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How to Create a Five-Year Career Plan

Sid Kemp is a business consultant and author of 10 books on project management and business success.

He's happy doing what he's doing. Have you found your dream job?

He's happy doing what he's doing. Have you found your dream job?

Do You Need a Career Plan?

These days, people stay in a job an average of about four years. This means most people will have about seven to ten jobs during our working life. Many people will change the company we work for, our location, and our career, as well as changing jobs. And planned change is much more likely to get us what we want than haphazard change.

I was talking to a friend yesterday who is staying at her job and waiting for the other shoe to drop. She's been told that the company is reorganizing and she may be out of a job. And many of us are in this situation. Do we want to wait until we are unemployed? I think it is better to plan the career we want and go for it, rather than waiting until we are just job-hunting to survive.

Also, some of us fall into a career by accident, and it works. But often it doesn't. Some people invest in a lot of schooling and end up with a career they chose in childhood, then discover it does not give them the happiness, the fulfillment, or the income we want.

Career Choices

Create a Fulfilling and Successful Professional Life With a Career Plan

There is another way. We can discover and choose a truly fulfilling and financially rewarding career, and we can develop a plan over several years—perhaps five years—to achieve our goal. Then we put that plan into action and create a fulfilling, rewarding, financially successful professional life.

It's up to you, but I would say that we're much more likely to have a great life and achieve financial success with a career plan than without one. A chosen career is much more than a happy accident or a job that pays the bills. For many, it is the center of a fulfilling life!

My Experience as a Career Coach

Being a career coach is a fulfilling part of my life. Over the last 20 years, I've helped many people leave dead-end jobs, discover their dreams, and create prosperous lives. The process of choosing a calling or career is creative and empowering, as well. People discover skills they never knew they had. Helping other people create new careers and new lives is a rewarding career for me, for sure!

Career plans are good for any career. I've helped people in many professions with their career plans.

  • I've helped a waiter get a job at the best new restaurant in the city.
  • I've helped a manager of city planning plan on how to move up from a small city to one of the biggest cities in the US.
  • I've helped a professor decide between a career of scholarship or becoming an administrator.
  • I've helped a minister re-launch his career.
  • I've helped a child-care specialist find a better job when she was laid off.
  • And I've helped a librarian choose among new careers including law, entrepreneurial management, writing, and not-for-profit leadership.

A career plan for a waiter may seem like a crazy idea—until you learn that a waiter at a good restaurant can make over $100,000 a year! And you may think you are stuck in one career or industry, until you learn the secret of transferable skills. With a dream, a plan, and the willingness to make it happen, your new career is coming right up!

Table of Contents

Three Things That Don't Matter

Here are a bunch of things that worry people and stop them from going for a career. But, for the person determined to make his or her dreams real, they don't matter:

  • Age: My youngest career client was in high school. The oldest is close to 60. You're never too young, or old!
  • Education: The ability to learn is more important than what you have already learned. Gain learning skills, and the world is your oyster.
  • Personal history: One of my clients began his career plan when he came out of Federal prison. Now, he's a lawyer!

Don't let anything stop you from creating your future: The past is gone, and today is a new day!

What Does a Career Plan Look Like?

Any good plan starts where you are, goes where you want to go, and has steps that you will take to get from here to there. A career plan is more like an itinerary than a road map. You'll start where you are. The jobs, promotions, education, and training are the stops on your journey. And a top job in the career of your dreams is the goal.

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If you are already in your dream career, and just want to move up, your plan may take less than five years. If you want to be a brain surgeon, and you're just graduating high school, then a fifteen-year plan is in order! But in looking at a big life change, five years is a good start.

So, our plan will answer these questions:

  • In my job and career, where am I now?
  • Where do I want to be in five years, in terms of job, career, and income?
  • What steps will I need to take to get from here to where I want to be?

The specific steps in a career plan include:

  • Job titles I will apply for
  • Education, training, on-the-job training, and certifications I will seek and attain
  • Types of companies I will work for
  • Income expectations
  • Plans to relocate - or not

Where we want to be in five years, or another time frame we choose, includes:

  • Job title
  • Type of company, and specific companies we might want to work for
  • Desired income, backed by realistic research
  • Work environment
  • Type of work we want to be doing

Now, we're going to build your career plan - backwards. First, you'll define your goal, then we'll come back to where you are today, and how to get there.

Choosing a New Career

If you already know what you want to be when you grow up, you're lucky. If you're already in that career, your double-lucky. But many people find themselves either not knowing what they want to do (even when they've grown up already), or in a dead-end career and not knowing where to go next.

There are two key points in choosing a career.

