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How to write a strategic career plan that you’ll actually use

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by Jennifer Bridges  @JenBridgesRD

Man thinking hard in front of chalkboard showing dotted line ending at point B

Many of us work our whole lives without any kind of plan to ensure our career path is rewarding. Moreover, even when we do go to the trouble of writing one down, we often end up forgetting about it, ignoring it, or deciding that it’s impossible. 

However, whether you are just starting out in your career or have been working for decades, creating a strategic career plan can help you identify and achieve your goals—as long as you do it the right way.

Here’s what you need to know to write a strategic career plan that you’ll actually follow through on.

1. Identify your career goals 

The first step in creating a strategic career plan is to identify what you want to achieve in your career. You’ll need to come up with at least one long-term goal and several short-term goals. 

If you are having trouble coming up with ideas, you can ask yourself these questions:

  • Where do I want to be professionally in two years?—Often, it’s easier to visualize goals that are close to where you are now. Think about what you could achieve in this timeframe. For example, do you want to learn new technology or improve key soft skills, like emotional intelligence, personal communication, or decision-making? Ideally, your short-term goals will set you up to complete your long-term goals.
  • Where do I want to be professionally in five years?—Because your industry may change over time, you need to make your longer-term goals—and the steps you’ll have to take to achieve them—broader than your short-term ones. For example, instead of mastering a new software program, which might become irrelevant, you might strive to earn a promotion or transition to a new career.
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  • What makes these goals meaningful to me?—Don’t make a goal just for the sake of making one. You need a goal that will motivate you into action. If you’re making a goal based on what someone else wants, then it isn’t going to be compelling for you. 

Some common career goals include:

  • Obtaining a leadership position—Becoming a leader is perhaps the most common professional goal. However, what this means will be different for each individual. 
  • Getting additional education or training—This could include continuing education classes, earning a professional certification, or workshops offered by your employer. 
  • Earning more money—Don’t feel crass for wanting more money. Working for less than you are worth lowers your motivation and engagement, which makes you less productive. 
  • Gaining new experiences—New experiences broaden your perspective and can help you build your professional network. Some good ways to experience new things are joining a professional organization, volunteering, or attending networking events.
  • Improving professional relationships—This goal area can make the daily work experience more positive and rewarding.

2. Perform a SWOT self-assessment

To ensure your goals are aligned with your personality, skills, and the market environment, you need to perform a personal S-W-O-T (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) analysis. You can then use the resulting insights to develop an actionable career plan.

Chance favors the prepared mind.”—Louis Pasteur

Strengths

Your strengths are what make you special compared to other people. They are the unique value you can provide.

Here are some questions to help you identify your strengths:

  • What are you better at than other people?
  • What do other people view as your strengths?
  • How much experience do you have in your profession? 
  • What skills, abilities, knowledge, or connections do you have that others don’t?
  • What values do you live by that most people find too demanding?
  • Which professional achievements are you proudest of?

Weaknesses

When thinking about your weaknesses, it’s important to view yourself from other people’s perspectives because other people tend to notice things about you that you are blind to. Although this can be an uncomfortable task, it’s vital that you see yourself as realistically as possible. To this end, it’s important to ask people who know you best what areas you need to improve.

Here are some things to consider:

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  • What do other people say your weaknesses are?
  • What are your worst work habits? Are you sloppy, disorganized, or bad at time management?
  • Which activities do you avoid doing, and why do you dislike doing them?
  • Do you struggle with anxiety, imposter syndrome, or procrastination?
  • Are there gaps in your education, skills, or training?
  • Are you afraid to take risks?

Opportunities

Think about your workplace and your industry. Do you see any opportunities for you to grow and advance in your profession?

Ask yourself the following to identify any career opportunities:

  • Is your industry expanding? If so, how can you take advantage of this?
  • Are there people in your network who can mentor you?
  • Are there any new technologies you can learn that will help you do your job better? 
  • Is there a common problem you can offer a solution for?
  • Has your company started any new initiatives you can participate in?
  • Is your competition not doing something that you can? 

Threats

Thinking about what might prevent you from reaching your goals is a good way to discover additional tasks you might not have realized you needed to do. 

To better understand what you’re up against, ask yourself:

  • Are you competing with your coworkers for coveted positions or projects?
  • Are you encountering any significant obstacles at work?
  • Is the demand for your skills declining?
  • Is your industry struggling in the current economy?

3. Figure out what steps you need to take

Now that you know your goals and your SWOT results, you should perform a gap analysis to figure out how to get from where you are now to where you want to be. An easy way to do this is to study several job descriptions for the role you are aiming for. Recent job postings can often provide detailed information about what kinds of experience and skills you will need to acquire. 

Look carefully at each required item and compare it to your current skill set, years of experience, and level of education. Rate your qualifications for each item from 1-10, with 10 being a perfect match. 

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Next, make a list of all the low-scoring items. See if you can group any of them into larger categories. For example, lacking familiarity with industry technology and not having specific certifications both fall under the theme of “education.” 

These groups are the foundation of the steps you need to take to reach your goals. For example, if you don’t have the required public speaking skills needed to be eligible for the leadership role you want, then the steps in your career plan will include specific ways to improve your public speaking skills, like joining Toastmasters International.

4. Organize the steps involved in achieving your goals

Now that you understand your strengths and weaknesses, as well as what you need to do to reach your goals, it’s time to lay out your plan.

Start by writing down your long-term goals at the top of a page. Then, work backward, specifying the short-term goals that you’ll need to accomplish first, and the steps you’ll have to take to reach each milestone along the way.

Be sure to include a “start by” date, as well as the dates you expect to complete each step. This will help hold you accountable and motivate you when you lose focus. 

Strategic career plan example

Here is an example of how to format your plan. Notice how the goals are organized, starting with the ones that are the quickest to complete at the bottom.

My long-term career goal: 

To become an HR manager.

My short-term career goals:

I will get a job as a senior HR generalist.

  • I will do informational interviews with three HR senior generalists per month.
  • I will submit at least five job applications per week.
  • I will ask to take on two new projects per year in my current role.
  • I will revise my LinkedIn profile every six months to better reflect my current skills and qualifications. 

I will find a mentor to help me advance in my career.

  • I will engage with at least three industry professionals per week on social media.
  • I will attend two industry networking events per year.

I will earn my Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR) credential.

  • I will schedule my SPHR exam for the end of October.
  • I will study for my SPHR exam for at least one hour every day for the next six weeks.

Next steps

Now that you’ve put all this effort into creating a strategic career plan, it’s time to put it to work. Use the goals you’ve listed to help you make career decisions as you continue moving towards your long-term goal. 

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For example, you can compare your day-to-day responsibilities to your career plan to see if the tasks you are doing align with your career development strategy. Does your job match any of your goals? If not, it might be time to look for a new one.

You can also proactively use your career plan to identify the types of opportunities (like education, mentoring, training, or experience) you should be pursuing. This will help you act quickly when you need to make a decision.

It’s also important to keep your plan up to date. Don’t create your plan and then ignore it. If market conditions or your personal situation changes, you might need to adjust your plan.

As such, it’s a good idea to revisit your plan at least twice a year. Doing so is also an effective way to monitor your progress and remind you of your next steps. 

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Now that you’ve written your strategic career plan, you might want to know what else you can do to promote your professional development. If this is the case, check out these articles: