Are you headed for a Career Crash?

I often use driving a car to illustrate the job search process with candidates. Let’s imagine your career is a coast to coast road trip. There are many stops along the way; some occasional side roads, hills to climb, valleys to navigate and even some bad weather here and there. Are you following me? Fun, huh?

Sometimes your job search is like navigating downtown Chicago – full of unexpected surprises and no real sense of direction. It’s important to stay focused on the road and not get distracted – otherwise you’ll miss your exit, or worse, crash!

Much like the moves you make while driving your car, each step you take in your career needs to be with a purpose in mind. The purpose can change throughout your lifetime, but you need to know where you want to end up.

There was a time in my career, when my kids were small, when I needed to have a job that didn’t zap every ounce of my energy – that way I had some left for the toddlers who were going to greet me at the end of the day. Then there was a time when I needed to make sure I was earning a bunch of money because those toddlers were teenagers and needed an education. My job search at each of these junctions required different strategies because I had a different purpose in mind. The only reason I did not get lost in unfamiliar territory during these career changes is because I had established the direction I wanted to head and the desired outcome prior to launching a search. So, how do you do that?

1. Pick your ultimate destination. This will either be the easiest step or the hardest. Some of you may know where you want to end up in your career, and have a clearly defined path for getting there. CFO, for instance, has a rather linear path with prerequisites that need to be accomplished at each stage. Fortune 500 CEO on the other hand has multiple paths, and some winding roads to follow along the way. In any case, pick your desired destination so you have a target.

2. Define your Happy Path. Lay out the absolute best case scenario for getting from where you are today to your ultimate destination. No bumps, interruptions or errors along the way.

3. Have a Plan B. Create several alternative paths. What if you don’t get into business school when you want to? What if you must move back to your hometown to take care of your aging parents for 5 years? What if your honor student doesn’t get the scholarships you are counting on? Map your alternatives on a timeline so you can see that the destination is still attainable. If you skip this step then every time you run into an unexpected life event you risk derailing your entire career. Don’t let this happen!

4. Outline your search objectives. For each leg of your career journey you should write down your objectives. These will change. For instance, cash may be more important when you are saving to buy your first home, while flexibility is more important when you have young children. You should have 3-5 criteria for what you need from a particular job defined prior to launching a search.

5. Stay focused. The reason you need to write your objectives down is so that you will not be distracted by things happening in your peripheral vision. There is something emotional that happens during a job search that can lead you astray if you are not focused on what you really want. Every great interview you have seems to be your new most amazing job, even when it doesn’t satisfy any of your objectives. Make sure to evaluate every opportunity based on your objectives – not based on the emotional high you had when you left the interview.

6. Don’t compromise your values. This is the single biggest mistake that people make in their career. The most experienced professionals will often make a career decision based on what they WANT the position to be, the type of leader they WANT to believe their manager will be, the culture that they WANT to see during the interview – not what really IS These decisions are often made using “rose-colored glasses.” Take a hard look at what is actually being offered and see if it is a good fit “as is.” If you believe that a misalignment between your personal values and the company’s values will magically disappear once you take the job, you are going to be very disappointed.

7. Go the distance. If you’ve been deliberate about steps 1 thru 6 then you’re ready to commit. Now, the early weeks in a new position may scare you a bit. Keep in mind that you and your new company have been in courtship up to this point. Once you get in the door it may feel a little like a let-down. This is most likely you coming down off your emotional high, and nothing more. You should settle into the team and the groove in a couple of months – so don’t freak out and make a U-turn! Stay on course with this leg of your journey and keep your objectives in mind.

8. Remap your path regularly. If you’ve done a good job of mapping your path and your alternatives then it’s easy to review and adjust the plan annually. This process will help you stay true to your path and focus on strategic career planning, and (oh, and this is the best part) people who do this are happier and earn more over their lifetime than those who do not.

Strategic career planning doesn’t have to be stiff or mechanical. You can have fun and also proceed with purpose. Sometimes you might even take a side road for a few years – but do so with your ultimate destination in your sights so that you can find the main road again when you are ready for it.

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