For the past five years, career planners have been reluctant to discuss long-range career planning. The workplace has changed so rapidly it seemed futile to saddle anyone with a ten-year plan. That doesn't mean you should allow yourself to be swept along by events, controlling little, if anything, about your future work life. How about constructing a more flexible, shorter-term plan? Start by answering the following questions.
(Editor's note: While this discussion is geared primarily toward management-level positions, most of the issues apply to anyone concerned about advancing their career as rapidly as possible.)
Is your industry right for you? Is it growing - or at least stable - or is it shrinking? Do you respect the companies in it? Reading the trade press and attending association meetings is the minimum effort required to chart the industry's future. Unless you are a keen observer of your industry and your knowledge is up to date, you may not know if the field is right for you or not. There may be time bombs you haven't uncovered which could derail your career. For example, how many people anticipated the dot.com bust or the sales dearth of many high tech products? How many people predicted that AT&T bonds would achieve junk status? Some people did and shared their views with the trade press. If you decide you don't want to be in your present industry, you need to launch a job hunt - the sooner the better.
What's the prognosis for your organization? We are amazed at the number of people who would not buy their company's stock or lend it money - an attitude that makes a powerful statement! How does your company rank in its industry? (Jack Welch, when he had credibility, insisted that the only worthwhile status for any company in any industry was number one or number two.) Is the company growing, treading water, or declining because a kamikaze division is determined to take the whole company under? You probably know the answers at some level even if you're in denial, hoping you won't have to respond decisively. As Ann Landers (may she rest in peace) would say, ''wake up and smell the coffee." There can be no career plan in a company which is fading. You may stay until the bitter end but remember that you'll be asked, ''Why did you stay once you knew the company was a takeover target (under federal investigation, losing millions monthly, etc)?''
"I had my head in the sand," is not a response likely to win over an interviewer.
Do you like what you do? More important, is there any part of your job you are passionate about? Passion is "like" to the third power. Yes, there are people who work from age 18 to 65 and their only passion about the job is the paycheck. However, many of these people work to finance their true passion, which may have nothing to do with their paid employment. They are perfectly happy. Think accountants or CFOs who'll never make partner but who live to coach children's sports. We know people whose major source of life satisfaction is participation in community theater, jewelry making, sailing, etc. lf you don't have a passion outside your job and have never been anything but lukewarm about what you do - notwithstanding your feelings about the industry and coworkers - you're in the wrong job. You should be job hunting unless you are fewer than five years from retirement. We have seen more post-retirement career changers in the last year than in the past 26 years. The younger you are when you realize that you'd rather be using different skills, the better for your future job satisfaction.
Are you learning? If you want to continue to use your skills within your current industry, those skills must be, or must become, state-of-the-art and remain that way. This will require ongoing learning opportunities. Does your job provide them? (Don't confuse learning opportunities with performance goals or your boss's expectations.) Do some self-assessment even if your boss raves about your performance. That kind of praise is wonderful for the here and now, but you must rate your performance against a competitive, outside standard. For instance, how are you doing against those who do the same job elsewhere? Identify your weaknesses and develop a learning plan to address those deficits. As you progress, more learning goals will emerge. If you're not learning, you are stagnating. If you're stagnating, you must find another job, either within or outside of your company, because you are in danger of ending up on a layoff list.
How are your political/people skills? This is still important no matter what younger generations think. Do you have personality quirks? If so and you're proud of it, you'll pay heavily. Being "prickly," "unpredictable," "contentious," etc, is a pricey indulgence. Any of these can doom you to your present role and a post position on the next layoff short list - even if your productivity is great. Poor temperament will also make you a popular target when there's a management change, even if the company is prospering. Remember, once your coworkers peg you as "difficult," they may never re-evaluate you or change their attitudes.
Do you have a plan to move? Do you know what your next job should be and when you should plan to move? This is especially important if you're in insurance, medicine, nursing, or any other besieged industry. Likewise, if you haven't changed titles, organizations, or job descriptions in the past five years, you're stuck in sludge. Observe how and when other people have moved. Find someone who is changing jobs and benchmark her. What is her game plan? If you and she aren't in the same organization, she may even share her strategy with you. A client did this and it helped him identify exactly what he wanted and prompted him to campaign for each opportunity that caught his eye.
When you put all of this information together, you're ready to establish some career goals. These include the next job you want and what you must do to get there (e.g., deficits you must fill before you can move anywhere). If your goal is to stay where you are without moving up, you need a plan for that too. If you're not willing to lead, you'll need to be recognized as a top individual contributor - too valuable to burden with managing people. Your plan should have time estimates and mile posts. "Finish the training program in six weeks." "Sit for the certification examination in three months." "Apply for a higher-level job internally once I pass."
Without a plan, inertia is likely to push you into one of the following traps.
You'll stay in the same job too long, risking obsolescence. Then you'll have to convince future interviewers that you really didn't reprise yourself for five years. That's a hard sell.
You'll settle for a staff job instead of a line job. Never has this distinction been more important. Yes, it's possible to spend your entire career with one company in a staff role: attorney, HR specialist, etc. However, you will always be more vulnerable than the people who generate revenue rather than spend it.
lf you really want a staff role, however, it's safer to move from one fast-growing organization to another because that's where your skills and experience will be most valuable. Otherwise, you will not be seen as a risk-taker or innovator. Never have more interviewers been more interested in both. They believe, rightly or wrongly, that the profile of a risk avoider is a long-term staff employee.
People who take the time to map out a career plan often realize they've been dissatisfied for years. Sometimes they discover they would rather be self-employed. Whatever your self-analysis uncovers, you'll be primed to devise alternatives in your own time frame and take back control of your career.