Over the weekend, my Facebook feed was full of posts and pictures from proud friends and family attending graduations. These events are not only full of pomp and circumstance, but also full of hope and optimism. For the graduates, that great careers lie ahead in their chosen fields. For the parents, that their emotional (and financial) investment will pay off in happiness and security for their offspring.
The photo here is of me and my proud mother on my graduation day at Middlebury College in 1978. By that day, I’d already taken a very hard knock on my dream – which was to attend medical school. Graduation was bittersweet – an accomplishment and a disappointment. I didn’t get into any of the American schools I applied to, so I had to come up with a different plan.
I was recently asked to contribute to a career advice article in Business News Daily. For anybody who’s worked for a living for a while, you know that dreams come true through (mostly) hard work and some luck. And your dreams will change over time, due to circumstances and your own self awareness. For the new graduates out there, as well as anybody thinking about their next career step, here are 4 rules that have stood me well during a 36 year career.
1. You are responsible for planning the path to your dream job.
You are responsible for managing your career – not the boss, not the mentors, not the career services office at the school you attended – you. You need to articulate what success means to you – including the aspects of your life outside of the job. Before you can chase that dream job, you need to write your personal vision statement, making it as detailed as possible. If having the flexibility to work remotely or attend your child’s soccer games is a priority, it should be incorporated into your career planning. Only once you have a clear vision of where you want to be in the next 1-5-20 years, can you construct a roadmap to get there
2. Building a career map requires work.
- First, you need to identify the skills and experiences required for success in your dream job. These may include academic degrees, certifications, organizational experiences, tenure in certain roles, etc. that are non-negotiable.
- Use publicly available sources of information to broaden your understanding of what it will take to be successful in your desired field: professional organizations and publications, social media forums, company websites, etc.
- Talk to people who are working in the field and (ideally) doing the job you covet in order to educate yourself about what it will take to get there. Use your personal network to identify contacts for informational interviews. Social media channels like LinkedIn and twitter can be extremely helpful in connecting you with people who can help you determine your path.
- When you network with people, ask lots of open ended questions. Most people like to talk about themselves. These informational conversations are your opportunity to make sure that you understand the rewards AND the costs of performing that role. Every job has its highs and lows.
- As you add people to your network, ask them if you can check in once in a while to update them on your progress. This helps you build a “board of advisors” who can help you grow over time. And make sure that you’re also thinking about how to help them over time. Reciprocity is key to keeping these business connections alive. You may not be in a position to provide somebody with business advice, but you may be able to help them get their child a summer job.
- Do your own cost-benefit analysis, incorporating the on- and off-the-job consequences of achieving your desired role. Be ready to revise your plan as time goes on and your priorities change.
3. Sometimes you have to change your plan.
Not everybody aspires to the corner office, but many people aspire to something different or better than the job they currently hold. One of the downsides of mastering your current job is that it can become monotonous when it is no longer challenging for you to meet your objectives. When considering a professional change, the best first question to ask is “Am I running toward something or away from something?” If it’s the former, go for it. If it’s the latter, the change you need to make may just be a change in department, manager or company, not your current career track. This is the time to revisit #1 and #2 above. Revisit your career map and adjust your strategy accordingly.
4. Chance favors the prepared mind.
This is a quote from Louis Pasteur that I have always loved. Successful people create their own luck by putting themselves in the direct path of opportunity. Knowledge (about your organization, customers, products and market) is power. Actively managing your network keeps your name front and center with people who can help you. The more diverse your knowledge and experiences, the better prepared you’ll be to take advantage of opportunities that come your way. While there are few absolutes in career planning, every successful person I’ve met thinks more broadly about his or her job than just the role and objectives immediately in front of them.