactly the wrong thing—they lose sight of any strategic big-picture career planning and focus only on short-term, day-to-day survival tactics.

Managing your career and success is just like managing any other part of your business—it requires strategic insight, planning, milestones and metrics.  Or, as a mentor of mine once put it, “Your career is like anything else: Failing to plan is planning to fail.” Let’s take a look at what I call strategic and purposeful career management, see how it’s different from the standard networking, and learn why today’s volatile economy makes this kind of career management more important than ever before.

Strategic & purposeful career management defined

Strategic and purposeful career management is the principle of applying exactly the same skills to your career that you would use to ensure success with any business project. The process begins with establishing your person and career vision; defining where you want to go and achieve; and basing the vision on all dimensions of your life—i.e. professional, financial, family, intellectual growth, spiritual fulfillment, and health.

Not surprisingly, this step is often the most challenging. For my clients, I’ll often have them start by rating their levels of satisfaction with each area in their lives on a scale of 1 to 10. Many people find that this yields some surprising results and provides direction for focus.  Next, I have them write vision statements for the lives they’d like to live, including full details, as if they were already living these lives. Finally, we assess what they need to accomplish in order to achieve their visions, we identify professional milestones, and we establish the strategic and purposeful career plans needed to achieve their long-term.

It’s about taking control and accountability for your own success

Visualize a car racing along a winding mountain road. The mountain road represents the business and economic environment, and the car represents your career. You don’t have control of the road, but with the right planning, you can control the car. Here’s the question to ask yourself:  Are you simply a passenger in the backseat, hoping for the best, or are you in the driver’s seat with your hands firmly on the steering wheel?  Your strategic and purposeful career plan puts you in the front seat.

Business uncertainty—Why today’s economy makes strategic and purposeful career management more important than ever before

Business uncertainty often causes people to shy away from taking firm control of their careers and instead retreat to an “I-just-need-to-survive” perspective. Unfortunately, that’s the worst response to uncertainty and risk. If you read my prior article, “Reinvention Thinking for the New (Innovation) Economy,” you’ll recall that we now live in a business environment that only rewards those who have strong, well-differentiated value propositions. Professionals who allow themselves to become “commoditized” face increasingly tight employment prospects, declining wages, and very significant career risk. Strategic and purposeful career planning allows you to also consider dynamics of the environment and to develop appropriate planning for supporting your vision and goals.

Again, let’s consider the car visual. An uncertain and tumultuous business environment is analogous to a more treacherous road. You can’t control the next round of layoffs or what a new competitor might do to your company. However, you can have a clear plan for what you want to achieve, including multiple options and contingency strategies. Uncertain times are when it’s most critical to be in the driver’s seat and to be in firm control of the car. 

The delusion and the hard reality

Another thing that often prevents people from taking charge of their own long-term success is the “I don’t have time right now” delusion. It’s usually at one of four stages.

Stage 1: “I’ve just started a new job / gotten a new promotion / etc. I need to get right to work. I know it’s important, but I don’t have time to think about my career strategy right now.”

Stage 2: “Things are really heating up on the job, and there’s a lot I need to be on top of. I know it’s important, but I don’t have time to think about my career strategy right now.”

Stage 3: “It’s gotten crazy, there’s a lot of uncertainty, and we might be letting people go. I need to really focus on keeping my job. I know it’s important, but I don’t have time to think about my career strategy right now.”

Stage 4: “We just had a downsizing, and I was impacted. I’ve got bills to pay, and I need to find a job as soon as I can. I know it’s important, but I don’t have time to think about my career strategy right now.”

And sometimes there’s a very unfortunate fifth stage.

Stage 5: “I’ve been out of work for a very long time. It’s really getting tough, and I don’t know where I’m going. I just need to find a job as soon as possible. I know it’s important, but I don’t have time to think about my career strategy right now.”

Here’s the hard reality:

  • There will always be an important distraction, something that seems more critical in the short-term, so it will never be “the right time.”
  • No one but you can focus on your long-term career planning.
  • Without a strategic and purposeful career plan, you aren’t driving toward your success; you’re in the back seat of the car, hoping for the best—i.e. failing to plan is planning to fail.
  • Today’s business environment makes effective career planning more important than ever before. To offset economic uncertainty, it’s critical to have your own contingencies well thought-out.

Get your career management on track

No matter what level you’re at in your career, it’s important to have a clear plan and to use that plan as your roadmap. Here are five steps that you can use to get started on your roadmap today:

  1. Make the commitment to your success. Decide that your success is, in fact, your most important priority, and make a commitment to managing it.
  2. Start with your vision. The vision is your foundation. Try writing a narrative of the life you want to be living in 3, 5, or 10 years. Write in the present tense, as if you’re already living that life, and make sure to look at all dimensions of your life, not just the professional.
  3. Don’t get derailed by a quest for perfection. Your vision (and, in fact, your career plan as a whole) is a dynamic living document. You should expect to revisit your vision once or twice a year and to make adjustments. Avoid getting hung-up on perfection; just make sure to establish your first version.
  4. Analyze the past, identify milestones, and establish a plan. With your vision in hand, analyze the steps that you’ve already taken, identify gaps to be addressed, establish a plan with milestones, and schedule check-in points for you to revisit your plan.
  5. Leverage your well-developed business skills. Again, managing your success is just like managing any other business project. Leverage your existing business skills to make sure that your most important project (your own success) stays on track.

Please feel free to reply with any questions or thoughts.