“Career Plan” – An Oxymoron?

ox – y – mo – ron (ak-sE-‘mor-“on) n. a combination of contradictory or incongruous words (as cruel kindness); something (as a concept) that is made up of contradictory or incongruous elements….

Are you someone who has carefully planned most steps in your career? If so, you’re one of the few. Most people would admit that they don’t have-and have never had-a career plan. In fact, most careers are products of “happenstance”, not planning. Thus, we find that a “career plan” is actually an oxymoron. Sad, really, but true.

A specific course of study (resulting in an undergraduate degree or technical qualification) is often chosen because of various outside factors: parents, counselors, cost, logistics, and more. Most, however, are unrelated to our true passion. We often end up spending 20 years or more in unsatisfying jobs, just to discover at mid-career that a major change is necessary.

Most executives admit that their careers have evolved based on opportunism, hard work, and sometimes luck. The truth is that many savvy executives manage their business goals far better than they manage their careers, leaving them sometimes displaced or dissatisfied with their ultimate achievements. Of course, at this stage, a dramatic career shift can be difficult, not to mention expensive, and…scary. What can be done about it? Two things: 1) start very early in your career with a career plan, or 2) if it’s too late for that, create a career plan right now, and get on with it.

There are five (5) basic steps to creating a useful career plan:

1) START with a broad long-term vision–something that you can be passionate about. Avoid thinking too short-term at the beginning otherwise you may not create a plan that is motivating and compelling. Depending on where you are in your career, “long-term” might be 5 years or 20 years out.

2) Refine your “dream job” by clarifying specific requirements and critical success factors. In doing this, make sure you clearly identify any assumptions involved. Do whatever research is needed to confirm your ideas. Talk to people who are doing what you’d like to be doing.

3) Inventory your current capabilities and credentials and analyze the gap (a typical “gap analysis”). Often this part of the process will help you focus your efforts on what is practical but still inspiring. This is the perfect time to perform a reality check.

4) Create a broad-based phased plan for closing the career development gap. Getting from point A to point B will usually occur in major phases. Frequently, these phases may even be interchangeable. For example, if you determine that you need to move to a different city and also pursue a new industry, you might do either one first. It might be too risky to do both simultaneously.

5) Finally, write down a detailed action plan and immediate next steps. Specifically, this is where you want to define the “perfect” NEXT job that will align with your career intentions. Even a lateral move or some other job re-direction can be highly productive once you are clear about the long-term benefits to your career.

Successful businesses always have plans – strategic and tactical. Effective, productive action is often generated by the creation of a meaningful plan. In fact, significant insight and discovery about the business is derived from the planning process itself. A career planning process can also deliver the same kind of insight and discovery. Because there are so many options and avenues to consider, having a plan will allow you to focus time and energy productively on achieving maximum career satisfaction. Life is just too short not to be having fun every day and feeling a sense of accomplishment, pride, and fulfilment in what you achieve.

Plan Career Planning

It has long been known that organizations will be more successful if they recruit and retain high-calibre employees and then engage them in long-term employment.

However, these same organizations have typically focused only on perfecting their recruitment strategies. This includes the use of behavioural descriptive interviewing that focuses on candidates’ experience and the development of creative branding exercises.

Today, recruitment strategies also include aggressively utilizing social media tools to not only attract new employees, but to stay in touch with former employees who have left an organization to seek other employment.

Alternatively, organizations have also begun to more aggressively focus on employee retention strategies by applying professional development and training tactics. This has ranged from one- or two-day workshops to 10-day intensive programs and to financial support for professional certification. Other strategies have included job rotation and secondments to “associate” roles where senior professionals act as a mentor in an employee’s development. Executive coaching, on the other hand, is a growing trend that sees employees partnered with a professional coach to overcome areas of challenge and/or “blind spots.”

However, in my professional experience, at least up until recently, most of the organizations I’ve encountered have shunned responsibility for taking the lead to assist employees with career planning. Instead, leaders have typically perceived that career development is a potential threat to employee stability.

The result is that employees might only take responsibility for their career and reflect on their overall life when they’ve been escorted out of an organization through a termination process. In this case, the former employer will purchase career transition services that are focused on assisting a former employee to “move on” with their life.

As a career development expert, I am personally not seeing too much change in employee attitudes toward their long-term career planning, but I am seeing that organizations are beginning to think differently about incorporating employee career planning into their overall workforce planning initiatives. Today, organizations are recognizing that internal career development can indeed lead to the retention of high performing employees.

So, let’s take a look at what a program might look like and how this initiative could be established in your organization. The following guidelines will assist you to begin the steps to implementation.

Conduct a needs assessment — This assessment must focus on the long-term needs of an organization with respect to specific skills and competencies required to succeed in the future. It should review age demographics and anticipate skill gap areas and assess the interests of employees in participating in such programs.

Program support — Employees need to know that a program is supported by senior executives and that it has a specific purpose for the organization. Set up a planning committee with employees and a senior manager who can act as a “champion” who stays visible throughout the program life cycle.

Program design — I find that people are typically shy about sharing their personal dreams and goals. And since planning one’s career requires a good deal of introspective thinking, program design must be multifaceted and provide opportunities for personal self-assessment and private coaching as well as group work.

Program career content — It needs to include the sequencing of learning with respect to skills and competencies, personal motivators and drivers, personality and communication style, emotional intelligence and personal organizational fit. The program should assist individuals to explore the reality of life/work relationships, how to make a decision about researching and targeting a career match and then how to develop personal learning and action plans. Programs should also be flexible and customizable to meet the interests of employees of all generations.

Program business content — Employees want to know where they might fit in the organization in the future. A program needs to focus on skills and competencies rather than job titles so that individuals can see opportunity in a variety of jobs. As well, employers need to share their strategic directions, organizational values, their desired work culture and how personal attitudes and attributes affect career mobility.

Program delivery — Programs should be delivered over a specific period of time, such as six months, so that individuals can take personal control for their career, engage in self-initiated learning, have the time to think and process their learning, debrief with their personal coach and managers and develop a realistic and objective career plan. Workshops can be delivered as half- or full-day sessions accompanied by one-to-one coaching.

Train managers — Front-line managers in both large and small organizations need to be trained so they can have effective career-oriented conversations with their employees. In addition, specific effort must be made by the delivery professionals to keep in close touch with managers through personal coaching so that ongoing communication with respect to their employees is highlighted and effectively managed.

Program eligibility — Career development programs need to be open to all employees at all stages of their career. This includes baby boomers who want to stay connected to the workplace in some manner after retirement. And I am certain that organizations don’t want to see all that knowledge and expertise simply walk out the door.

Program expertise — While the human resource and/or training and development departments are usually involved in planning and delivery, it is often best to secure external expertise. These experts in career development will provide a secure, safe and objective environment for employees to discuss their career goals as well as delivering group-oriented programs.

Retaining high performing employees has become a key requirement for organizational success in a competitive labour market. To meet this challenge, implementing an internal career development strategy is an excellent way to ensure employees can not only see a future within their profession, but also envision a corporate future with their current employer.