It's January, and the usual crop of trite 'New year, new you' articles pops up in newspapers, magazines and on the telly. Now, we know that you, dear MT reader, are a bit too canny to be taken in by all this prescriptive (and largely worthless) advice. But that's not to say that the coming of a new year doesn't give us cause to reflect on the past 12 months and to consider our ambitions, hopes and expectations for the year to come. After all, without a goal, how can you judge your progress?
In our uncertain economic climate, planning for multiple possible outcomes is at least as valuable for your own personal development as it is for that of the business you are in. So, if you haven't already, now is the time to get your own personal 2011 strategic plan (and, unlike M&S, a plan B, even a plan C too).
We've canvassed some of the UK's most experienced career experts for their advice on the questions to ask yourself as you formulate your one-year plan. Think of it as akin to planning your first 100 days in office - if you had a blank slate, what would you want to achieve, what would you like to improve, and what tools do you need to do it?
Although our experts suggested different questions, there was one thing on which all were agreed - more than ever it's up to individuals to shape their own careers, rather than waiting for a push from bosses or HR. So, whatever your goals, here are eight questions to help you map your strategy for the coming months.
1. What would I like to be the same, and to be different, in 12 months' time?
Although all our experts suggested different questions, there was one theme that most of them touched on in one way or another. It's basically an invitation to consider what you enjoy about your job and what you could do without. So, how to start? Octavius Black, global managing director of the Mind Gym, recommends sitting down at the kitchen table, opening a bottle of wine, and asking yourself a series of questions - for example, how are my talents being used? How fulfilled am I? How has my work environment changed? Do I want to remain with my present company? Do my colleagues motivate and stimulate me? Is there room for learning and promotion? No areas are off-limits; your answers will form the basis of your masterplan for the coming year.
Consider how you feel when you tell people where you work. Your emotions of pride or misery are a giveaway about how you feel about your job and whether it's time to change.
Chart your career to date. On the horizontal axis, plot each job you've held. Use the vertical axis to plot your levels of happiness and fulfilment in each job, from zero to 10. Where were you happiest and most fulfilled? What was it about that job that brought out the best in you? And can you recreate those factors in your current role?
Write down your goals. Black believes that they're more likely to happen if you've made a written record. Review your progress. Make a commitment to revisit your document every three months. It's fine to change any goals, but, again, write it down. It shows you've made a conscious decision to change something in your career.
2. What can I control and influence?
After looking at the big picture, it's time to focus on the detail. According to Jessica Pryce-Jones, CEO of human asset management consultancy iOpener, and author of Happiness at Work (Wiley-Blackwell), if we're not enjoying work, we can mistakenly think that we need to change everything. Yet often a few small tweaks can have a big impact on our motivation and fulfilment. It pays to 'look down and concentrate', says Pryce-Jones. 'Even if you do have a big vision, such as a goal to be on the board of a FTSE 100 company, you're not going to achieve it in 12 months. You need to think about the smaller steps to take in the meantime. Often if you can just get a little more of what you want, that's enough,' she says.
Identify the small changes which are within your control and that would make a big difference. Perhaps there are colleagues who bring out the best in you - can you find a way to work alongside them more regularly?
Identify differing pathways to your goal. The late professor of psychology CR Snyder recommended that in order to do something different, you need five different pathways to get you going. If one pathway fails, you just try another. For example, says Pryce-Jones, if your vision is to be CEO of a big company, your pathways might include: what CEOs can I talk to to find out how they got there? Who needs to know about me? How will I network? How will I act on any feedback? What additional experience might I need?
Evaluate your motivation. As well as pathways, you need 'willways' to succeed. Decide how willing you are to try each of your pathways. Ideally, your motivation should score about seven out of 10 before you even start. If it's lower than that, come up with another pathway, or find a way to boost your motivation.
3. Am I working on the things that matter to my company?
Now that we're all doing more work with fewer resources, it's easy to get caught up in ongoing projects, rather than looking ahead. But, says John Lees, career strategist and author of How to Get a Job You'll Love (McGraw-Hill), religiously doing everything your boss has asked is often not enough, particularly if you're aiming for promotion. Focusing on the here and now means you risk being left behind as your company's attention moves toward the next new thing. Instead, keep a sharp eye on where your firm, and indeed your industry, is heading. If it seems that your organisation is diverting resources to a new, hot area, think how you can get involved. You don't need to have an exact skills match, but you do need to show that you're willing to step up.
Keep up with company and industry news. Read emails and announcements from senior staff and the intranet or newsletter, if you have one. Scour the trade press and the internet for clues. What is the company keen to boast about? Where is it deploying its resources? What are the key trends across the industry?
Look creatively at your CV. How might your past and current skills and experience be adapted to present needs?
Remember, it's about visibility, rather than sustained performance. If your skills aren't directly relevant to new trends, don't panic. Instead, consider other ways to be involved - perhaps volunteering for a committee or offering support to key staff. The trick is to be seen to have an understanding of where your company is going and to show that you're on board.
4. Do I want to break new ground, or have a re-run of last year?
If your job has been stuck on replay for the past few years, there's a risk that you'll lose traction, start to feel jaded and get overlooked by your employers. Branching out is a chance to refresh yourself and update your skills. An alternative way to look at this question, says Peter Shaw, executive coach at Praesta Partners and author of Defining Moments (Palgrave Macmillan), is to ask 'where can I best widen my comfort zone?'. 'You don't need to do something utterly different, but you may have to widen your repertoire and perhaps accept a degree of discomfort,' says Shaw. The prize is enhanced confidence and visibility and new skills. If, however, you've had a frenetic couple of years and you'd like some time to consolidate, that's fine too. But be aware, says John Lees, that the organisation may eventually write you off as no longer cutting edge, and you risk becoming bored and cynical. The solution is to set a time limit on how long you'll wait before you take on the next challenge.
