Everyone dreams of that perfect job that combines their skills and passions. However, getting there can seem daunting. Whether you want to end up in the C-suite of an international corporation or in charge of your own local business, achieving your career goals requires careful planning.
Even when starting your career, you have more agency over your profession than you might think. Setting clear and specific goals can set you on the right path, help you take control of your career and land you in the position you’ve always dreamed of.
We’ll explain more about career goals and how to set and achieve them systematically.
Career goals are targets related to your professional life. They’re different for everyone and can change as you start and advance in your career.
The steps to achieve career goals will vary. For example, say a teenager wants to be the CEO of a large automotive company someday. They must go through several stages to achieve this goal, including the following:
For established professionals, career goals often fit into one of the following categories:
To achieve your career goals, having both short-term and long-term career objectives is essential:
No matter your age or professional experience, the following steps will help you set and achieve your career goals.
Whether you’re starting your professional life or switching careers, your first step is deciding where you want to end up. You may have had a career dream since childhood or you may be starting to investigate your options. If you fall into the latter category, research realistic career possibilities for your educational background, experience and skill set.
The internet is a great place to start your research. Additionally, reach out to people in professions that interest you. They can help you understand better the hard and soft skills and experience you need and what it takes to get there.
When planning your career journey, it’s important to be ambitious. However, don’t waste time and energy on unrealistic goals. Focus on areas that make sense for you and your strengths.
After identifying your ultimate career goal, list the steps that will get you there. Working backward is an excellent way to ensure you take the right steps to stay on track.
With a clear end goal in mind, you can determine the skills, certifications and experience you’ll need to get there more easily. For example, if your dream job is a position that calls for international experience, an internship abroad may be a better choice than a paid entry-level job at home.
Break down your larger aspirations into specific, quantifiable, realistic and timely goals. In addition to focusing on the broad leaps it takes to advance, you must also address the small steps that move you from one stage to the next in the short term.
You may have a clear vision of each rung on the career ladder, but you also need to know what it takes to get your foot firmly planted on the next level. Try to take each step in your career path and divide it into smaller, more manageable pieces. Focus on the details when planning each move. The more detailed you are in setting each goal, the greater your likelihood of achieving it.
Write down your goals so you can remember them and hold yourself accountable for accomplishing them. Writing down goals takes your thoughts and ideas and turns them into something concrete. It will also help you think through aspects of your career plan and see challenges or opportunities more clearly.
Placing a physical list of goals and actions somewhere that you’ll see often will help keep you focused. Sometimes, we can get too comfortable in a position, letting our goals fall by the wayside. A written list can prevent you from becoming complacent.
You must consistently track your progress toward your career goals. An excellent way to stay on course is to attach a deadline to each goal. Deadlines don’t have to be rigid, but you should have a general idea of when you hope to arrive at your next career stage.
If you don’t accomplish your goals on time, determine what’s holding you back and how you can progress. When tracking career goals, flexibility is crucial. Things don’t always work out the way we envision. A good backup plan will prepare you for when things go off track.
A lack of confidence is one of the biggest obstacles to achieving personal and professional goals. You won’t be able to accomplish anything if you don’t believe in yourself. Having faith in your skills and strengths will provide you with the motivation to keep striving. It will also demonstrate that you’ve got what it takes to move up. Confidence in yourself will translate to others, including your boss, having confidence in you.
When you know what you want from your career, commit to doing whatever it takes to get there, even if it involves some risk. Don’t hold yourself back from taking career risks because you’re afraid to fail. Failure doesn’t necessarily mean game over or back to square one. It can be an opportunity to pivot in a new direction.
Who you know does matter. Surrounding yourself with the right people can help advance your career. That’s why making an effort to grow your professional network is vital to achieving your career goals.
There are many ways to network online and in person, but you should focus on connecting with people knowledgeable about the type of job you want. Prioritize nurturing those relationships. A business contact can be more than just a mentor or a reference; they might end up offering you your dream job.
To advance your career, you must demonstrate that you’re engaged in your current position. According to Brenda Reynolds, founder of BKR Consulting, it’s crucial to volunteer to go above and beyond your job description. “Step up to do more, especially if it involves working beyond your own silo and working with others at varying levels and parts of the organization,” Reynolds advised.
Career coach and professional resume writer Debra Ann Matthews advises professionals to volunteer to lead annual fundraisers, help with charity events and join committees that plan employee or customer appreciation events. These events help you build capital within your company and let you meet a cross-section of employees.
Matthews also suggested obtaining certifications and joining professional organizations within your field, regardless of your position. Earning credentials like project management certifications or IT certifications provides you with skills you’ll need down the line. Plus, it shows your commitment to your career.
“If you are a warehouse worker or production team lead, get advanced certification in OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration]. If you are a human resource professional, join the Society for Human Resource Management,” Matthews recommended. “Joining professional associations will help you to meet colleagues, learn about the latest developments and stay abreast of industry hiring trends.”
According to Jack Hill, chief customer officer at Evernorth’s MDLIVE, taking control is crucial to growing your career. For example, if your boss or HR manager discusses advancement opportunities only at annual performance reviews, arrange to meet with them to discuss your potential career path.
Hill says HR should be able to provide information to potential and current employees about past career paths for others in the same or similar roles and what that person did to move up the ladder.
Beyond talking about your career goals with HR, you should do the following:
The key is taking things into your own hands ― you don’t want to miss an opportunity within your reach.
Michael Steinitz, senior executive director of professional talent solutions at Robert Half, advises employees to discuss their career goals with their managers frequently.
