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Modern careers come with many twists and turns. The idea of holding one job for life is long gone. Now, changing roles, companies, and even professional fields is par for the course.

In this ever-shifting work environment, it can feel impossible to lay down a career plan. After all, who knows what might be around the corner? It could be the opportunity of a lifetime, or an abrupt lay off.

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Of course, failing to plan is not a viable option either. If you allow yourself to be buffered along by external forces, the chances of developing a fulfilling and rewarding career are slim.

There’s always a chance that the rug might be pulled out from under your best laid plans. Instead of worrying about that possibility, though, arm yourself with a flexible career plan and ‘learn to dance on the shifting carpet.’ Here are a few tips on how to prepare:

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Identify your strengths

Your career plan is all about you, so first you must know yourself. Identify your strengths to understand how to leverage them in your career. If you’re not sure what you’re good at, then carve out some time to really think about it.

  • Look back over previous jobs, projects, voluntary work and hobbies. Think about the types of activity at which you excel.
  • Go over old review documents and previous comments made by teams you have worked with.
  • Think about your academic strengths, but also the personality traits that allow you to succeed.
  • Ask for feedback from colleagues, managers, and even friends or family. What do they see as your unique set of strengths? Sometimes an outside view catches something you don’t recognize about yourself.
  • What are your personal values and how do they influence your working style?

Determine your ‘must haves’ and ‘red lines’

With your list of strengths created, turn to thinking about the work environment that suits you.

We all excel in different types of team and professional culture. By having an objective view of the type of environment in which you thrive, you can assess potential roles against these criteria. Try to create a list of things that must be present in your roles, and and identify any ‘red lines’ which would not be acceptable to you. Consider the following as a starting point, and add in your own questions depending on your circumstances:

  • What length of commute or level of travel would be acceptable?
  • Do you work better in large teams, smaller groups, or independently?
  • Would you rather a formal corporate environment, or a more laid back one?
  • How important is creativity and self-expression to you?
  • What sort of relationship would you like to have with your boss and team?

Keep this list of reflections handy when you are choosing roles and businesses to pursue further down the line.

Brainstorm role types

With these basics in place, think about the type of roles that would suit you. Use your ideas about your personal and professional strengths to guide this reflection.

If you’re already years into your career and not looking to make any dramatic changes, then this might be fairly straightforward. However, if you’re just starting out, or considering a career change, then you might need to invest more time on this exercise.

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Don’t self-censor at this stage. Simply create a ‘long list’ which you can narrow down later. It can help to group roles by type if you have several different options in mind.

Get feedback on your ideas from your manager, colleagues you trust, friends, and family members. Hold the roles up against your list of ‘must haves.’ Do they fit into your broader needs? Cut the list if needed.

Sketch out milestones

Armed with your list of potential roles, you’re ready to start to impose some order on your ideas. What might a realistic career path look like for you? Which roles build naturally from each other?

First put roles in a rough order. Nobody will hold you to this, but without some iterative progression in mind it can be difficult to see the skills and experiences you would need to collect to grow professionally.

From where you are today, what actions would you need to take to build towards the next position you have in mind? Think in solid terms.

For example, do you need additional professional skills or qualifications? Would you benefit from extra exposure or different experiences? Is there a specific manager you need to talk to in your company, or a specific business you want to learn more about to progress your ideas? Come up with a summary of the actions needed, and when they might be achieved.

Understand stakeholders, then connect

To move forward in your career, you will need a foot up. Who are the stakeholders in your career? Think about the managers you have worked with, the specialists in your workplace — such as your HR department, and your broader network. If you want to grow your network to support your efforts, check out the ideas here.

Connect with the people around you, and ask for their thoughts about your plans and their help in achieving them.

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Write it down and review

By working through this process, you will have a broad collection of thoughts and ideas. Pinning them down — in a written, more formalized plan — is essential. For some people this is a simple paper and pen exercise. For others, a tool like Trello does the trick perfectly.

Write out your thoughts and the commitments you have made to yourself. Put a review date in your diary right away — usually it’s a good idea to revisit your plans every six months or so. By doing this, you can keep your plan flexible and allow it to gradually adjust and change as your circumstances develop.

As opportunities arise, you have your list of ‘must haves’ and ‘red lines’ to rely on to allow you to make a quick assessment of the choices at hand. This gives you the benefit of flexibility within a framework, and stops you from simply being buffeted by the inevitable tides.

Used right, a flexible career plan should be a living document, and evolve as you do. It can be an anchor when things around you change, and allow you to make career decisions with confidence. We can never fully control the things that happen to us in our professional lives. With a flexible career plan, though, we can manage our own resources and reactions to give us the best chance of flourishing. No matter what comes up.

What do you think? Do you have an active career plan or simply take things as they come? What advice would you give to others?

Article comments

Money Beagle says:

It seems like a great idea to have not only what you want from your next job but to have a roadmap of what you are looking to accomplish after that. This post fits in nicely with this idea. Good info.

I’ve never heard of this before, but it makes sense. There is no such thing as a stable job anymore (even permanent jobs aren’t that permanent). It’s amazing how times have changed.