Five Career Planning Steps for Everyone

Alice: "Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?"

Cat: "That depends a good deal on where you want to get to."

Some advice from my mentor: Every planner needs a five-year plan for their career path. Whether you are just entering, moving forward, or reaching the end of your career, being intentional about the next steps and milestones is fundamental to professional success and personal well-being.

Few of us, however, took the class or had a mentor who taught us to develop a career plan. It's more than just checking off the next job title up the ladder. Here's how you can develop your five-year career plan.

Don't Do This Alone

Sometimes in each of our professional careers, there is a moment where the ear and the advice of a trusted colleague are very welcome.

There is a commonly held notion that men often learn more from their uncles than they do from their fathers and that women learn more from an aunt or a friend's mother than they do their own. I have no data to prove or disprove this notion, but I believe it has relevance outside the family.

My experience suggests that it is sometimes more fruitful to talk through issues with a senior colleague than to talk with your boss. If the first step is deciding what you want to be doing in five years, and how you are going to get there, the second step is getting the perspective of someone who has been there. Easy, if you already have a mentor, but not all of us do.

This leads me to suggest that planners might apply a planning tool to their plan-making; consider the 'planning crucible' as a tool to be used to better define "how are you going to get there." 

Assemble a Few Good Friends, Lock Them in a Room

A colleague of mine recently called for some career advice; the kind of advice that is unlikely to come from a boss. Bosses, like mothers and fathers, are often too closely involved to be able to give perspective. As such, I concluded that this might be a learning experience for both of us.

  • How can we as planners be better "uncles" or "aunts" to our colleagues?
  • What can we do that is more instructive than an appointment with a career counselor, and less frightening than an intervention?

Lacking a better term, we decided to assemble a small panel of peers who knew the colleague's work and community; but were not his boss. We decided to call this: a "meeting with your three 'uncles.'"

My professional experience has given me an insider's perspective on what makes a "planning crucible" work. I've reduced it here to five points, and suggest that they apply to both planning practice in general, and to putting together a career support event:

1. Do the Homework on the Issue

Start with the obvious: What is the purpose of this event and what are we trying to accomplish? What questions are likely to arise, and what data exists to support a rational, thorough examination of alternatives? 

This should be analogous to what you would do before you respond to an RFP or submit for a grant. In most cases, the team leader will have made a "site visit" or had an initial fact-finding conversation with the client/receiver to scope out the issues. Team members have homework, too, that will include familiarization of the issues and reflection on lessons learned from previous experiences in similar conditions.

2. Establish an Annotated Agenda/Schedule

The funny thing about planners is they feel more comfortable if the agenda is specific about the sequence, timing, content, and the tools to be used in each of the many steps that lead from opening to closing.

Consider this a recipe — we follow it to the letter the first few times until we know its strengths and sensitivities, and then we use it as a guide to support our creative deviations (at least that's how I cook). The agenda also gives the facilitator the ability to bring the event back on track with a "we've got that on the agenda for later...let's get back to..."

All good agendas present a logical sequence broken into discreet elements that present the order and relationship of the issues. It is not uncommon for a multiple-day agenda to complete one "round" through these discreet elements, followed by recursive rounds to "flesh out" and refine the details and points of interconnectivity.

3. Bring a "Team" of Perspectives

The three "uncles" in our exercise knew each other and knew our "nephew" very well. Our "nephew" would argue that the relationship allowed us to see through the nonsense and any evasions he might have tried, but I would argue that it was more about the diversity of perspectives we brought to the table.

The best group of "aunt/uncles" have more professional experience than the "nephews," are willing to listen to each other's perspectives, and can speak uncomfortable truths.

The byproduct of this teaming is an important element of the reason to write this article: Each of the team members will learn from this process...about themselves, about the process of providing good advice, and very likely about the advice they would want to receive if and when they find themselves in a similar situation. This is the value and reward for pro bono activities.

4. Secure a Comfortable Venue

This is not about renting a meeting space at the Ritz and providing the team with great food and entertainment. There are obvious rewards to the act of collaboration between professionals, which is the compensation the "uncles" seek. Depending on the complexity of the event (three hours to five days) there may be some basic, necessary creature comforts, (food, water, a place to sleep), but fundamental is a well-lit, quiet, private space to sit and face each other. Little else is important.

5. Prepare a Definition of Success

From the beginning, we need to agree on what a win looks like, and how success can be measured. Is it a preferred strategy? Is it a change in approach or a call to action? Is it a support network? Is it written? Illustrated? Litigated? When all the participants walk away from the event, can they determine that the event's purpose was achieved?

The result of our meeting of three "uncles" included a list of things our "nephew" could achieve on behalf of his employer, a list of things to institutionalize in his department that ensure future successes after the "nephew" leaves or retires, and a list of steps that will set him up for a successful and meaningful career and a transition to a happy and inspired retirement.

Top Images:  E+ Oleh_Slobodeniuk 

Lee M. Brown, FAICP, is the principal of Teska Associates, Inc., and a past president of the AICP Commission. 

May 3, 2024

By Lee Brown, FAICP