It’s never too late to step back and take a look at your career; where you’ve come from, where you are, and especially where you want to be in three to five years. I often ask my employees, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” The question is not directed at their maturity level but is used in an attempt to get them thinking about their career goals.

To answer the question, you need to create a career plan, a task that requires a look into the future. It isn’t easy, but its beats just sitting back and taking whatever comes along. You may get ahead without a plan, but it is doubtful that you will reach your full potential.

Here are the steps you can use to develop your own career plan or help an employee chart his or her own.

Step 1: Take an introspective look
First, step back and take a close look at what makes you happy. What type of work or activity makes you want to “jump out of bed” in the morning? Too often, people settle into work roles that are not that interesting or fun for them, but they do it “for the money.” My belief is that when you find your life’s passion, the money will come. In fact, you may make more than you ever did in an unfulfilling job.

Loving your work and the people that you work with makes life so much more enjoyable, especially when you consider the amount of time you spend at work vs. with your family.

You should think about what you want to become. Many employees will say, “I want to be a manager,” when they don’t have the slightest clue about what it takes to be a manager. Too many people take jobs not because they really want them but because they believe that’s what others expect of them. Career planning is very much about choosing the direction that you want to take in your life.

Step 2: Chart the path to your goal
Once you determine the type of job you really want, you should develop a plan to get there. For example, if you’re a first line manager today and you believe that you would make a good CIO some day (and really want the opportunity to manage an organization), there are many paths that will get you there. There are also paths that don’t lead to the CIO door. Finding the right route is the key.

Talk to someone already doing the type of work you seek. Ask specific questions to learn all that you can about the work, the issues, and problems that come with the job. Ask these questions:

  • What are the greatest challenges of the job?
  • What do you like most about the job?
  • What do you like least about the job?
  • What are the skills needed to be successful in your position?
  • What were your toughest issues to deal with this past year?
  • How would you break down your work activities by time-spent percentages?

Be honest with yourself. Visualize what your days will be like and what you have to do to be successful in this role. Evaluate and decide whether you have the initiative and perseverance to do this type of work with real passion. Wanting to be a CIO and liking to deal with the issues and politics that a CIO must deal with are two separate issues. It’s not all glory.

You don’t have to figure it all out today, but you should take the time to look several years out. Simply looking at the next job is not really creating a career plan.

Your career plan should result in a path indicating the steps you should take to open the doors leading to your goal. Taking the next job that materializes, without regard to where it fits along your career path, could be a mistake because it may not point toward your goal. The sooner you can decide what you want, the easier it will be to develop a realistic plan to get there; but don’t be in such a hurry that you miss doing your homework to learn what it’s really like.

The best example that I can give you was when I was an IBM SE early in my career. My manager convinced me to become a sales representative rather than move toward an SE manager path because he knew that it would develop new skills and open additional doors that would position me for greater management roles in the future. He helped me realize the need to look at three or four positions into the future, not just the next one.

Step 3: Create a plan
The third step in developing a career plan is to determine the paths to your goal, based on the overview you considered in Step 2. Start by drawing a series of three boxes in four rows and describe your current position in the middle box of the bottom row (see Figure A).

Figure A

Here’s an example: Assume that you are currently a senior network administrator and that you aspire to become a CIO. If you take a close look at the paths that normally lead to the CIO position, you’ll discover that more CIOs come from IT managers of the business applications side of IT than the infrastructure side. A CIO must be able to relate business issues with technology solutions. Managing business applications development and support tend to prepare you more for that requirement.

I’ve filled in typical technical and management positions in the boxes that will help prepare one for the CIO position (see Figure B). Please note that this is an example. There are additional steps required to reach a CIO level that are not included because of space limitations.

Figure B

If you know that 70 percent or more CIO positions are filled from the business applications side, it’s logical to pursue the path of the boxes that are shaded. Another route is to follow a vertical path that leads to director of technology. At this position, the possibility of filling a CIO role is more remote, but the CTO position is a logical next step. The CTO role positions you for the CIO seat.

Nothing is cast in stone, and qualified individuals will always break the norm. The example intends to show that there are many paths leading to the CIO position, but one path usually gets the desired promotion. The trick is to move into positions that keep your options open. This is similar to when you start college; you may not know what you really want to major in as a freshman, so you take a general studies curriculum until it begins to become clear.

Career planning requires you to stop and to create a plan that will work. IT pros who can establish a vision of where they want to be and are able to put the steps into a logical sequence are more likely to reach and exceed their career goals.

If you’re developing a plan for yourself, always seek the advice of your manager and others who can help you set the path toward your desired goal. Not all managers are comfortable in developing a career plan for their employees. Don’t let that prevent you from creating one for yourself.

Have you developed a career plan?

Do you think it’s important to develop a career plan? Do you think it’s possible to look that far into the future? Send some mail or post a comment.

Mike Sisco is CEO of MDE Enterprises, an IT management consulting and training company in Atlanta. For more insight into Mike’s management perspective, take a look at MDE’s IT Manager Development Series.