“Managers can often remove obstacles, offer guidance and advice or adjust goals so they’re more realistic and attainable,” Steinitz explained. “Managers should ask employees about their work objectives and check in on progress regularly.”
Steinitz added that managers should be upfront about expectations and ensure employees’ goals support overall business objectives.
Many workers believe their career advancement will be driven by better business technologies, including tablets, project management tools and productivity apps.
“Employees want technologies to help them be more efficient and productive,” explained Sean O’Brien, managing partner at Overline VC. “[They want] to do more with less and work smarter, not harder.”
While your employer may be responsible for some of the bigger IT demands, like collaboration software, you can research tools that will help you do your job better. For example, you can download productivity and inbox-management apps to your mobile device to stay organized and ready to tackle your biggest work challenges.
You can also use technology to cement your presence in your field or profession. Beyond creating an active LinkedIn profile and current online resume, establish yourself as an expert or thought leader in your field by blogging about your professional interests.
“You want your company to know that you are a subject matter expert and go above your expected duties to help your company grow,” Matthews noted.
While excelling in our careers is important, it is only one of the reasons we work to achieve our goals. Promotions and pay raises don’t hurt, but external factors often drive us, like improving work-life balance or doing impactful work that makes a difference.
It’s important to remember that we are people, not just robots built to work. Taking time to celebrate each achievement on your career journey is a vital way to acknowledge your hard work and motivate you to conquer the next step.
Once you’ve started achieving your career goals, consider how you can help others starting in your field. For example, say you’re a manager and you notice that a promising employee is in a rut. You could engage them in an open conversation and provide guidance to redirect their energy.
It doesn’t take much effort to guide those who are just starting out. “Ask them their concerns, find out what they wanted to do for a living when they were younger, identify where their interest lies and see if there’s a need for such a position within your organization,” advised Allen Shayanfekr, CEO of Sharestates.
Helping others achieve their career goals can benefit you and your organization:
Mapping your career goals provides a clear path to follow on your career journey.
“It’s important for people to see the steps that are actually involved [in reaching their career goals],” said Ryan Porter, co-founder of Ruutly. “I hear so many students say things like, ‘I want to be a fashion designer’ or ‘I want to be a snowboard instructor.’ Thanks to 30- to 60-minute TV shows, these young career planners often assume things happen much quicker than they actually do.”
Career experts shared their advice for mapping out a career path to your ultimate dream job. Consider the following steps.
For your first step, create a detailed personal vision statement of where you would like to be at various points in the coming years, advised Joyce Maroney, former director of the Workforce Institute at workforce management company Kronos.
“Before you can chase that dream job, you need to articulate what success means to you, including the aspects of your life outside of the job,” Maroney explained. “Only once you have a clear vision of where you want to be in the next one, five and 20 years can you construct a roadmap to get there.”
If you’re making a career change and trying to plan a path to your new goals, think about why you want to switch directions before taking that first step.
“When considering a professional change, the best first question to ask is, ‘Am I running toward something or away from something?'” Maroney said. “If it’s the former, go for it. If it’s the latter, the change you need to make may just be a change in manager or company, not your current career track.”
You may have a list of companies you want to work for or C-suite titles you want to earn. However, you must understand the skills you need to achieve these aspirations and how to develop them. Skills and experience make you a “doer” ― not a “wannabe.”
“When mapping out your future, rather than focusing on companies and positions, think about the skills and expertise necessary to pursue your dream career,” advised Kirk Baumann, director of marketing and e-commerce at O’Reilly Hospitality Management.
Ryan Carson, co-founder of multiple startups, says being a “doer” is better than fixating on titles and promotions. “When creating a good career map, these aren’t necessarily things you should focus on because it distracts you from actually doing,” Carson explained. “Being a doer, whether it’s [through driving] creative projects or offering advice, shows high social intelligence ― that you can work with people, develop or offer something meaningful to a situation and make partnerships happen.”
Networking with people in your chosen field ― especially those with positions you hope to hold ― can be immensely helpful in career-planning efforts. Identify one or more mentors and ask about their academic and professional backgrounds. This information will help you explore potential paths to your career destination.
Maroney noted that asking open-ended questions when you network can reveal some untold stories behind your dream career. “Most people like to talk about themselves,” Maroney said. “These informational conversations are your opportunity to make sure that you understand the rewards and the costs of performing that role. Every job has its highs and lows.”
Your career path isn’t set in stone; you must adapt to the roadblocks and detours you encounter along the way.
“Planning out a career path will not necessarily lead you to your dream job,” Carson explained. “Your ideals about that dream job will probably change. Being flexible, adaptable, open to learning new skills and a creator of something, whether it be an idea or tangible object, are some of the most important pieces to being successful in any career.”
Even if you take a wrong turn, it’s never too late to adjust and learn from the experience.
“So many people are paralyzed by the thought of making a career choice because they are afraid of getting it wrong,” Porter said. “The good news is that you can make changes. Everybody chooses occupations and takes stops along their career paths that they aren’t excited about. The point is to make a decision and do something. Learn from that decision and what it means to your career path and then make better decisions from that point forward.”
It doesn’t matter if you’re still in school or decades into a stale career. It’s never too late to start planning how to get where you want to go. The most important thing is to be proactive. Start doing research and plotting your goals today. It takes hard work and multiple steps, but the sooner you start your new career journey, the sooner you’ll find yourself in your dream job.
Adam Uzialko and Paula Fernandes contributed to this article. Source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.