Why do you do what you do for a living? Did you follow a plan or do you sometimes find yourself wondering, ‘how did I end up here?’ If the latter question describes you, then you are not alone. The majority of people don’t finish their education with a really clear picture of what it is they want to do.
The majority start their career without a clear understanding of what work really involves. I still remember asking my dad, ‘What do you do all day when you’re at work?’ which to be fair isn’t an easy question to answer!
The point I am making is that few of us start with a career plan and the majority never put one together.
I think that this goes some way to explaining why so many people are unhappy in their jobs. A recent study by the London School of Business and Finance found that around 55% of people don’t like their jobs. That’s a lot of unhappy people and I think one of the causes is that we’re not very good at strategic long-term planning, which was the focus of my last article.
Most people spend more time planning their two-week summer holiday than they do their careers. You spend 80,000 hours at work – a considerable proportion of your life.
It is therefore important to find a career that inspires and engages you. Something that matters and does more than just pay the bills.
The focus of this article is to get you to think about your future, your career and what you might spend that 80,000 hours doing. If you don’t know what that might be, hopefully this will take you a couple of steps in the right direction.
‘…I have always found that plans are useless but planning is invaluable’Dwight D. Eisenhower
This is a principles based approach meaning that it can be used in any situation with any career or industry. That said, these are guidelines designed to get you to think about your career and lifestyle. There are many ways of building a career plan – this is just one way that I have found to work.
Get a sheet of A3 paper, a pencil, a ruler and a rubber. You will make mistakes. This makes it easier to undo them. Don’t do this exercise on a computer, you’ll get emails and notifications which will distract you from your focussed attention which you need to maintain.
Step One: Start with a timeline
I like nine year timelines because they split nicely into three groups of three years, and I generally think you should spend 2-3 years in a role. Timelines can often be a bit abstract though so add your age to it, and the ages of your children if relevant. It feels strange to think that in 2025, I will be 44 with a 12yr old daughter and a 9yr old son!
Step Two: Clarify the Endstate
What do you want to be doing in 10yrs time? Do you want to be a ‘Senior Leader’ in your industry or does that make you feel sick at the thought of it? If you have an idea of what you want to do, how much do you know about that role? If you want to be a Lawyer, do you know what a Partner in a Law Firm does and what it takes to get there?
Do you want to do that job and are you willing to pay the price to get there? Do you want to work in a large corporate or a smaller company? Do you want to stay in this industry or do something completely different in another industry that you’d enjoy? You don’t have to have a clear endstate in mind but the more you can refine it, the better. It’s easy to aim at a target that you can see – otherwise you’re shooting in the dark.
Step Three: Review your Current Situation
What have you done and where have you worked? What have you achieved and are particularly proud of? What sets you apart from your peers? You will start to notice the gaps between where you are now and where you want to be. That’s fine, this is useful information but these are gaps that you want to fill in order to ‘bridge the gap’ and help you get to where you want to go.
Step Four: Do your Self-Analysis
This is arguably the most important step and the one that is overlooked most often. Try and picture what a life well-lived looks like to you. Writing your eulogy from the perspective of a family member, a friend, a colleague and a member of your community will clarify what you want people to say about you when you die. This isn’t meant to be morbid – you are going to die at some point.
It is better to accept that and use the limited time you have to live the life you want. Your career should help to make this life a reality, not the other way round. When people reach the end of their lives, rarely do they say that they wished they’d spent more time in the office. They talk about wanting to spend more time with their family and friends. Your career should enable that – not prevent it. This is my version.
Strengths and Likes: Think about what you like doing and what you are good at. Consider all of your experiences and reflect on what jobs you loved and why. When and where were you happiest in your career and what was it that made you happy? You are likely to notice that there is a link between what you are good at and what you like doing. If you can clarify these points into a few short statements, you can take them to people who are currently in your ‘dream job’ and ask them if this job involves your ‘likes and strengths’. If it does, great, you’re on the right path. If it doesn’t, then perhaps you want to consider a different end state. Either way, that’s useful information.
Weaknesses and Dislikes: These are just your development areas. You don’t have to think about them too much, you just need to be aware of them. Don’t pursue a career that will force you to do things you don’t like or can’t do. This is the fastest way to unhappiness and disengagement.
Step Five: The Interim Roles
The interim roles fill in the gaps. They give you the experience to move from where you are today to where you want to be. For example, if you want to be a senior leader in a large multi-national corporate but have never worked overseas, one of these interim roles might take you to a foreign country for a period of time. The interim roles are entirely dependent upon the gaps that you need to fill to get where you want to go. There are likely to be numerous paths to get there so think about the different routes that you can take to get from A to B. What would be your preferred option, what about option B, what else would you consider?
I believe that if you’re going to follow someone’s advice, you should make sure that they follow it themselves. If they don’t, then they either don’t understand it or value it on a deep enough level. The example below is the version I put together when I left Urenco. I’ve removed people’s names so that they can’t be identified but you can see where the approach comes from.
How do you work out what you want to do?
This is a commonly asked question and really comes down to the quality of your self-analysis. What do you like doing and what are you good at? Create some hypotheses of roles/companies you would love to work for. Can you get in touch with someone in those companies and ask their advice?
For example, I’ve got a military background and more often than not, other veterans will talk to me. If I was targeting a role in a company, I would enter ‘the company name + Army’ into LinkedIn and see what comes up. It will either give me the names of veterans who work there or people who have worked there and are likely to be connected to people still in the organisation. I use my military background but you can use your school, university, anything that might create a connection with a stranger.
Share your career plan with the person in your target job. Who is occupying your endstate at the moment? Seek them out, ask them for a coffee and walk them through your career plan. If their role matches your likes and strengths, you’re on the right path. If not, you need to make a change. The following slide summarises the approach I recommend.
The career planning template can be used to drive a much more targeted conversation with a line manager or a mentor. Once someone knows what they want to do, it is far easier to help them get it. The following points are just some top tips to consider when putting it all together. I will keep them brief!
Make sure you involve key stakeholders from a personal and a professional perspective. It’s unfair to make decisions about your career that impact your family without involving them first.
Prioritise growing sectors which have a future. For example, developing an understanding of AI/tech is only going to be valuable in the future. Other sectors and industries, for example, the coal industry are less likely to have bright futures. Think about this when making decisions about where you want to go.
Once you have clarified your career plan, you can now spot the difference between an opportunity and a distraction. An opportunity takes you closer to where YOU want to go, anything else is a distraction.
Be bold, dare to push yourself and focus on what you really want. Ignore the naysayers.
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