Sketching your specs for success

Sketching your specs for success

Microstrategy account executive Catharine Prezzano didn't start out following a career plan. When her children started school in the early 80s, she went to work as a financial manager for a nonprofit organisation to bring in some extra money.

`When I went in to my manager for my six-month review, he said, 'You're a dedicated employee, but you're not going to make it here. You're in the wrong line of business',' Prezzano recalls.

He told her that with her skill set, she was better suited for selling technology. Once she landed her first technical sales job, she knew he was right.

`I started to realise that I have a game plan,' Prezzano says. `I can leverage my education and desire to know technology and my interest in people to put together a real game plan for success. Since then, I have made a very deliberate attempt - every time I was ready to make a move - to make sure my next move got me to the next plane.'

Not everyone experiences that kind of defining moment, realising that you can, and should, design your own career. But no matter where you are on your current track, you can benefit from a deliberate and continuous career-development strategy. It's a process that, like producing a successful product, takes equal parts planning, hard work, marketing your brand, and luck.

Drafting a plan to take you to your ideal future involves setting goals, achieving balance, making connections, and making adjustments along the way. Although your plan for developing `You 2.0' won't be like anyone else's, the guidelines below can help anyone create a winning plan.

Designing an ideal career

When ACS Group founder and president Sandy Atwell decided to begin her career selling technology about 20 years ago, she knew that first job wasn't her final objective.

`[I didn't have the] skill set to be on the technical side, but I knew that I wanted to be involved with technology,' Atwell says. `I wanted to interact with people, and I had a financial goal. I said, 'OK, this is where my skill set lies'.'

Atwell kept her ultimate goal of owning her own business in mind as she chose what jobs to take during her career.

`In selecting [sales] roles, I selected positions that would allow me to look at the overall market,' Atwell says.

Having a well-designed career plan isn't the only way to succeed: some people fall into the ideal career by accident. But many of the most successful professionals use planning and goal-setting as a tool to keep themselves on track.

If creating a formal career plan seems intimidating or unlikely to work, keep in mind that the process doesn't have to be daunting or restrictive.

Paint the big picture. Gail Ginder, a Californian leadership and career coach, suggests starting with a list of 10 or 15 jobs you might like. Some may be with your current company, some with another company in your field, and some in a different field altogether. Then narrow your list down to three or four one-page scenarios.

`This is like trying on a suit of clothes,' Ginder says. `It doesn't mean you're actually going to buy the suit. You may take a jacket from one, a skirt from another, and come up with one you'll really enjoy.'

When you're working on these scenarios, look at your entire life, not just your job. Ginder and others suggest that you ask yourself a wide range of questions:

How do you want to spend your time every day?

What are your strengths?

What are your career goals? How important is it to you to advance in your field?

What appeals to you about various kinds of work: the money, the intellectual challenge, prestige or being useful to society?

What are your financial goals?

Do you want to have children, and if so, when?

Do you want to get any advanced degrees?

Where do you want to live and work?

Think ahead. Planning too far in advance may seem futile, given that many of today's jobs didn't exist five years ago. However, when considering your goals, think several years - or several jobs - ahead. Even if you alter your goal midstream because of changes in technology, the job market, or your personal life, going through the planning process is helpful.

`I have actually drawn up five-year plans,' Atwell says. `I can't say that when I got to the fifth year they were exactly as I had drawn them out, but they helped from a framework standpoint.'

Medium-to-long-term plans can help you identify areas where you need to gain more experience. The planning process can also give you a better idea of what your goals should be. For example, talking to people who are five or 10 years ahead of you in their careers can help you learn whether their jobs are really what you want - and what's required to get there.

`If you want this position but you'll have to work 70 hours per week for the next five years, is that something you're willing to do?' Elizabeth Falk, a US-based independent career coach, asks.

Developing skills and experience

When project manager Barbara Lee started out, she decided to leave her job as a stagehand at a theatre, go to college and enter the high-tech field. But she chose a very specific niche: photographic virtual reality. Although an obvious way to break in to a field such as this is to join a very small company and dig right in, Lee decided to take an entry-level position at Time New Media, in New York.

`I wanted the security of a big company,' Lee says. `I wanted health insurance and things like that.'

Lee's decision meant she didn't get to do full-time photographic virtual reality right away. She did get the experience of working for a large, successful company, however. As her experience illustrates, you may not attain your principal goal immediately: it's usually best to break it into steps.

Do your homework. Learn the requirements of your dream job by reading the job description and talking to others, says Margie Summerscales, career coach and president of Coaching for Successful Solutions, in the US. Then compare your skills and experience with the job and see what gaps you need to fill.

Technical foundation

`I always try to see what scares me about the goal I've set,' says Cindy Pogrund, group principal at Chicago-based Metamor Technologies. `I say, 'If that happens, I don't know how to do this or this'. Then I look at who I need to hook up with to get more exposure in those areas.'

Remember, too, that your next best move may not always be an upward one. `Build a strong technical foundation, especially in the IT space,' Pogrund says. `It's so easy to jump at an opportunity that seems bigger. Taking your career a little bit slower in the early years really pays off later.'

Filling those gaps should become part of your game plan. You can complete your skill set through formal training, workplace experiences, outside education, or even working with a mentor.

