Thirty years ago there was a phrase bouncing around the halls of business: aim at nothing and you’ll hit it every time. Without a plan, we live by impulse, taking whatever comes along, essentially leaving the courses of our lives to chance. If you are naturally controlling, you probably already have all kinds of plans in your life. For you, I would say hold the outcome lightly.
Work with whatever diligence you can muster, try everything you can think of, but don’t fall into the trap of thinking your life is over if you don’t get what you want. Nothing kills joy like never being grateful for what you have, but it is in our nature to want things to improve.
If you have been feeling dissatisfaction in your work, now might be a good time to create a professional development plan. If you are in a committed, long-term relationship, be sure to include your significant other in the planning process, or you may have a rude awakening when you reach the end.
Where to Start with a Professional Development Plan
Considering changes in your profession can be a wonderful, energized time of evaluating possibilities. Before doing anything else, if you believe in a higher power, it is good practice to invite that higher power into your process.
This helps you remember that you are not in it alone. When the road seems long or the mountain insurmountable, it’s not bad to have eternity in sight and know ultimately everything will be all right. Having reminded yourself you’re not alone, the next step is to figure out what you are aiming at.
What Do I Want?
This seems like an obvious question, but some of us are not wired to think in those terms. Imagine waving a magic wand and having the career of your dreams. What does it look like? Don’t judge or naysay the ideas that come to you.
At this stage, everything is helpful, because you are trying to identify what you desire. It’s okay to sort out the possible goals from the pipe dreams. If you are a working musician with better than average skills, an objective of having a hit song or playing to large crowds might well be attainable. However, if you are a mid-level manager with no musical ability, not so much.
Try to focus your thoughts on your desired profession, which is your vocation, the work you want to do to make a living. You may love what you’re doing and simply want to find ways to excel at it. You may hate your work and be desperately looking for a change. Or you may be somewhere in between. Having clear objectives in mind helps ensure you are taking steps that actually move you toward them.
Setting the Main Objective
Planning is easy, executing is hard. We set objectives so that our efforts can be effective in moving us to where we want to go. When creating a professional development plan, you want to have a single main objective at the start.
This doesn’t mean you won’t have other interests or pursuits, but it prevents you from trying to do too much. Think about what’s important to you in your vocation, such as good pay (have a dollar amount in mind), a collaborative workplace, a non-collaborative workplace, close to home, good benefits, helping people, whatever is important to you in your imagined profession. Some sample main objectives might look like this:
- Get a mid-level management job at Google
- Work for Pixar
- Become a lawyer, work in private practice
- Learn my bosses job and take over when he retires
- Find a career that puts me outdoors more often
- Stay at my current workplace, pursue opportunities for advancement
You can do all of these things if you want, but not at the same time. If you find you have multiple main objectives you truly want to pursue, your timeline will be more complex and that’s fine. You may have a 1-year plan, a 5-year plan, a 10-year plan, even a 20-year plan, depending on how sure you are of your future desires. The nice thing about plans is we can change them at any time.
When it comes to executing a high-level main objective, we have to break it down so we can eat the proverbial elephant one bite at a time. We learn to break down goals into tasks at an early age. Any child who has ever moved a chair over to a counter to get into a cookie jar has created a plan and executed it.
For the purposes of our discussion, the next step is to break your main objective(s) down into alternatives for reaching those objectives. If you’re thinking of changing careers or starting a new one, research it as best you can.
Read articles about, pros and cons, availability of jobs, and if you can, talk to people who are already doing it. They can be a great resource for knowing pitfalls to watch out for, and important steps you might not have considered.
Some sample alternatives might look like this:
- Take classes on managing employees
- Take classes on managing finances
- Take a typing class
- Talk to Human Resources about the requirements for advancement
- Learn to speak Spanish
- Get a Masters in Business Administration
- Get an entry-level job at my target company
- Get a license to work in my target field
- Take a course on information systems
- Learn a programming language
Your alternatives may be pretty high level and need to be broken down further, such as all the choices required to find, pay for and complete a Masters degree, but you can worry about that once you have your alternatives fleshed out. Give yourself some time to do this. If you get stuck, move to the next thing, or take a break and come back to it. If you come back to it and are still stuck, you might consider finding a counselor who can help you think through the process.
Once you have a pretty thorough list of alternatives to meet your objective(s), convert it into a task list by eliminating the ones you are not going to pursue. For example, in the list above, the first two alternatives would be a subset of getting a Masters in Business Administration, so if you chose to go for the Master’s degree the first two alternatives would be discarded.