Where would you most like to gain experience? Consider what holes need plugging in your CV and think creatively about where in your company you can gain those skills.
Get feedback. Find out how others thought you did when you stretched yourself. Shaw recommends keeping a note of positive feedback to refer to when you need a boost.
Reflect. Look back on when you took a risk and discuss it or write it down. The very process of articulating it helps to crystallise it in your mind, says Shaw. Again, it's useful information for the next time you decide to step up.
5. How does my organisation see me?
Your reputation influences your chances of a promotion or pay rise and affects what projects you are offered, as well as how you are treated by colleagues, managers and direct reports. Yet it's often something we're reluctant to address. Lees says it's not an issue you can afford to second-guess - you need to know how senior decision-makers react when your name comes up. 'Staff get pigeonholed very quickly and very easily,' he says. 'The problem is that you might be seen as a safe pair of hands because of the way you dealt with a particular project, while you believe that your skills lie in the direction of idea generation, for example.' If you know what is said about you, you can go about amending or improving what others think. Sander Marcus, a clinical psychologist who works with companies and individuals at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, highlights an even more pressing reason to know what others say about you: 'When companies restructure or downsize, if they're smart, they do it on the basis of who contributes most to the bottom line. But those at the top don't always know who this is.' It is your job to ensure that your contribution and value are recognised, at all levels.
Broaden your network. Do this honestly, says Lees; don't pretend to be pals with people. 'Say that you would like their advice - it's rarely a request that is turned down.'
Find a couple of 'critical friends' to give you feedback - and make sure at least one is fairly senior. 'You don't want people who are destructive, or who will just say everything is fine,' says Lees. 'They need to be honest about what sort of person you're seen as.'
Lend a hand. 'If you find information that might be helpful to people in a different department, email it to them,' says Marcus.
6. What's my profile outside my company?
Your reputation isn't confined to your workplace - and it can exert a powerful influence if you're planning to look for a new job. 'If your name comes up in another organisation, what information is exchanged about you?' asks Lees. 'That's how the hidden job market operates. When your name crops up, the people in that room aren't going to be looking at your CV or remembering one hundred facts about you. It's the headline stuff that will be discussed, like attitude, skills and knowledge. It's your job to shape what they are.' Potential employers won't just trade adjectives, such as 'can-do' or 'enthusiastic'. Instead, they're likely to say you've had 'experience of X, worked with Y and achieved Z'. These are the things to broadcast to others, ahead of any career move. 'If you do this well, it could mean job offers are coming in before you even start applying for a job,' says Lees.
Make a comprehensive list of your strengths and achievements. Imagine you're applying for a job - what would you highlight? Be specific about what you've worked on and achieved. This will be useful when it's time to update your CV and for the next point.
Do your own brand management. List achievements on your LinkedIn page, or on your own website if you have one. What would you want an employer to see if it looked you up?
Network. (Sorry, but it has to be done.) Talk to people inside and outside your company about who you've worked with, what you've achieved and what you've managed. 'Most of us aren't born schmoozers, we look at that kind of activity a little askance,' says Marcus. 'But you have to establish relationships before you need them. So many people isolate themselves in their office and don't network. Then when they realise they ought to, they've left it too late.'
7. Do I want my boss's job?
Perhaps the most obvious career progression is to take over your boss's role, now or further in the future. But, says Lees, it's limiting to think that this is the only direction in which you can move. There are also the obvious lateral shifts, such as moving to another team, department, company, or even another country. This question has value because it forces you to consider what you want to do next. It also enables you to 'self-mentor' and develop. For example, says Lees, if you don't think you want your boss's job, the next question is 'why?' Do you lack confidence? Are there parts of it you don't think you could do? If so, what are they, and how might you boost your experience and confidence in these areas? Do you need to work in another part of the company first? The question also enables you to isolate what you do enjoy and are good at in your current job.
Consider what further experience you need in order to step into your boss's job with confidence. How can you plug gaps in your knowledge or training? Start to do this now and you may answer the question very differently in 12 months' time.
If you don't want your boss's job, what else can you do to ensure that you continue to learn and make progress over the coming years? Do you need to make a lateral move instead?
If the job comes up, consider going for it anyway, says Lees. 'When people apply for promotion, they often get turned down on the first attempt, but you've raised a flag that tells your organisation that you've got potential. For that reason, it can be worth applying.'
8. What would I like my legacy to be?
This question comes from Patricia Hodgins, an executive coach and the programme director of Proteus, London Business School's leadership programme for senior executives. 'If we map out the ages and stages of a career, there comes a time when people start to talk about their legacy, impact or imprint; what they have taken away from their careers and what they are giving back,' says Hodgins. It's a recognition that your story has some length to it, that it's not just about the here and now or the bottom line. However, legacy doesn't just have to apply to those nearing the peak of their careers - it's important to anyone craving some meaning and purpose, stretching outside the organisation into the wider world.
Look inside your company. What structures can you create that matter to you and that will have a lasting, positive impact? Could you set up a company-wide mentoring scheme, or a sponsorship programme? Or maybe you can encourage your organisation to create a more eco-friendly office.
Investigate your local community. Many businesses benefit from sharing skills, knowledge or resources with a local charity, school or community project. What opportunities exist nearby for your business, and how can you get involved?
Go it alone. Your legacy or sense of purpose doesn't have to be rooted in your organisation. Consider whether you'd like to volunteer for an organisation or project outside work. Recognise that many charities offer excellent training, so you'll be gaining solid skills that you can also use in the workplace.