As a Leadership Coach, I enjoy my work with business people who are eager to improve how they lead and how they get results at work. I know the desire for Coaching is often created when people receive honest performance feedback or are engaged in an internal development planning process. Therefore, why would I say that career planning programs are best kept to oneself, when they often bring me new clients?
Let me distinguish between performance development and career development. Most internally-driven programs focus on ways to make you more valuable to the company. To me, career planning speaks to the age-old question: “What do I want to be when I grow up?” True career planning asks you to think long-term about where to invest yourself professionally. I agree there is also value in having short-term career goals, as they can focus scarce energy and help you make better training choices. What’s less agreeable to me is poorly designed “career planning”, which is actually performance development or succession planning in masquerade. Let me share some of my observations.
- For career planning, many internally-used assessment tools are inadequate. They do a poor job of assessing the whole person you are. Instead, they attempt to show you what you are currently demonstrating. Much of this is a function of the work expectations and reward structures of your current environment. For example, using 360 degree feedback surveys is okay for job performance improvement, but not for career development. Most systems don’t ask your reviewers enough situational questions such as “Is your boss able to perform to his/her best ability in your workplace?” and “Does this person have the support from the organization that they need to be successful?” How about asking: “Do you think this person could do a better job if they had more freedom or support?” In other words, little attention is paid to the limitations and expectations you toil under, and how these impact your ability to really shine. For career planning, much better information comes from the confidential interviewing of raters, allowing them a more open arena to talk about what your gifts and talents likely are.
- Another limitation is the annual assessment that includes behavioural competencies. Sure, some of these will be common to any leadership job, but mostly they’ll be ones that your organization has decided to pay attention to. Unfortunately, many workplaces haven’t done the work to make the definitions relevant to real-life experience. Some are still just buzz-words and HR-speak. For example, a typical model includes the competency “Self Awareness.” We have seen research that shows leaders who are self-aware can use that knowledge to increase their effectiveness and their interactions (although not all do). But generally speaking, you are monitored every day for your ability to get things done, self-aware or not. Another over-used and under-supported competency called for is “Innovativeness.” True innovation requires the space to do about 2-3 hours a day of “nothing” – which is definitely not supported in most workplaces where you best look like you are getting things done! Innovation – as it is called for – is instead the ability to make a practical improvement to something you’re already doing, while not causing damage during the change. For personal career planning, you’d do well instead to concentrate on finding opportunities that give you a place to test work behaviours that feel consistent with your values.
- A few more sophisticated systems will attempt to have you identify your “interests and passions.” Perhaps the designer was inspired by a TED video on doing what you love. Don’t let them mislead you. It’s a rare organization that cares about your personal passion or your calling if it doesn’t also align with the business or mandate. In fact, revealing the passion you have for a particular cause or hobby can be detrimental to your career progression, as it is seen as distracting. You will immediately be less valuable than that leader whose whole life is work. Employment, unless it is self-employment, is simply a contract to provide services for hire. Attempts to make it more personal than that are almost always grounded in the belief that says “if you care more (are more engaged) in our business, you’ll give more (for the same cost to us).” It is safest to indicate that you care deeply and passionately about whatever it is your organization says it cares about too.
- I hate to break it to you, but career progression is not based on great job performance. As any high performer who has had to leave an organization knows, career progression is mostly based on your ability to navigate the political arena of your particular company or industry, and reach goals that you have been pre-agreed upon. Hard work and doing very well are important to keeping your job, but it’s mostly relationships – who you know – and how much you can influence them, that makes the difference for promotion. Opportunities that exist when you begin writing your internal career plan disappear quickly as organizations merge, morph and restructure. In this case, focus on what you want to learn and look for jobs and projects that will give you that.
- I think that internal career development processes can create a false sense of security and entitlement. Did you see the movie “Horrible Bosses” yet? We laugh because it’s a parody of real life: So, we understand what it feels like when Jason Bateman, after 8 years of slaving for a promotion, watches his senior manager take the title and pay unto himself. Career development plans ask us to invest more time and energy (usually after a long work day) in work that will most benefit the organization. Career development plans give us the impression that if we take on the hard personal work of developing certain skills, abilities or knowledge, we will be rewarded at the end. Sometimes that is true. Alas, often structures and leaders change, and not everyone is rewarded.
You can’t always opt out of the annual development planning process, and you don’t want to be seen as the rebel that does. It works for you if you hold this as a “partial” piece of your actual career planning. Frame it in terms of a road-map of what you need to do to succeed in this particular company or industry. Decide how much, or how little, of yourself you wish to invest in this path forward. Use it for what it’s worth – to keep your job and get better at what the company needs.
For true career development, look for an alternative that sits outside of the company’s agenda. Work on your career aspirations on your own time, and with those who have your interests in mind. While you look out into the future, continue to take personal accountability for the decisions you make in the present moment. The ripple effect from your present moment will likely impact your future career choices more than your official written plan.