The Truth About Career Planning — Your Plan Is Going to Change

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I want to help you design your career, that’s why I’m writing this article. But, before you read any further, you should know that my professional path has actually been a series of unplanned twists and turns. I originally envisioned myself as a stay-at-home mom with seven kids and am sharing these thoughts now as the CEO of a company with way more than seven employees.

I recently devoured “Unapologetically Ambitious,” a professional memoir by CEO Shellye Archambeau, and while I was moved and inspired, I found myself itching to offer a counter view.

Here’s the truth about career planning: your plan is likely going to change. Therefore, I prefer the term “career design” because it better describes an arrangement of experiences that should form the pattern that is YOUR career.

I did not plan every step of my career and my career has in turn surprised me. I have, however, designed my life and career to be tolerant of new and unplanned opportunities. I’ve absolutely thought strategically, and regularly, about what matters most to me and how to align my professional work with my passion to make a difference in the world.

I’ve been thinking about this topic quite a bit recently as we’ve been preparing for a workshop in partnership with the Women’s Technology Coalition. More specifically, I’ve been reflecting on what the second half of my career has looked like — the path that has ushered me to where I am today as a CEO.

I, by design, have been working in the hybrid world of my home office and client offices for more than a decade. I believe that this design created the opportunity for me to navigate changes in my personal life — serious relationships, marriage, kids — while also giving me the time and space I needed to be successful.

I can’t create the mosaic of your career for you, but I can give you some tips for how to design it, especially if you are thinking of how to do that in a remote or hybrid world.

Here goes:

Get clear on what matters to you. A lot of people will tell you what you “should” do, especially if you excel in your job, and the advice will often align with what’s worked for others in the past or what the advice giver’s motivations are for you. If I had done what everyone thought I should do in grad school, I would have gone to work for a very prestigious consulting firm, versus help start a brand-new consulting firm from nothing. I chose to start a brand-new firm because I love creating, and I had the opportunity to create something new with great people. That choice, in addition to being really fun and rewarding, then gave me the experience I needed to start Thought Ensemble.

The moral here is that there is a lot you CAN do, so take the time to quietly consider what you WANT to do. The last year has given us all some quiet to realize what is important. Keep centered on what you want as you design your career.

Set your boundaries. People will always want you to do more — more assignments, more hours, more travel. I’ve talked to several friends recently who are grappling with the idea of going back to an office. They hold executive positions and are dreading the commute and/or lack of flexibility. My boundaries show up in nights away from my family — whether traveling or in town. Over the years, I’ve figured out what my max is, and I simply turn down anything that exceeds that limit.

If you feel like you’ve tasted some of the sweet nectar of remote work; set your boundaries and get on-board with an organization that will work with your life. Write it down, commit to it, and build it into your design.

Think big.  Many people are tempted to find models from the past that they can use to chart their course. I tend to not be especially concerned with how things have been done in the past, particularly how other people have been successful. If you believe you have to work 80 hours a week to be successful, it will be true. If you believe you can’t do the job of your dreams and also fulfill your personal priorities, then that will be true as well. Don’t assume you can’t have the “big job” you want. Start by thinking big and then put the supports in place to make it happen.

For better or worse, 2020 normalized unconventional workdays. I’ve been able to do more professional development and more connecting with people while spending more time with my family. My advice is to level up and take advantage of the invitation to design the work-life reality that works for you. If, for example, you can do more remotely — personally and professionally — then run with it!

Take a break. When I look back over my career, one of the best things I’ve done is taken some major downtime to recharge and get perspective when I needed it. I’ve taken a few months off between jobs a couple of times now and have also significantly slowed down my pace when needed. For example, I did not want to rapidly grow a company while I was navigating pregnancy and being a new parent, even though I had a ton of help. It was a great time to keep the company small, do interesting work with great people, and figure out the rest of life at the same time. I have no regrets about my multiple slowdowns. I think they’ve given me fuel to accomplish more overall!

We have all been forced to adapt to the professional oddities that 2020 shook loose, but what if we took this moment to spot, and perhaps even build upon, the opportunities for better design?

I can’t wait to see what you create!

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