Want a Career Edge in 2013? Carpe Diem

In my last post, I promised some pointers for what to do after you've identified your career goals.

My suggestion is to toss them aside. It may seem to defy career logic, but here's why it works: While our definition of success evolves slowly, the specific steps and goals that get us there can and should change with the circumstances. And circumstances are changing ever more rapidly.

For example, a meaningful goal can quickly turn into a waste of time with a corresponding opportunity cost.

I remember sitting down for my first career-planning session when I got into line management at IBM in the late 1980s. My manager and I carefully mapped out a plan that included various entry-level positions, followed by roles in middle management and then executive management. It all looked pretty good. Then along came the great upheavals of the late '80s and early '90s that stripped away entire layers of middle management.

I found myself with a plan that led to a place that no longer existed. I was trapped in career limbo, until finally I was forced into a role as a system architect. Frankly, that didn't work out very well. But in that role, I attended a conference on software development and learned about project management as a profession. It intrigued me, so I sought out more information about it. 

You see, the system architects on my team were brilliant technologists. But they weren't good at planning their own work. Opportunity! I suggested that perhaps I could add more value in the role of project manager. The rest, is history.

Had I relentlessly pursued the goals outlined in my career plan, I probably wouldn't have survived past 1992. But when serendipity and opportunity intersected, I seized the moment. As a result, I've had a rewarding career, one in which I see myself as successful. (In this regard, my perspective is the only one that counts.)

The moral of the story? Where you will end up in your career 25 years from now may have nothing to do with your grand visions of today.

Here are a few other suggestions to keep you on course but flexible:

  • Keep a short horizon. The further out you plan, the less your actual future will look like your vision of it.
  • Seize the moment. Anticipate serendipity. Plan for it. 
  • Stay aware of what's going on around you and inside of you. Revise your goals accordingly.

Systematically pursuing relevant goals and adopting new ones as others become irrelevant is a delicate balance. But the resulting career agility is well worth the effort.

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