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Soft Skillz: Annual Career Introspection


I often give a talk called “Soft Skillz: They aren’t just for humans anymore”. It focuses on many of the lessons I have learned over my career. Such topics as how to speak to humans, how to read body language, and how to manage your own career.

If you aren’t happy with where you are in your career, then you only have yourself to blame. Your career is something you need to actively manage. When you are taking a new job, it should only be because it fits into your plan for your career, never for money. To avoid any money related problems in the search for a new job, you should already know if you want a positions BEFORE they offer it to you. At that point, if you KNOW it supports your career plan, and is a company you can feel at home for a while, then you know it is a job you should possibly take. Of course, the actual job offer and it’s details must work out logically for it all to make sense (which is a whole other blog post).

There is a very simple process that you can use to make sure your career stays on track. It only has a few steps.

    1. Perform an annual career introspective review.
    2. Set you career goals. Outward then inward.
    3. Setup a plan to accomplish #2.
    4. Sign up for another year.
    5. Go back to step #1.

I follow this process on an annual timeline. I usually do step one during that week that no work gets done (between the holidays and New Years).

Step 1. Perform an annual career introspective review.

Take a whole day out of your life to sit down, and quietly think of your career for the past year. This will of course encompass your job, but it isn’t limited to just that. You want to think about your role at your job, what you have done to learn, the people you have met, and how the changing world of technology has impacted you, your job, and your career. Things that always stick out in my head are things like:

  1. Did I have opportunities to learn? Did I take advantage of them?
  2. Who and what had an impact on me?
  3. Who and what did I have an impact on?
  4. Are my 5/3/1 year goals any different?
  5. Does my J-O-B still support my career plan and goals?

I can’t answer these questions for you. Only you can. At this point, don’t worry about the economy, or factors like ‘stability’ in your company. This isn’t what that is about. Think of your current job as a vector, and your career path as a second vector. If they are in alignment, all is good. If they aren’t, then you and your employer won’t be happy.

I usually do all of this while playing my XBox 360. Your mileage may vary.

Step 2. Set you career goals. Outward then inward.

Decide what your career goals are. It’s ok, they probably don’t just jump into your mind. Especially if you haven’t been through this process before.

The farther out a goal’s timeline is, the more ambiguous it can be. For example, when I first started at QSI, my two five year goals were:

  1. Build a successful team, and reach a specific revenue target.
  2. Have an impact on the success and growth of my customers.

The first is a bit specific, and the second is fairly broad. I then broke those into one and three year goals. These shorter term goals should, in part, support you in reaching your longer term goal. My one year goals, at that time were:

  1. Win 3 projects, with a total revenue of 250k.
  2. Staff the team with two core members.
  3. Get involved in the community.

Step 3. Setup a plan to accomplish #2.

Come up with a plan to achieve your goals. The first step is to write them down, and put them somewhere where you can see them everyday. THIS IS IMPORTANT. This way, the day to day fire drills you have will not distract you too much from your goals. You need to be reminded of them, to stay on track. I recommend writing them on a 3”x5” story card, and tape it to your monitor (just below the sticky note with your password on it.)

In this ongoing example, my plan involved building a relationship with the sales team (to define our offering, teach the offering to the sales team), go on sales calls to hear how customers respond to the offering, meet existing employees as they rolled off other assignments (to see if they would fit my initial team needs), and get out in the community (go to meetings, volunteer to help in any way needed), and entertain promising team members or potential customers.

There were other steps in this plan, but you get the picture. It’s ok for this plan to change through the year, but your goals should stay constant, unless there is some major upheaval in what is going on. Don’t change your plan willy-nilly. It is very easy to lose your momentum in what you are doing, and you want the feeling of getting something done. This isn’t software, so your plan doesn’t have to be super agile.

Make sure to take time, and share your new goals and plans with a mentor or two. Don’t ask for their permission, but ask for their input and guidance. You might want to adjust your plans, based on their feedback.

Step 4. Sign up for another year.

Some people worry about their jobs constantly. They are always doing this math in their head, as to whether they should stay, are they happy, etc. This can come and go, based on how things that day or week might be going. But you need to keep the long view in mind when thinking about this. And I find all of this internal debate a huge distraction, and a lot of extra stress.

Something a mentor taught me about five years ago is to ‘sign up for one more year.’

Think about your job, in context with your career, and your plan (see above!). Decide if it still works for what you are trying to achieve, and if it does ‘Sign up for another year.’ In this process, you are committing to this job for another year. During that year, you will no  longer do this math, debate about staying, or actively look for new opportunities. This will remove a huge distraction, and reduce your stress by an amazing amount.

If the job doesn’t line up with where you want to go, then commit to going back to work, and continuing to work hard, but with a mind open to opportunities. It is amazing the opportunities that just drop in your lap when you are mentally open to and prepared for them. In this way, you will still put forth the effort into you job that you should be doing, but positioning yourself for a change. Keep in mind that you might want to start planning for your departure, just in case. Start training your replacement, and make sure all of your responsibilities are covered. This will make your departure smoother.

While you are doing this math, don’t include the ‘grass is greener’ factor, or ‘wart’ factors. ALL jobs have warts. There isn’t one without them. Just make sure they are warts that you can live with.

Step 5. Go back to step #1.

Every year, make sure you take this time, and follow the steps.

Anonymous said...
1/26/2009 02:20:00 AM  
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...
1/27/2009 01:01:00 PM  

Thank you for posting. This is so relevant at a time when 1) a new year can mean an analysis of your life so far 2) so many are being "downsized," "made redundant," or "laid off. Call it what you like, but maybe a career change is in order if your current career focus is unavailable to you.

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