Market yourself. When identifying the qualities that will help you reach your goal, you may also find that you need to improve your contacts and your professional image. One way to do this is through networking. But you should also make yourself more visible to the people you already know.

See yourself as running your own business - the business of you - even if you're a full-time employee of a company, says Raleigh Pinskey, speaker, author, and president of The Raleigh Group, a marketing company in Los Angeles.

One danger of promoting your own expertise is that you can be perceived as `not a team player' - a label that can become a significant obstacle to promotion. To avoid this pitfall, Pinskey suggests you make sure to market yourself as part of a team. If you notice a problem at your company, create a task force to solve it. `That way you are recognised for teamwork as well as your expertise,' Pinskey says.

Another way to promote your own expertise without alienating your company is to make sure you are advancing the company's goals as well as your own.

`Figure out a way to make the link between your personal and professional goals and the goals of the company,' Ginder says. `Demonstrate that link to the people who have the ability to move you up.'

Chart your progress. Once you know what steps are required to reach your goal, divide these plans into short-term, intermediate, and long-term goals. Then share your goals with someone who can help you, such as your supervisor or a mentor. As you reach milestones, make sure to track your progress and keep a list of those achievements.

`Always keep your resume updated, because you're not going to remember today what you accomplished a year ago,' Summerscales says.

Testing the marketplace

Rosalia Bacarella spent nine years working at Nynex, then left to join an Internet startup. Several years ago, she left the startup to found her own company - New York-based iClick - of which she is the president and CEO.

To make these transitions and to succeed as a CEO, Bacarella relied on frequent feedback from her colleagues.

`Don't kid yourself - part of it is looking at things realistically,' Bacarella says. `You shouldn't be afraid to hear negatives as well as positives from the people you talk to.'

Get feedback. It's not enough to make a list of goals and check them off as you achieve them. In order to assess your progress - and to figure out when you need to change some of your goals - you need input and suggestions from your superiors, peers, and employees.

Another way to get feedback on your progress is to apply for jobs and see whether you get them.

`When I worked for this mainframe company, there was a management position open,' Prezzano says. She talked to the president of the company about getting the job, but he was evasive.

`I started asking my trusted friends, 'What am I missing? What don't I have?'' Prezzano says. `They were pretty critical: I needed to take a management course. I also didn't have a strong background in the particular area that the company was growing in.'

The problem is that those responsible don't usually volunteer a lot of feedback - you either get the job, with few suggestions for improvement, or you don't, often without knowing why. Directly soliciting feedback is a good solution - even if you haven't been turned down for a job.

Summerscales adds that asking for feedback can raise your visibility and boost your reputation at the company. `The way people are perceiving you in your work is extremely important,' Summerscales says.

Make adjustments. Summerscales suggests not only asking colleagues for specific feedback regularly - at the end of a project, for example - but also looking for patterns in the results. Once you get feedback from your colleagues and the job market, you need to act on it. You might want to revise your plans to learn new skills or to branch out.

Launching You 2.0

Today Prezzano is a highly successful account executive at MicroStrategy, a New York-based decision-support vendor. In fiscal year 1997, she made 355 per cent of her quota.

`No one's more surprised than me by my own success,' Prezzano says. `I've always done the right thing for myself and my family and my employers - that is the magic formula.'

Atwell reached the goal she set for herself long ago when she became founder and president of ACS Group, a professional services company in New Jersey.

Lee has been promoted from her entry-level job at Time New Media into a project-manager position, where she is able to pursue her main career goal.

`I get to do the photo VR [virtual reality] stuff now,' Lee says. `I got promoted fast.'

And Bacarella likes to tell the story of her daughter, who when 10 years old came home from school and told her mother that the students were asked whom they admired most.

`She told them that she admired me,' Bacarella says. `I was very flattered and asked her why. She said it was because I believed in myself and had the confidence to start my own business.'

Don't stop at 2.0. Just because Atwell achieved her goal doesn't mean she's out of the goal-setting business.

`One of my targets might be developing my own product line, or to be acquired, or for myself to become part of a venture capital operation,' Atwell says.

Falk suggests that you re-evaluate your progress toward your goals - and the goals themselves - every year or two. Goals are not irrevocable decisions.

`[Women] need to learn that choices are OK, and it does not mean that they're closing doors behind themselves forever,' Falk says. `In a few years they can change directions.'

Strategies for boosting your brand

You may want to move up, move out, or strike out on your own. Here are some starting points for raising your visibility. Staying put? To move up in your own company:

Write for your company newsletter.

Volunteer for company committees. If you see a problem that needs to be solved, form a group to solve it.

Volunteer for community organisations that the company serves.

Ask for the assignments you want. If you don't see an ideal career path for yourself at your company, create one by suggesting ways you can fill a need.

Making a change?

To gain visibility beyond your current company:

Teach your subject at a local college or university.

Volunteer as an expert speaker at local schools and business groups.

Write articles for a trade journal.

To move to a new company:

Join a professional organisation in your field.

Get to know people in other organisations who do work that's similar to yours.

To start your own company:

Prepare to make the mental shift from being an employee to being a business owner.

Join local associations for small-business owners.

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