Captain Hindsight wins again ...

"How did you approach planning your own career? I presume you drew up a master plan and then set about executing it, as you're a massive advocate of research and planning generally?

That question, posed by John in a Q&A session, brought me up short. Did I plan my career? In chronological order, ‘yes’, ‘no’ and ‘yes, finally’ are the answers. Let me explain.

We all typically look at career paths when choosing GCSEs, A levels, a degree to study and a field to work in. Although there clearly are decisions to be made along this route, they’re often reactive, as in – “Here are some options, pick one” – rather than proactive. Three things are very noticeable:

  • Rarely do we start with a clean sheet of paper to plan a whole career from scratch, we typically just choose a field to work in. Examples are engineering, marketing, media, politics, design, medicine, law, journalism, etc.
  • Many people walk a conveyor. They select what to study, they visit the companies turning up to the milkround and they get swept up by an employer who feeds them through a training or development scheme into a specialisation, a department and a role.
  • Rarely do we map the road and milestones forward from where we are today and personal career planning is often driven purely by simplistic ambitions, such as: “I want to be Prime Minister.” “I’d like to be a leading brain surgeon.” “I’m going to run my own business.” “I want to be CEO of a PLC.” “I’m the next Steve Jobs.”

My own career planning

The above is certainly what happened to me. At 25, I found myself a senior production engineer, working on major fabrication projects for a vast public company. I enjoyed my job, but I hadn’t specifically planned to be doing that role. At each decision point, I’d only really had sight of the next stage of possible options open to me.

I vaguely thought that one day I’d like to be ‘the boss’, whatever that meant, or run my own business and be rich. I scored nil points for original thought and never planned more than one step ahead.

One day I woke up. I realised that the engineering conveyor would carry me forward to the more senior levels of engineering, but that was probably it. It was a career, just not the career I needed in order to achieve my bigger ambitions. Bugger.

My lucky break came from meeting someone who told me a possible way to make the jump out of engineering and into management. I knew that was the right direction for me and that I could build a new career, one of my own choosing, so I leapt into a boiling ocean of new prospects. This offered the fantastic opportunity to make a wonderful journey but also presented the very real threat of encountering numerous whirlpools which I knew could lead me into the abyss.

Fear made me plan and I mapped out a route which I calculated would lead me to running a PLC-owned company as managing director. I set out confidently and I did get there after only about 8 years.

That’s all good then? Not quite. My plan was disastrously inaccurate.

I just didn’t expect the number of false starts and rocky roads I’d encounter and how many new routes I’d have to find. At times I felt as though I was walking alone in thick fog at night through an unknown town, in the midst of a power cut, in the hope of finding a vacant room in a hotel where they wouldn’t rob me. Would the sun rise tomorrow and clear the fog?

There were times I just didn’t know.

Still, I did make it. I had a new career firmly under my belt, and one of my own choosing, at that.

Better career planning

That was a few years ago, but I find that the route I followed is still common for the majority of people I meet today: they get swept along (hopefully) for a time and then one day actually make a big career-choice decision.

Yes, it might be better to be more fully informed during the years of your education so that you could make a properly-chosen career-decision earlier in your life, but you have to deal with life the way that it is, not the way you’d hope it should be.

Some people wake up at the age of 5, determined to be something specific. Others become certain of what they really want to do at 16 or 18 or 25 or 32 or 47 or 53. From talking to literally hundreds of people about decisions they made, I believe it happens when it happens for each individual.

I believe the career planning lessons to take on board are as follows:

  1. There is nothing wrong with being swept along and following the typical route. At any time you’re free to stop, look around and choose a bright new destination for yourself. The time you do that will be the right time for you, based on your life-experience to date.
  2. Accept that only with a committed destination will real and meaningful career planning become possible. Then, you’ll be able to identify a route, plan your journey and figure out how to equip yourself with the skills and experience you’ll need to make that journey successfully.
  3. Up until then, constantly extend your own capabilities by: adding to your generic skill-sets; seeking new challenges; and grabbing every opportunity for more responsibility.
  4. Be always adaptable. If your ship sinks, start swimming until you find a new one. Life is always uncertain, acceptance of that fact will save you a lot of angst and time.
  5. Most importantly of all – follow your map but, when you get driven off course for a while, use your main ambition as the compass that always brings you back to the right direction overall.

Don’t feel pressured to make quick life-changing career decisions – relax! Wait until the time is right, and then stamp on that loud pedal as hard as you can!

Keywords: career planning, ambition, goals, direction, value.