Is this job all there is?

What are your career goals? That's the first question I ask my prospective coaching clients -- and one very few people can answer. It's ironic that most of us spend too much time working toward goals we cannot specify.

What are your career goals? That's the first question I ask my prospective coaching clients -- and one very few people can answer. It's ironic that most of us spend too much time working toward goals we cannot specify.

When we are just starting out in our career, things are pretty easy. Most everyone is glad to have a job, and most any assignment is challenging and instructive. Employees interpret the tangible signs of progress (for instance, moving from a cubicle to an office, changing titles) as signals that they are on the right track. Promotions happen frequently. People don't know their ultimate destination, but it really doesn't matter -- they have more energy than wisdom, they have no one waiting at home, and they are moving in the right direction on a long trip with plenty of chances to change course along the way.

As we get a little older, the realisation sets in: this is why they call it work. Promotions become less frequent, relationships (and their ugly brother, politics) increase in importance, pressure and expectations escalate both at work and at home, and wisdom overtakes energy. All those forces cause us to ruminate on the age-old question, Is this all there is?

That's often the point at which people call me for some executive coaching. They are concerned about their future. Sometimes something about their job doesn't feel right, and they can't exactly pinpoint what it is.

Our first task together is to discover their career destination. Once people understand their career goals, they can make sense out of the working world around them. They can move to determining how their current position and employer can help them build the skills they need for the future. Instead of focusing on external signs of progress such as title, status and money, I help clients focus internally -- on targeting, assessing and acquiring the skills they need to get to their career destination.

The why of a career destination ...

If you are interested in helping yourself or others through this discovery process, let's review some important principles. First, the career destination is a five-year guess about your future job -- a hypothesis, if you will. It's the best you can do with current information. As you start making specific moves toward this goal, you will gain more insights about yourself, which might even lead you to change your career destination.

For example, a helpdesk manager wanted to become a CIO and knew that he needed to develop his business analysis skills. He was given the opportunity to work in business planning, only to discover that the assignment did not play to his strengths. He moved back into IT and revised his career destination.

Second, your career destination should reflect all of your dreams -- personal as well as professional. One of my clients married an older man who was within five years of retirement. She needed a position with a flexible calendar so that they could share his golden years.

Third, the career destination you discern might not fit within the boundaries of your existing company. There is probably plenty of skill-building that can occur where you are now, however.

For example, one client told me his long-term interest was to start up and run a koi pond business. To be sure, it was a stretch from his position as IT director. Together we quickly identified the business planning, marketing and operations skills he needed to acquire, and then we pinpointed the development opportunities available at his current company.

... and the how

Now let's review the process of discovering a career destination. It's a good idea to select someone to help you through it -- someone who asks good questions and can help you think clearly. This person may not agree with your career choice, but that's OK -- the facilitator's job is to make sure you examine the realities of your destination (in terms of the skills required, degree of difficulty and level of risk), not to edit or approve your thinking.

I find that the coaching process takes five meetings of an hour and a half each, on average, during a four-week period. At the first meeting, I outline the career destination discovery process. I ask clients for their résumés and copies of their performance evaluations and 360-degree assessments.

I also assign homework: Clients should describe their ideal job. To assist people with that task, British Airways has used a "visioning" instrument that asks the following questions:

-- What are you doing five years from now?

-- What are you wearing then?

-- What are you driving then?

-- How long is your commute?

-- Where are you living then?

-- Who helped you along the way?

-- Did you need to go back to school to get there?

During the second meeting, I ask about job history, delving into performance assessments to make sure I understand clients' strengths and development opportunities. I examine their view of the ideal job, noting the specific words they use and asking clarifying questions.

At the third meeting, I discuss clients' accomplishments and disappointments and the things they gravitate toward and away from, with the goal of deepening my understanding of their skills, motivators and barriers. I ask what jobs they are interested in exploring (in or out of their current company). For homework, we both reflect on the "fit" of the potential jobs they've identified with their strengths, weaknesses, likes and dislikes.

At the fourth meeting, I ask clients to answer the question, What position will you hold in five years? The responses are usually generic at the start ("I want to be a vice president," for instance), so I press for specific positions (such as "I want to be a CIO at a medium-size manufacturing company in Colorado"). Once people have nailed down something that sounds right, we analyse the response: Which skills do they need to acquire, which of those skills could they build in their current position, what steps would move them closer to their goal, and who could assist them along the way?

During the fifth and final meeting, clients document their hypothesised career destination and then commit to specific actions that will bring that goal nearer. We schedule periodic follow-up meetings to check progress.

If you decide to undergo this process of choosing a tangible career destination and working out the things you need to do to get there, then you're on the way to becoming fully accountable for your career. You'll find that you're no longer waiting for someone to move you to the next position. Instead, you will almost unconsciously identify and pursue opportunities that will help you achieve your goals. And when the little voice inside your head asks, "Is this all there is?" a bigger voice should answer, "No, because I have this idea, you see ..."

Cramm is the founder of Valuedance, an executive coaching firm in California.

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