If ‘career’ is a verb, then what is a ‘career plan’?

<1172 sage words>

Career:  To move swiftly and in an uncontrolled way in a specified direction, as in

“The car careered across the road and went through a hedge.”

Of course ‘career’ is also a noun, and is the word people commonly use as a short-cut reference to their progression from one job to the next, except that some of us see it as a positive, optimistic, planned and managed process. The Internet is full of lists of things to do to manage your career. I’m not going to add to the list: rather, I want to ask you some questions to think about, because in my experience most careers aren’t so neat and tidy.

I imagine my readers and coaching clients to be people who want to move beyond the 5, 6, 9, 12 point ‘how to’ lists, to get to something real, serious and authentic.

There are a few people I know who have had a vision of a career since a very young age. My father was like that.  I wasn’t. Nor were my siblings.  My father told us what he wanted us to ‘become’, and so we did, initially.  And then we careered off into different directions, much to his bemusement.

What I learnt from my adventures in careering are possibly worthy of being shared, in the form of questions, that I can see, in retrospect, I answered through the career (noun) choices I made.  I believe if you know the right questions to ask the careering from job to job might have a deeper logic for you, to the point of shifting your focus towards what you really want as a career (or as I sometimes still say ‘when I grow up’).

The first question then, in contemplating what you want to be ‘when I grow up’ is not ‘what do I want to be when I grow up’.   The first question is:

What do I like best about this job I’m in now?

The question is broad – think about the work, sure, the day-to-day stuff you have to do to earn your pay cheque.  And then think about the workplace:  do you like being in your office? What is it you like about it (does it have a door/windows/ comfortable chair, etc.)?   Do you like coming into the building every day – does it give you a sense of belonging?  What about the people?  Are there people you talk to every day? Is there someone you trust?   I’m sure you can imagine more questions, to get to the answer.

DO NOT dwell on what you don’t like.  We’re looking for what attracts and pleases you, not what makes you feel bad.  I’m not attempting to talk you into staying in a job you hate; I’m working at helping you think about it differently.   (If you are truly overwhelmed by the negativity of the moment, ask yourself what was it about the job that appealed to you when you first applied for it and accepted the appointment.  Mine down deep for something positive.   Take it out; study it.)

Then we get to the next two questions:

Do I want more of what I like in this job? 

If I knew where to look for the ‘more’ where would I be looking?

For example, after I had worked for two Canadian trade unions for about 8 years I decided I needed to change something.   I had come to realise that it is harder to be in management than to be a trade union official. I had become too comfortable in taking pot shots at managers who were good and decent people, doing the best they could, often having to make decisions without sufficient information, and then having to live with the consequences.  I wanted to stop criticising and start doing.  I also wanted to return to South Africa to make peace with my parents – my father was not at all cool about my careering into the labour movement.

What did I want more of?  Instead of attacking managers who had not been prepared for their managerial roles I wanted to educate them.  I wanted to find a middle ground between the interests of management and shop floor.  I wanted a nice office and a nice car.  I wanted to feel like I belonged in the organisation. I wanted friends at work.   I wanted to switch sides with a clear conscience: I wanted a credible job in an organisation with integrity.

I didn’t really know where to look for the ‘more’. I made a list of ‘must haves’ (as in essential characteristics of my next employer).  I sent the list to my sister. She researched the environment, identified 10 possible candidate companies that I’d be willing to work for, and sent my résumé plus cover letter to all of them.  Within weeks I had a telegram from one of them: ‘we’re thinking of creating this kind of job – would you be interested?’   I found all of what I had been looking for and much, much more.

But not as much as might have been available to me, had I realised that ‘career’ was also a noun.  You see, I still had ‘job’ in my head, not ‘career’.   Which gets me to the next question:  In a conversation I had with a senior manager in that company, he asked:

Do you have a mentor?

No, I didn’t.  Moreover, I didn’t realise that I needed one.  In retrospect, had I had someone who knew the ropes, who was willing to engage in regular conversations with me about my own adventures and the developments and opportunities within the company, I might have careered all over the place within the company.  Instead, I hit the glass ceiling after a few years, because I had no strategy for overcoming it. I left, careering into the world of free enterprise.

I should have said ‘no, I don’t; how do I get one?’

What I learnt next, and what I still sometimes have to teach myself again, is not to ask ‘do you regret quitting?’  The right next question is:

What did I like best in the job I left?    And then:

Do I want more of what I like in this job?  Followed by:

If I knew where to look for the ‘more’ where would I be looking?

And so it goes.  Very few career paths are linear and logical.  Most careers are an adventure.   The important thing about an adventure is that you need the right mindset and resources for it.   The right questions are part of the resource kit.  What is a career plan then?  I believe it is knowing what you want more of, because you asked and answered the right questions. And then took action. Perhaps that’s the final question:

What action am I committing to; to have the career I want?

With thanks to Tim Clark on TedX ‘Say goodbye to career planning’ for the originating idea for this article.


©  Delphine du Toit July 2014







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