In preparation to remodel our basement, I have spent hours going through and cleaning out cardboard boxes of old papers, books, and memorabilia from childhood that is currently in storage. My mom saved many mementos: school programs, report cards, newspaper clippings, photos, and cards that document the first 22 years of my life. While most of the items brought back fun memories, I was pleasantly surprised to find a personal career plan that I created in high school. I had forgotten about the exercise until I read through it and vaguely remembered putting it together in a life skills class. (Side note: While that class was the most practical I have ever taken, at the time, I thought it was pointless. The 17-year-old version of me said, “what did I need ‘life skills’ for? I was going to college and would have a fabulous career naturally unfold.” Youth).
What was most interesting to me was how relevant my plan was to my early college and internship decisions. While I may have forgotten about it during the past 10 years, I looking at it now, I saw how it served as a guidepost to me in the early professional decisions I made as it related to college selection, majors, and internships.
I wish I could say that I continued creating or updating a career plan during college; however, my previous thought pattern about the unnecessity of a detailed, well-thought-out plan ruled. In college, my “career plan” morphed into securing a job that was impressive, prestigious, and paid well. Needless to say, I lacked some focus and maturity. After starting off in consulting and thinking that this would be the fulfillment of my career dreams, with the ultimate goal of being the youngest partner at the firm and retiring at 50 years old, I found myself unemployed in 2009 during the recession. Out of necessity, I decided to be more intentional about my career plan.
During my unemployment, I treated career planning and job searching like a full-time job. From networking everywhere I went to researching graduate programs in business and law along with the related job prospects, to meeting with any professional who would give me 30 minutes to ask questions about their career and allow me the opportunity to share my story, I spent three months hyper-focused not only on getting a job, but on getting the right job that would put me on a career path that aligned with my interests and values.
I found that career planning has two parts. The first is understanding who you are, what makes you tick, and the kind of work environment you thrive in so that you can focus your college studies or job search on industries companies and jobs where you can give the most and do so with joy and fulfillment. In my experience, finding the right work environment is a big part of the difference between a job and a vocation. A job is work that you have to do, a vocation is the fulfillment of a calling. When I hire people, I always want to find people who feel like the job is fulfilling a calling or greater purpose for them. While a vocation does not mean that every day will be perfect, it does create a sense of purpose for people and allows people and the organization to thrive.
Your work environment can be things like being in a creative or technical field, working mostly with a team or working in isolation, being based in one office or traveling, operating in ambiguity or in a black and white environment, or working in a particular industry that holds a unique interest for you. For example, when I interviewed Michelle McClay (link), she shared how she was interested in healthcare from a young age and wanted to be a doctor. When she decided not to pursue medical school, she transitioned to healthcare administration and now works in the healthcare industry in a non-clinical role.
The second part of career planning is a more specific and practical application of your answers above as it relates to specific jobs, evaluating specific companies and job opportunities related to your answers. For example, toward the end of my unemployment I was fortunate to receive four job offers all within a 24 hour span, which was nothing short of miraculous after months of failure. Having multiple options to choose from, with roles that were quite different, prompted me to find an objective way to evaluate each opportunity. Emotionally, there was one job I wanted because it allowed me to remain in Cincinnati and closer to family, but the growth potential and stability were lacking. I felt that I needed better criteria than emotion.
Instead, I created a job assessment grid in Excel, writing down the attributes of my career that were important to me in a column, and the four companies in a row across the top. I weighted each attribute based on how important it was to me, gave each company a score for each attribute, and calculated the overall score for each company to see which came out on top.
My attributes ranged from quantitative (e.g. compensation, benefits, and bonus potential) to qualitative (e.g. growth opportunities, learning and mentoring, organizational stability) to descriptive (geography, industry, type of work I would do). While I hesitated to move too far from Ohio, this exercise showed me that the best opportunity based on my criteria was to move to St. Louis for an opportunity in healthcare because of the growth opportunities, learning and mentoring, and organizational stability. As a startup within a larger organization it was a bit of a risk, but less so than the smaller firm on my list. And while it was not the most financially lucrative, it held the most long-term financial promise.
Looking at my options objectively helped me make the right choice for my career. While it was not an easy choice due to the location, it was a career move that aligned with my values and would put me on the long-term career path that I wanted.
While I unfortunately no longer have my original spreadsheet (my old ThinkPad died years ago), I recreated a career planning template that you can download and use to start creating your own career plan. There are fields already created as well as customizable areas so you can adjust it to meet your needs.
You may find that you update your career plan over time as the things you value in a job change. When I was a new graduate learning and growth were the most important things. After getting married and having kids, flexibility and work/life balance have been more important. I have been able to find these values in one organization by taking different roles that align with my values. In five or six years, I anticipate my values will change again as I will be in a different phase of life. Career planning allows you to prepare for these seasons of life and find roles and organizations where you can both thrive individually and in turn give your best self to the company.