  • It's not just about the money. The stress of a job you don't like will cost you more (in medical bills, or lost and wasted time and energy) than the higher salary. So, it's about fulfillment. Each of us has a different calling. Knowing what career is right for you calls for inner research.
  • It's not what you expect. In most jobs, you do not spend most of your time doing what you were trained to do. For example, psychologists do not spend most of their time counseling patients. If they are in a bureaucracy, they fill out a lot of paperwork. If they set up an individual practice, they spend a lot of time running a business. Even movie actors spend a lot more time auditioning and rehearsing and getting their makeup and costume on than they spend in front of the camera. Knowing what a job is really like calls for outer research.

To choose a fulfilling career, you need to do two kinds of research:

  • inner research. Through remembering your dreams, thinking of people you admire, or taking assessments that identify skills - perhaps hidden skills - and preferences, you can find which jobs and industries would be fulfilling for you.
  • outer research. Ask to meet people in the career of your choice. Get to know them. Do informational interviews. You're not looking for a job, you're looking for answers. You want to know what someone's job is really like. It's easier than you think - just take them out for lunch or a cup of coffee. People like to talk about themselves. And they are thrilled to be someone else's role model. What? they think, this person wants to be like me? Wow! Your asking to meet them makes them feel valuable and appreciated, and they open up and answer all your questions.

What Does an Informational Interview Look Like?

Here's an example that shows how easy informational interviews are, and how they work. One of my clients was leaving a profession as a librarian because it was no longer fulfilling. He had a sharp mind, and was seriously interested in studying law. Working with me, he came to realize that a person with a law degree could have many different types of careers: criminal law; civil law; corporate law; legal counsel to not-for-profit organizations; legal counsel for a city or other government; law professor; and many more. Rather than just jumping into law school, my client went out to meet some lawyers and ask them what their work life is really like. He ran into two surprises.

One was a good surprise: Everyone was happy to talk to him, and to provide really valuable, useful information about what their work was really like. The second surprise was maybe not so good: Most of the lawyers were not happy doing what they did, and they didn't know any other happy lawyers, either. Even the lawyers that were happy did work that really wouldn't satisfy my client.

So, he decided not to be a lawyer - and saved three years of his life and about $150,000 in tuition. One good reason for a career plan is not to waste money and time going somewhere you won't want to be when you get there!

Dare to Dream

The first step in a great career plan is to think big - to widen your horizons. I don't mean to think unrealistically. Saying I want to be a movie actress, or President of the United States, or CEO of a Fortune 500 corporation is more daydreaming than planning, for almost all of us. So, let's not be grandiose. But let's be open-minded: Be open to using skills you enjoy that you've never used at work. Be open to getting more education. Be open to being more creative, or more deeply of service, and, so, being more fulfilled.

A key idea in our dreaming is transferable skills. There are things that we do every day that don't fit just one job. They could fit into a whole new career. I met a man recently who grew up professionally through the rental car business. But he really loved boats, and wanted to run his own company. So he created a company that manages and sells foreclosed boat marinas. And he's doing really well. At first, bankers and other backers doubted him - how did managing a rental car business help him manage marinas. He replied that they were really the same - managing property assets; generating current revenue by leasing those assets; and leveraging value by selling the assets at the end. He had discovered the transferable skills that took him out of a corporate career and set him sailing in entrepreneurial waters.

Are you ready to discover your transferable skills? You can start by asking three generic questions:

  • What am I good at doing with data and information?
  • What am I good at doing with people (and animals)?
  • What am I good at doing with things?

Each uses skills in one or more of these three areas. Here are some examples:

  • A waiter or waitress needs all three: Taking orders and entering them accurately; conversing with people, being friendly, and keeping them happy; and carrying food and delivering it without dropping it. It's actually a very skilled job, when you consider that most people have skill in only one or two areas.
  • Architects and computer programmers work with data, but in very different ways. One works at a very conceptual, high level; the other, down in the details.
  • A life coach who wants to work less with people might become a dog trainer - the skills are quite similar!

Many people have transferable skills they use at home or in volunteer work that can build a new career, as well. Look for your transferable skills, and you may find a new career waiting!

Elements of Your Dream Job

The goal of your career plan is your dream job. How would you describe it. Richard Bolles, in his annually-updated bestselling career guide, What Color is Your Parachute recommends answering these eight questions:

  • What transferable skills do I most enjoy using?
  • What is my favorite area of knowledge or expertise?
  • Where would I most like to live?
  • What kind of people do I like to be with at work?
  • What values and goals are most important to me?
  • What working conditions are acceptable? How about excellent?
  • What salary do I want to receive?
  • What level of responsibility do I want to hold?