How to set career goals
How to set career goals
Career planning is essential to achieving satisfaction and success in your chosen career. Whether you are aiming to be a contracts administrator in a small construction firm or the finance director of a multi-national corporation, knowing how to set career goals and defining what is required to get there will help you to achieve your ambitions.
Career planning is a basic, yet key principle used in business by successful people. So why not apply the same principles to managing your career by formulating a career development plan to control your direction?
Our suggestions below will assist you with setting your career goals and writing a career plan with clear, actionable objectives:
What is a career goal?
A career goal is a clear statement that defines the ultimate job you aspire to throughout the course of your career. Provided it is realistic, a clear career goal allows you to then set yourself an action plan, or personal development plan, to work towards to achieve your professional ambitions.
7 steps to set and achieve career goals
To help you achieve your ultimate career ambition, there are several steps you need to take along the way. From determining and defining your end objective, to plotting a personal development plan of action to ensure you get there, smart management of your career takes more than just motivation – it takes careful planning.
1. Explore the possibilities
You may be someone who has known for a very long time exactly what occupation you aspire to. Or perhaps you have several careers in mind with no clear understanding of which one is best for you. Either way, the initial step in formulating a career plan involves exploring in more detail the occupation/s that interest you and ensuring you are comfortable with the reality of your options.
To do this, research and explore your occupational preference/s to determine the qualifications, typical career paths and specific skills required.
- What training and qualifications are required to enter the occupation/s?
- What skills and interests are required to succeed in the occupation/s?
- How do my skills and interests match up? Where are the gaps?
- What do I find particularly inspiring about the occupation/s?
- What training, support and resources could I expect to receive? Will these help or quicken my success?
- What is the typical work environment like?
- What are the standard responsibilities?
- What advancement opportunities are available?
- Where is the work located?
- What is the typical salary?
- What level of work-life balance is achievable?
At the end of this step you will have greater insight into your identified occupation/s.
2. Compare options
The next step involves comparing your options to narrow down your choices. Ask yourself:
- What occupation suits me best and will satisfy my professional and personal ambitions?
- What occupation best matches my skills, interests and values?
- What occupation is likely to be in greatest demand by employers in the future?
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of each option?
- In which occupation can I achieve my desired salary and work-life balance?
- Which occupation can I picture myself doing day-in, day-out?
When considering these questions, objectively think about what is required to succeed in each job. What weaknesses would you need to overcome to succeed? What strengths would see you thrive?
Also consider if each job feels like the right ‘fit’ for you.
At the end of this step you will have narrowed down your options and identified the one occupation that you ultimately aspire to.
From this, you can define what you want to achieve in this chosen profession. Write this goal down so that you can then devise an action plan to achieve it. For example, “In 15 years’ time, I want to be the financial controller of a large commercial organisation”.
Writing down your goal gives you a clearer direction and focuses you on the big picture of what you ultimately want to achieve in your professional life. Our Career Goal Planner contains a template to help you plot this out.
The process of setting career goals isn’t over though once you have defined your end-game. For it to become a reality, you must then plot a plan of action, or a personal development plan, to ensure help you achieve the goal you’ve set for yourself.
3. Establish short-term goals
That’s why the third step involves creating a set of short-term actions that will start you down the path towards your career objective. Focus on what you need to achieve in the next three to five years or so, specifically in the areas of:
- Learning: To enter or progress in your preferred occupation, do you need to earn certain qualifications? If so, what courses should you consider?
- Experience: What experience do you need to acquire to become a suitable candidate for your next promotion or to gain your first entry-level role in this field?
- Skills development: What specific skills should you develop to make yourself a suitable candidate for your next promotion?
- Ideal next job: What role represents the next sensible step towards achieving your career goal?
- Professional membership: Would professional membership aid your career advancement?
Before answering these questions, it’s worth reviewing job descriptions for the next role you aspire to. This will highlight any skills or competencies that you need to focus on developing in your current role before you commence your next jobs search.
4. Establish long-term objectives
Once these short-term objectives are in place, you need to the next step in career planning involves turning your attention to longer-term planning objectives. Plot out a realistic career progression pathway that defines the jobs and their increasing level of skills, responsibilities and seniority that will allow you to reach your goal. This is essentially your roadmap for how you are going to advance your career to get to your ultimate end goal.
