Planning your future

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“It’s not the plan that is important, it’s the planning.”

—Graeme Edwards

I have been thinking a lot about career growth lately, and as a manager, have been generally concerned with making sure there are growth opportunities for my staff, regardless of their level or the point they are at in their career.

This often means rearranging teams so that a staff member might be stretched to grow in a new skill—as a designer, as a mentor and leader, or just in a new domain (i.e., moving from a music product to a mail product). In addition, I am always looking for networking, conference, and classroom opportunities that would benefit not only me, but my staff as well.

But not everyone has a manager that is concerned about her career growth, and there are even times when day-to-day work concerns are a priority and career growth needs are far in the back of my mind. As a matter of fact, for most of my career, I never had anyone watching out for me. For the first part of my career, I don’t even think I thought much about my long-term career. I just seemed to happen into new opportunities that taught me new skills and kept me growing and challenged. But there was no plan, no goal other than to stay challenged.

The point is, in the big picture, no one is going to look after your career for you, but you.

A few years ago, a manager of mine gave me the assignment to work on a five-year career plan. I had never created a career plan before (not even to plot out goals for the coming year), so I was completely unprepared for how and why I should do this. Luckily, she shared her own plan as a guide, but I still agonized through the exercise. Over time I have become aware of how important this was for me to do. Looking and assessing where I was at the time, really thinking about what I wanted to be doing in the future, gave me the tools to make the right decisions to make things happen.

After I was done, I realized that most of what I put down for a five-year plan could be done in a year. But it took writing it down to see that and to make it happen. This also was a good tool for working with my boss to craft training and work opportunities for me to meet my goals. I also made sure that these goals included life and personal goals as well as career goals. The older I get the more I realize that these are intertwined and success in one space brings success to others. Work/Life balance matters.

In an effort to make this anecdote meaningful to you, I’d like to share the steps and some resources I used to help me prepare my five-year goals.

The Template:

  1. Your Name
  2. Today’s Date
    This is important as you reflect back on this document. This will become a touchstone for your growth and a reminder of who you were as you look back at what was important to you in this point in time.
  3. 3–6 Months
    • Start small.
    • Think about short-term goals that are easily achieved but will also help move you towards the longer-term goals.
    • Include some tangible goals (i.e., ship a product that I acted as lead designer for).
  4. 6–12 Months
    • Start thinking bigger here—this is planning for a year out.
    • What new skills do you want to learn?
    • What new ideas do you want to share with others?
    • What changes do you want to make? Put them down here along with the steps needed to take to make them happen.
  5. Beyond 12 Months
    • Capture specific plans that you know may take more than a year to get to or accomplish. For me, it was to work on my Dr. Leslie book. I discussed the idea with a writing partner 3 years ago, but it is only now coming to fruition with an actual proposal in hand and a potential publisher.
    • Be realistic but not afraid to reach. Visualize success in areas you may have little control over. Don’t be afraid to write down a desired goal that may be a stretch.
  6. Longer-term Goals
    • This is the area to think out for the next 3–5 years, including life beyond the company or situation you are currently in. For me, I listed “teaching again” as a goal. This reminds me that I want to do this and I need to make certain decisions and changes in order to make it happen.

      If I decide at a later time, that I don’t really want to do this, I should remove it off the plan.

  7. Opportunities to Explore at Your Company
    • List all the training and coaching opportunities relevant and currently available at your company.
    • Note relationships that need to be cultivated at your company in order to meet success.

      Note: This obviously may not apply if you are an independent consultant. Think about other opportunities that might be available through professional associations and networking instead.

  8. Skills to Develop
    • Project what skills you need to develop to reach the goals you listed in the first part of this exercise.
    • What other skills do you need, besides the ones you have now, to attain your goal?

      Since I am a manager and this is the area in which I have been growing, I listed things such as Confidence and Effectiveness—along with ideas on how to master these more intangible skills.

      Over the last couple of years, I have purposely put myself into situations to gain confidence—especially when giving presentations. Think about starting slow and building on your successes.

      In addition, I also listed skills of associated/allied roles that I would like to learn in order to make myself a more well-rounded and effective manager in my company.

  9. What I Care About in a Work Environment
    • This may seem frivolous or not important to the task at hand, but it serves to remind you of the values you need to share with the company you work for. As you grow or the company changes this can help guide you when you need to make a change.
  10. Personal Goals
    • Don’t forget the personal goals that you need to weave into your life. It never hurts to write these down as a reminder of work/life balance and of the things that are really important to you as a person.

You can use the finished plan as a tool when working on performance goals with your boss. Letting her know what you want out of the job is as important as your manager being clear on what is expected of you. Reminding her regularly of your goals is also important, as we tend to fall into patterns of behavior that may not be best for our long-term career plans.

I pull my career plan out periodically to check off what I have accomplished, and have begun adding to the long-term section. I see how I have grown and what areas I still need to work on in order to reach the goals I have set. I can also see that some things that were important to me three years ago are no longer important, and that there are new areas of growth I am cultivating.

The point of this exercise is to come up with a realistic plan within the framework of your interests and career path. The list should be visited regularly and modified as you reach goals or when goals are no longer important to you. The plan should help you shape a vision towards reaching a future destination and remind you that success does not happen by chance.

  • Creating a Career Plan Career Planning.pdf This PDF from a career training firm offers some good exercise questions to answer about your values, strengths and current situation. A nice companion to the template detailed in this article.

Erin Malone is currently a Product Design Director at AOL (America Online). She has been a practicing interaction, interface and information designer since 1993. She is editor in chief of Boxes and Arrows.


  1. That was great Erin, I had been going through my plans latelly and one thing I found really useful was going through old plans (mine were from four years ago) and identifying changes and why they happened. It really helps understanding and shapping up your future.

  2. That was great Erin, I had been going through my plans latelly and one thing I found really useful was going through old plans (mine were from four years ago) and identifying changes and why they happened. It really helps understanding and shapping up your future.

  3. In one of those job transitions now, asking myself questions like “do I want to be on the creative side or the account service side?” Wow, my advertising silos are really hard at work. And recruiters have the same question “Are you really going to be happy doing this ONE THING?”

    As you say, no one is looking out for your career path/growth but yourself. Thank you for looking after mine just a little bit.

  4. Great stuff. I will be sharing this with others who might need to hear this. Thank you…

  5. Wow Erin. Written in 2004, this article still gets my fav award. And now I see that I commented in 2006 as I was looking for my next gig. Well, that gig became Dell Computer. And at the end of the month I will again be in transition. I am making a commitment to copy out your plan and write it again.

    Has this post been updated or continuted. I am about to submit it to Mixx and Digg and Sphinn again to see if I can share if with a few more people. It’s a great inspiration even 4 years later. Thanks, jmacofearth.

  6. Erin,
    I really like the practical part of this article and I have one question for you. what do you do when you see your career path in 5 years not w/ your existing company? Do you put that in your career plan? As a manager how would you deal w/ the integrity and sincerity issues that are implied in my first question; meaning, how much can you encourage the level of open honesty in a work environment so that such a plan would be useful to everyone?

    (obviously, other people’s thoughts would be greatly appreciated here as well.) — dave

  7. That’s a good question David. If you know for a fact you will not be with company x in five years and are planning towards that goal, then that may not be the best thing to work on with your boss. On the other hand, there are goals that you have that this company is helping you meet which should also be beneficial to the company. That is the stuff you work on with your boss.

    As I said – I have a lot of personal professional goals on my plan that have nothing to do with my job at my company. They are professionally related – things like presenting at conferences, writing more in the field, working on my book. My job goals don’t necessarily foster that, but they need to be on the plan so that I carve out time and opportunities to make them happen.

    I believe that portions of the plan should absolutly be discussed honestly with your boss. Other portions may be best left off if you know they involve leaving or working for another company (especially of they are competition).

  8. “If you know for a fact you will not be with company x in five years and are planning towards that goal, then that may not be the best thing to work on with your boss.”

    Five years is an eternity in our field. And good bosses know that, especially at startups. I’m lucky enough to be working for a boss right now that has said “I know that this company is just the current configuration of some people. Many of us will work together again in the future, and so I want to help you grow in case we find ourselves at another company together.”

    Not to say that if you have the goal of working at a *specific* company you should bring that up! Don’t do that!

  9. I think the other thing is that some managers are just not really open about anything except the bottom-line since they know there is a great big pool of applicants knocking really hard on the door. So it’s a balance of how much you want to really disclose without hurting an opportunity that is already working for you.

    Also another advise to folks doing some introspection…you might have to do this while on vacation or just during some quiet time without distraction. I noticed that as I try to plot out a plan for myself while working I got mired in day to day issues/firefighting both personally and professionally and I wasn’t being honest of what was in the plan because it was clouded by frustrations. I’ve decided to take a month off just so that I can think through logically/emotionally/practically/spiritually about both personal & career paths. I like the values part and date aspect of the outline. They are great markers for maturity and growth.

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