If you were going on a holiday, you’d plan where to go, how to get around and the budget required for your adventure. If you were building a house, you’d make sure that all the materials were available, that the process was safe, and that you had somewhere to stay while construction took place. These things take just a fraction of the time that your career does, so why wouldn’t you have a plan in place for that?

Career planning is an important, but often overlooked part of professional life. It’s a process that helps map out not just goals, but the steps, skills and even people required to help you get there. Career planning should occur at all stages of your career, no matter what industry you’re in, or the seniority of your role. Your career plan is also just that so make it reflect your professional aspirations and ambitions.

Here are some general tips to get your planning started:

Do your research

Study people you admire in your field. Maybe their well-known and live overseas, or they might just sit across the desk from you. Whatever the case, work out how they got where they wanted to be. Do they have any advice for writing a career plan? Seek out as much information as possible and borrow parts of their career plan that suit you most.

Be specific

Big, lofty goals - despite maybe being impressive on paper - are generally the hardest to achieve. Smaller, specific goals allow you to set targets that are achievable, and identify the steps required to achieve them. It also means you’ll be celebrating wins more often, helping propel you through more challenging periods and remind you that you’re on track.

Be adaptable

This is a critical part of career planning. While having something clear and structured will steer you in the right direction, following it too dogmatically may mean you miss opportunities that arise on the way. Be open to making modifications to your career plan as different situations demand. Check in regularly with your colleagues and senior leaders, or a mentor if you have one. How do they feel you’re tracking? Is there more that could be done or change required? Being flexible will keep you on track, as well as always open to new possibilities.

The magic number for career planning is five

Planning for a five-year period is ideal because it’s long enough to surpass short-term goals and achieve something significant, without being so long as to be unimaginable or difficult to adhere to. When writing your five-year career plan, ensure it contains the following:

1. The goals

Start with something specific and ambitious. Don’t be afraid to shoot for the stars, but be clear about what it is, considering your skillset, network, personality type and learning style. It’s also worth considering what you’re not willing to do. For example, if you have a family, then maybe you’re not best-suited to the long hours and stress often associated with a CEO’s job.

Here are some examples of good and bad goals:

  • Good: I want to have specialist knowledge of HTML, CSS, JavaScript and API integration systems and be managing a training team who provide exceptional support to clients
  • Bad: I want to know more about IT and become a manager in my department
  • Good: My goal is to move from an assistant to managerial role in five years. I want to be renowned in my industry for running efficient, environmentally-sound offices
  • Bad: I would like to reduce paper use in the office and take on more responsibility
  • Good: I will secure a more diverse financial portfolio in innovative ways. My goal is to increase our profit margin by 10% and be considered central to our award-winning reputation
  • Bad: I want more clients so I can increase my annual net profit. I want to do this in an original way

2. The strategy

This is a process of breaking the bigger, more final goals into smaller achievable tasks. If you need to participate in training to further your skills, find out where this happens, how much it costs and how you enrol. Maybe a mentor would help? Then specify what is required to find the best mentor and work most productively with them.

3. Write it down

Pin it on a board, have it in a drawer, save to your desktop. Whatever it’s written on (although we say the more places the better!), refer to it often to remind yourself of how concrete this plan is, and how determined you are to get there. Add notes and make annotations when new ideas arise, when strategies are in place and working well, or when you achieve something.

Above all, career planning should be a constant exercise of learning to take advantage of opportunities that arise throughout your professional life. Careering planning should be a process that helps you see the maximum potential of situations, not limit it.

Take a look at our career development hub for more career tips and advice.

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