The Pointlessness of a Career Plan

Many of my coaching clients report feeling guilty about their failure to have a career plan. The idea persists that this is something that every respectable and modestly ambitious professional person needs to have. Somewhere they have the image of that fiercely dedicated genius who knows by the age of 6 that they are going to be a world-class brain surgeon, winning Wimbledon or running the country.

If there are such people and their plans do come to pass, they are the exception. Having a career plan is a pointless exercise for most of us. What would have happened to a budding executive who joined Woolworth’s graduate trainee scheme at 21 in 1989 with the career plan of becoming a Board director by the age of 40 in a household name company, on every high street and apparently as solid as any company could be? First, he or she would have been subject to innumerable reinventions of the brand, buffeted by takeovers, mergers, de-mergers and acquisitions and would probably have been very lucky to have survived such changes. Let’s suppose that this former young grad has somehow clung on to their job. By 2008 They would have been part of the mournful process of selling off every single thing that was left in the stores including the shop-fittings. If you mentioned the name Woolworth to my teenage grandchildren they would undoubtedly look vague.

Organizations are shaped by external events. Woolworth could not survive in an era of pound shops, internet music, internet shopping and international competition. Individual career plans are worth nothing when faced with forces that no individual can control such as exchange rates, oil prices, technological development, political pressures, climate change or natural disasters.

What works instead of a career plan? At the heart of it is getting very clear about life purpose. What is the core of what motivates you? What is the thread that runs through every job you have ever had? When have you experienced the pure satisfaction that comes from doing something for others, not just for yourself? Which skills do you love using? What brings you joy?

These questions distinguish between inner and outer motivators. Inner motivators are about knowing that you are using and developing your gifts in ways that could make the world a better place, even if on a very small and personal scale. Outer motivators are about the grand titles, the fame, the corner office, the car, the money: useful and nice to have, but alas, there is always someone who has more of them and they all depend on the approbation graciously bestowed by someone or something external. The satisfaction they bring never lasts long.

Some organizations make this worse by purporting to manage your career for you. This is a fiction. The organization never really cares about you or your career but they can unwittingly encourage the idea that one day someone will spot your talent, tap you on the shoulder and offer you the dream job. Dream it is, unfortunately, or perhaps nightmare is a better word because this attitude eats away at self-confidence, leading to the common belief that your skills are not transferrable, when in reality they are.

Good questions about life purpose can replace pointless questions about career planning. Here are some to think about:

What do I want people to remember me for?

What would I like my legacy to be?

What are my so-far unmet personal goals?

How up to date are my skills?

How much time am I devoting to my development?

What state is my network of contacts in?

Where are the growth points in my sector?

Who might need my skills?

How up to date is my CV – and how much sense would it make to someone outside my current organization?

Given all of this, what might my next move involve?