Before you can chart your course towards your future, most people need to research typical career pathways in their field. To do this, you can talk to a recruiter to understand the typical career paths for the role you aspire to. You can also reach out to any LinkedIn connections who are on the pathway you aspire to. Your mentor can also provide useful insights, as can a review of relevant job descriptions.
Based upon your research, you can plot your longer term career pathway and the specific jobs you’ll need to advance through. For each job define:
- Technical skills to acquire: This covers the specific learned abilities you’ll need to pick up and use in each role.
- Soft skills to cultivate: Identify the non-technical skills related to how you work that you’ll need to develop in this role, such as teamwork, networking, conflict resolution or adaptability.
- Competencies to learn: List the knowledge and behaviours you need to acquire in this job, such as commercial awareness, negotiation or conflict management. If you aren’t sure of the differences between technical skills, soft skills and competencies, this breakdown will help.
- Specific experience to gain: What precise experience should you gain and what successes and achievements will allow you to quantify this experience to future employers?
- Personal or professional development: How can you personally and professionally grow in this role? For example, could you participate in a professional membership body, undertake accreditation or upskill in new technology?
- Ideal length of tenure: How long do you need to spend in this role to develop the necessary expertise and experience to become promotion-ready?
At the end of this step you will have set out the career progression pathway you need to take to get you from where you are today to where you ultimately want to be. Again, our Career Goal Planner contains a template to help you set this out.
5. Write SMARTER career goals
When formulating your action plan, remember to set clearly defined, short objectives you can work towards. To do this, the SMARTER system can be useful:
- Specific - Be as clear as you can and avoid ambiguous statements.
- Measurable - Quantify what you must achieve.
- Achievable - Motivate yourself but also keep your goals reachable.
- Realistic - Be reasonable and focus keep your goals attainable so progress is attainable.
- Timely - Create timeframes for completing steps.
- Empowering - Ensure your goals feel right for you and help you make the changes you want.
- Reviewable - Keep your goals flexible so you can adjust to changing market conditions.
6. Be flexible and measure your progress
Finally, be flexible. Your priorities and objectives can be altered or amended over time, either because of your own changing personal circumstances or due to external factors outside your control, such as technological innovations or fluctuations in the skills employers require.
Therefore, check in from time to time to make sure your goals are is still achievable and your short and long-term objectives remain realistic. If they aren’t, tweak your plan accordingly to keep you on track.
As part of this review, make sure you measure your progress. Congratulate yourself for achievements you are particularly proud of.
You should also use this time to identify any areas where you are falling behind and then allocate time in your schedule to dedicate to improvements. Consider if you require any support to make these improvements, such as from a mentor or by enrolling in a training course. Stretch opportunities in your existing role are another way of developing skills. Read more upskilling tips.
Whether you complete a monthly, quarterly or bi-annual review, make sure you schedule it in your calendar as a recurring meeting. Do not cancel this appointment when it comes around. Instead, use it as a genuine opportunity for self-reflection.
7. Write down your goals
Career planning or goal setting will only achieve its purpose if you follow the path you have planned. This means it is important to write down your career goals.
The process of putting pen to paper allows you to keep a clear focus, identify achievements and make any necessary alterations as and when required. Imagine you are planning an overseas trip – think about how much time and energy you would devote to it. Your career will probably span the next thirty years of your life and it deserves just as much focused planning, if not more.
What if you are still unsure?
If you are unable to identify a specific occupation of interest, you may like to start with a broad initial career goal. As you gain more experience in your current field, plans will begin to solidify in your mind and you’ll either decide this is the right path for you, or you’ll want to explore alternative options. Until then, it’s perfectly acceptable to consider more than one idea and keep your options open.
In this case, you can begin to prepare yourself for all possible options goals, and over time you should find yourself becoming more focused on one particular area. Once this happens, you can define for yourself a more focused career goal and actionable personal development plan objectives.
So long as you approach your career planning with the right attitude, the experience you gain will help solidify your plans. Keep up your enthusiasm, which will make your personal and professional experiences more enjoyable and satisfying. Remember, nothing great was ever accomplished without enthusiasm!