Despite legions of well-intentioned HR staffers, and hours of training and calls dedicated to career planning, at most companies the actual work of developing your career likely falls on your shoulders. I can count the meaningful experiences I've had through various companies' official career development processes and forms on one hand, and the most valuable feedback and skill development activities were ones I conceived, planned, and executed on my own. While there is value to formal career planning and evaluation processes (if nothing else, they'll advance your paycheck), ensure you spend time every few months doing your own career evaluation and planning. Here are three broad skills to cultivate that can help in this journey.
Have a development-based long-term plan
Like many, I've long struggled to answer the question "What do you want to be doing in five years?" Despite almost two decades in consulting, I still ultimately don't know what I want to do in five years. Even without a well-defined goal, I still keep a long-term plan. Rather than defining an end state and the activities I need to achieve that end state, I look for how I can keep a maximum number of potential career options open, and also how I can make myself more valuable to a potential employer, client, or customer. A long-term objective of staying flexible has me constantly learning about new technology and business trends so that I might invest time in a promising trend, or change direction as the industry changes. If you know that you want to enter more technical aspects of the field, for example, you might focus on learning a modern programming language or managing a highly-technical team to build your skills in this area.
Too much of traditional career planning focuses on very discrete skills or activities that prepare you for tomorrow. Your personal long-term planning should focus on broad skills and capabilities that prepare you for the next decade.
Just say "yes"
Some of the most rewarding moments in my career were when I committed to a project or activity I'd never done before. I'd walk into the room on day one, unsure if I could succeed, and walk out on the last day with not only new skills and capabilities, but renewed confidence in my abilities. Too often, we're hesitant to say "yes" to an unfamiliar activity, whether it involves a new industry, a new technology, a new team or culture, or a combination of all of them.
Like a muscle that grows stronger with exercise, the more you just say "yes," the easier this process becomes. Not only do the day-one butterflies flutter a bit less violently, but you'll quickly learn how to get to know a new business or technology and ask effective questions that help you get oriented and ready to work productively. You'll also build a rich and diverse body of experience, and be able to transition between industries and technologies as your interests, or the global economy, evolve.
This also makes you a more effective leader. Uncertainty often breeds a crisis mentality. If you're the person with a cool head who can tackle new and uncertain challenges calmly and effectively, you'll naturally be given leadership roles.
Network, far and wide
Networking is a funny thing; we've never had more tools at our disposal to connect us with colleagues and friends, yet many of these connections are merely superficial. Many of us probably have hundreds of people in our online social networks, yet fewer than a dozen whom we could count on for career guidance. Rather than focusing on superficial metrics, strive to have a dozen or so meaningful professional connections. Don't seek out only those who are at higher organizational levels, or solely within your company, and strive for bidirectional relationships in which you give as well as receive.
Like any meaningful activity, networking takes years. Connections made in years past might be tomorrow's partner or customer, and that young person whom you advised a decade ago could be the CEO of a tech giant, and your boss or customer years later.
It's easy to fall into the trap of ignoring career planning, thinking that filling out the annual assessments and doing other HR-mandated activities qualifies for true long-term career planning. You might even go years without detailed planning activities, only to find yourself faced with a major career disruption for which you're completely unprepared. Take charge of your career, however, and you'll be ready to take advantage of opportunity or adversity, and find yourself well-positioned for whatever challenges come your way.
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Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent over a decade providing strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com. All opinions are his and may not represent those of his employer.