Count the Cost
Once you have your objective(s) and task list fleshed out, the next step is to figure out in time, money, effort and relationships what the cost of this plan is likely to be. Change is the result of pain and anxiety, and the bigger the change, the bigger the pain and anxiety. If you are married with children, the impact on your life of getting a Master’s degree is very different from the impact if you are single with no kids.
Classes usually are not cheap, though if you are willing to search you can sometimes find the training you need at reduced rates. Time, gasoline, meals out, all should be considered. Most importantly, if you are married, your spouse needs to be fully on board. The more significant the change you are trying to make, the more stress will be brought to bear on the relationship and you both need to be ready for that.
Know that sometimes events will conspire to complicate the schedule, and frustration will be high. Keeping as calm as possible in those situations is beneficial for all concerned. Remind yourself that most things can be rescheduled, or taken again, and nothing you are trying to do is more important than your marriage. To paraphrase a familiar saying, what good is it if you gain the whole world and lose your most important relationship on earth?
Schedule it Out
Some of the steps in your plan will likely have to happen before other steps. Go through your task list and put it in chronological order. This will not be neat and tidy, because some tasks will be less quantifiable, but if you know step-by-step what to do you will always know what the next thing is. Review the list and make sure you have the tasks in the best order for you, your current work schedule, and your family commitments.
Work the List
Put the first ten tasks on a separate list and begin getting them done. When you run into obstacles (and you will) just keep at it. Every challenge has an answer, even if the answer is to throw out that task and fashion another which accomplishes the same thing.
Pace yourself. Being productive is fine. Being productive to the point of making yourself sick, or making your family members frantic is not okay. Make space in your schedule to pause and breathe and maintain or reclaim your perspective. You will get there.
From time to time, revisit the task list and make sure you still agree that the list will get you to your objective. Sometimes we learn things along the way that reveal shortcuts or superfluous steps we can discard, or things we need to add.
Your task list is always a “living” document whose sole purpose is to help you reach your objective(s) in the most efficient, cost-effective and beneficial manner as possible.
Sample Professional Development Plan
J. Sample is a clerk for a large waste management company who has decided after three years to take the steps to secure a mid-level management position. One path is to work hard and keep an eye open for advancement in the form of internal job openings, which will likely take between 5 to 7 years.
The other option is to find a program to get a Masters of Business Administration degree and then watch for job openings in mid-level management. J. Sample’s parents have always been helpful with education, and so might be available to pay for tuition and additional expenses. The resulting sample professional development plan is below.
Professional Development Plan
Objective: Get a mid-level management job at my current company
- Invite God into this process
- Get agreement from the spouse about the general idea
- Discuss the idea with the boss, get input
- Evaluate MBA programs at local universities
- Evening schedule available
- Reviews by graduates
- Compare class schedules with the family calendar
- Choose a program
- Write up a budget for the entire program
- Talk to Mom and Dad about funding
- Apply to the program
- Setup payment schedule/process with parents
- Purchase materials
- Write up a reading schedule, put on the calendar
- Establish tools for taking and preserving notes
- Establish a process for sorting course materials
- Prepare for each course
- Read syllabus
- Put assignments and exams on the calendar
- List any special requirements
- During first two weeks check for updates to the syllabus
- Attend and pass classes
- Graduate and receive a diploma
- Inform your boss and HR about your good news
- Monitor job openings for something in middle management
- Apply for these jobs until you get one
- Celebrate! Shower spouse with gifts for their amazing patience
J. Sample would likely be able to put this together in an evening. At several points, the plan is vulnerable to change. The boss might wave J. Sample off from getting an MBA and offer a different path to pursue. Mom and Dad might choose not to fund it. It’s not impossible that the course of study is too difficult for J. Sample and a re-evaluation of the main objective might become necessary.
As the saying goes, there are no guarantees in this world. By making the effort to create a professional development plan that works for you, the chance of bringing about lasting change in your career path has a much better chance of success than making it up as you go along. Remember, you don’t have to go it alone.
Pray, talk to trusted friends with experience. If you find yourself stuck in the process, make time to see a career counselor, and you can make a plan that will help keep your feet on your chosen path.
“Canal couple,” courtesy of Valerie Everett, Flickr Creative Commons, CC0 License; “Girl Writing in a Diary,” courtesy of Viktor Hanacek, picjumbo.com, CC0 License; “Studying,” courtesy of Patrick Denker, Flickr CreativeCommons (CC BY 2.0); “Forest path,” courtesy of dmz, pixabay.com, CC0 License