How Do I Set Meaningful Career Goals?
Setting career goals is a combination of art and science. People looking to change careers, or those who are stuck in careers that are no longer satisfying will need to engage in activities that require more self-reflection and research. Even if you’re trying to decide where your current career might lead you, or how to be more satisfied by adding meaning and purpose to your career, taking a step back to examine your motivations and desires is key to setting goals that are both achievable and worthwhile.
There are three distinct steps to setting career goals:
Skipping any one of these steps will probably mean that you’ve set career goals that won’t last or won’t serve you. While many people just want to set lofty goals and immediately start with actions that will help achieve those, the most fruitful and productive way to begin setting goals is to know yourself first.
If you’re setting career goals, it may be because you know exactly what you want to do. On the other hand, people often approach career goal setting from the mindset that they aren’t happy in their current roles, but they just don’t know what to do next. In this case, I say they are currently in a job searching for a career, because a career should be something that you’re doing not to just pay the bills. A career should be satisfying and full of meaning and purpose.
It’s all too common for people in this situation to just start job hopping to “try careers out” for size. While this may seem fun and exciting, it can actually be damaging to your career, not to mention fairly inefficient and terribly exhausting.
Before you begin setting career goals, it’s important to understand yourself at a little deeper level than you’ve possibly explored before. There are a variety of tools and self-assessments available online to get you started.
Assessments in the discovery phase
I’m the last person to say an assessment is going to clearly indicate who you are as a person and what you should do with your career. People seeking guidance can look at personality assessments as tools to potentially guide them to the right answer. However, there are many types of assessments, some better than others. Assessments are only as good as how well they are written and how honestly you answer them—which may be a function of how well you know yourself at that moment. Instead of relying on assessments to provide the absolute answer to your question, “What’s next?” use them to rule certain types of occupations out and point you in the direction of the types of things possibly better suited for you and your desires.
Think of it this way, if someone is fumbling around in the dark, an assessment can be like a flashlight. While it can point the way, based on the science behind it, they aren’t prescriptive and don’t limit the person from looking in other directions.
Instead of setting career goals based on what might be expected of you in your current role, or what others may expect from you, determine your next professional steps through self-discovery and exploration. Create a foundation for career goal setting by first discovering:
- What you want to achieve
- What your career can give back to you
- What values are important to you
- What drives and excites you
- BONUS QUESTION: What would you like your legacy to be
Once you’ve clarified the above through reflection, you can look for the types of spaces in the corporate or non-profit world that might offer the opportunities that would put you in the role of your dream job.
Conduct an audit in the research phase
After you’ve identified a possible avenue for your career, find out as much as you can about the role. What are the day-to-day activities that someone in the job does? How would you feel doing those types of tasks? Before you jump into applying for positions in your new career, conduct a well-rounded audit of the space.
Conduct research to discover:
- What skills are required that I don’t already have?
- What skills and experiences do I have which are transferable?
- Are any certifications or specialized degrees required?
- What will it take for me to get the prerequisites?
Taking the time to discover and research before jumping into something new is what I like to call the “planful” approach. The plus side of this approach is that it is probably the most efficient way to get your career on the right track. The minus side to this approach is that people, in general, are not that disciplined. They want to just jump into something right away.
The fire, ready, aim syndrome means that people often do not want to do some of the upfront thinking and reflection that can be incredibly helpful and enlightening when looking to make any kind of major life change. Too often, people are in a hurry to make a change and feel that the time they are spending discovering and researching is time they could be out interviewing, networking, and otherwise landing a new job.
If you’re looking for a new career path, you always have choices. You can either take the “planful” approach, or you can just jump in and try different jobs and maybe you’ll get lucky. Typically, that doesn’t happen. Most people just get tired and burnt out.
Develop a plan
When setting career goals, it’s not just about the what, it’s also about the how and the when. Designing an action plan with benchmarks based on the requirements of the new role is the essential next step. That plan must include a realistic timeline and understanding of what will be required in terms of time and financial investment in order to be practical and achievable.
Not everyone is looking to completely change careers. Some want to excel in the career they’re already in, others have found an organization that is a great cultural fit, but may be looking to expand their area of expertise or pivot their careers to a new area. All of these scenarios require some upfront thought and planning.
Planning for widening your sphere of influence
A great number of people are currently in careers and aren’t sure of where those careers are leading. There are no mentors and no one to lead the way. They’re feeling like they’ve hit a dead end and they don’t know why.
If you’re well-established in your role and looking for challenges, take a look outside of your department or functional area for special projects or assignments that might have a larger corporate focus. Look for opportunities to job shadow and be mentored by someone in another area of the company. Any of these experiences could be a springboard for you to make an internal move. At the very least, collaboration in cross-functional projects will give you greater visibility to senior leaders with whom you would not necessarily interact. Ultimately, if there is a promotional opportunity, you have established an edge over the competition because you know how the company works.
Even if you don’t have visibility into cross-functional opportunities, find ways to be a superstar in your day job and look for performance enhancement projects within your department. Start thinking about a few projects or ideas you can present to your boss. In the spirit of planning, be sure you’ve done your research and can make a business case for your ideas. If you can tie your project to reducing expenses, helping the company to perform at a higher level, or grow revenues, you will be touching on the magic keys that will unlock your boss’s mind and maybe open doors you hadn’t expected.
Again, going above and beyond your expected job description gives you a different kind of visibility. It shows that you are a problem solver. Managers are used to people bringing problems to them and rarely see people who can see the business from a larger perspective and deliver suggestions for opportunities.
The methodical approach to career development
Very often, knowing the right things to do to advance your own career and then taking a methodical approach to discovery, research, and planning is a bit like going on a diet. In the beginning, people are enthused, but when they realize that the steps required to achieve their goals can be somewhat routine and challenging. When they realize that an efficient process takes a lot of discipline and follow-through, they start slacking. Like dieting, it takes some rigor and discipline to realize your loftier goals. However, if you approach it with determination and resiliency, career growth change is possible. It’s a choice. The result of the choice to invest in yourself: A tremendously fulfilling career.