How to Manage Your Career

A standard interview question is: "What are your career aspirations (or goals)? Who can answer this question confidently, without thinking about it or without embarrassment? An educated guess might be less than 20%. The truth is that very few people know what they would like to do in their careers even 5 years from now, let alone further down the road. It is simply a myth that people have career goals beyond a vague feeling of wanting to better themselves somehow.

Does this mean that people are too short-sighted or lazy to plan something as important as their careers? No, the truth is that the future is too complex and unknown. In addition, we don't make decisions as rationally as we like to think. A good example of a rational plan would be the route you decide upon to drive from New York to California. When you know exactly where you are going, it is easy to plan how to get there.

Non-rational Decision Making

A rational decision is one where we weigh options, make a decision, then act, all in linear fashion. A non-rational decision is one where we try various options, see how they feel and then pick one based on a complex set of rational and emotional considerations. In other words, we take some trial and error actions, get feedback and then decide – a sort of backwards decision making process. It's like house hunting. You might sit down and make a list of criteria to look for in a new house but, when you start looking at houses, you might see features you like that you hadn't thought of in advance. As a result, you then revise your criteria. Non-rational decisions are based more on discovery or recognition than on prior rational analysis. Because we consider ourselves rational, we are good at thinking up reasons for our choices after we discover, sometimes by accident, what we would really like to do.

Entrepreneurial Career Management

Entrepreneurs do some planning but they are equally good at recognizing and seizing opportunities that they hadn't thought of or planned for in advance. An entrepreneurial approach to career management is much better than the opposing extremes of not being proactive at all or trying to plan when you have no idea where you want to go.

Successful entrepreneurs don't just sit waiting for opportunities to fall out of the sky. They may not know exactly what they're looking for but they're constantly looking anyway, talking to people, reading periodicals, networking and keeping their nose to the ground. It's like window shopping. You might be looking to buy some new clothes but not have anything in particular in mind. But you will buy if you see something you like. So, again, your decision is based on discovery, a matter of recognizing something you like.

Career planning the entrepreneurial way means taking proactive steps to both discover and create opportunities for career advancement. If you wanted to visit a faraway country, you might read up on various places to visit within your chosen destination and talk to people who have been there. Similarly, for career advancement, it is imperative to network and ask people about their work. Showing interest in what others are doing kills two birds with one stone. Like house hunting, you get a feel for what's out there. Secondly, by showing interest in other people, you influence them to take an interest in you and your career. The critical step is to target a few key senior executives in your organization and regularly grab opportunities to ask them questions about their part of the business and how they are tackling their challenges. As you learn more about their interests and challenges, you will be able to ask questions that could shed new light on their issues. Through this process, you sell yourself in two ways: (1) You're showing an interest in them. (2) By asking pertinent questions, you're demonstrating your potential worth to that part of the business. It is far more effective to demonstrate what you can do rather than just talking about it. Good questions can help you create a career opportunity for yourself if they help others see new opportunities for themselves and their business.

In conclusion, take the heat off yourself if you don't have definitive career goals. Instead, be proactive in searching for opportunities, just as an entrepreneur would.