Waiting for a Career Path? DIY!

Throw away “career path” and build your career plan.

Many employees still expect their organizations to provide a “career path.” This is evident from the mediocre marks that leaders receive regarding career development on employee surveys. As an executive coach, I’m often asked by senior executives how they can improve those results.

I start by challenging the outdated assumption that career path definition is somehow up to the employer or boss.

Even though some jobs come with promotion potential, we are now in the design your own career era.  Why?   Bonds between employers and employees are far looser than they were in the past, due to workforce management (e.g., using headcount for cost control), frequent organizational change, shorter employee tenures, and more virtual and flexible workplaces.  

Excellent careers are created by each individual and are not the organization’s or boss’ job to design.

I tell my clients that the way to fix their survey results is to be excellent and proactive career coaches; I ask them if they have recently discussed career plans with each of their people.  After all, the employees you most want to retain and promote are often thinking about their careers—and if you’re not talking to them about it, then you could lose them.

From the employee’s perspective, unfortunately, the above is the exception.  Most executives don’t proactively discuss career planning with their people, and you need to take that into account.

Your Career Is up to You—in All Cases

The savviest approach is to design, execute on, and evolve your own career plan and then bring that plan to a trusted person as a neutral sounding board. Here are considerations for doing that:

First, target career goodness and don’t settle for less:

  1. Target a role or organization that will energize you most of the time rather than deplete you. If you’re net-depleted on most days, make a change sooner rather than later.
  2. Target conditions (culture, mission, people, dollars, healthy work/life integration, etc.) that will enable you to do your best work on most days. Don’t stick around too long if the conditions are getting in the way.

Of course, no organization can know your heart as well as you do, not to mention what energizes you and what depletes you. Organize yourself around those factors because others won’t do it for you.

Next, consider that the best careers evolve by nonlinear change.

In her seminal book, “Lean In,” Cheryl Sandberg noted that, nowadays, a healthy career is a “jungle gym and not a ladder.” We move sideways, down, around, and up. If you don’t create your own path on the career jungle gym, others either won’t do it for you—or they will, and you may not like it.

Choose each job and organization to meet a career plan need.

In super-dynamic settings like startups and heavy-growth situations, you’ll find good opportunities to design your role and pick your boss, as well as experience unexpected changes and bumps along the way, which will test your agility in career planning. Or, you may want to use a career stint in a more static organization to get one specific experience, such as round out a specific skill. Again, that should be part of your dynamically evolving career plan.

And please, don’t take a job based on a promise for something more later

Get the job you want and the money you need on day one rather than in a promise for later. Too often we take a job bundled with a promise, as in, “I know you’re perfect for that other job, but we just need to get you in, and we should be able to promote you within the first year.” Unless this is an irrevocable agreement in an employment contract subject to no other conditions—and even then I worry—then it’s nothing more than a good intention, an idea, a theory, and certainly not a commitment.

Finally, develop and evolve your career plan.

As this post implies, I’m not going to hand you a template. Roll your own. DIY. Make it one page. Do a vision board. Whatever works for you. Then when you’re happy with it, look at it daily.

Consider your road map to achieve the conditions discussed above and monitor whether or not you’re energized and doing your best work on most days to check where you are, make changes, and evolve that road map regularly.

The headline of your career plan should always be your sense of highest purpose in your work, such as “making a positive difference in the world” or “providing for my family in ways that allow me to be a healthy and happy member of that family”—or whatever it may be for you.

  • Pick excellent bosses rather than put up with bad ones.
  • Get the job and money on day one.
  • Pick your organization carefully for its culture and level of dynamic change that’s right for you at this time in your career.

If you need help, find someone in your world—and I hope your leader is that coach to you—to do a sanity check on your plan. Feedback will help enhance it.

May you and your plan continue to evolve!


David Peck is Partner, and the US Lead for Executive Coaching at Heidrick Consulting. He’s been published extensively and is the author of Beyond Effective. Twitter: @coachdavidpeck

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