Think for a moment about your favorite trip. Chances are you settled on the ultimate destination after some careful thought. If you were smart about it, you considered several different travel options for reaching that destination before settling on the best one. The same can be said of successful career journeys as well, where there is far more at stake if you take a wrong turn than there would be on that favorite trip. Fortunately, there are some best practices and guidelines for goal setting that can set professionals up for success.
“Some people see the destination but don't know the path yet. You need to be extremely mindful of your career choices,” said Bill Courtney, TDK Technologies Director of Recruiting.
Think about professional goals as the destination, representing where you want to be at a particular time on your career journey. Professional objectives are the mile-markers you must surpass in order to arrive at the destination. Arguably even more important is the act of choosing the journey itself. If you aren’t setting off on a path to where you really want to be, chances are you will eventually stray, especially when the inevitable challenges arise.
The first step in setting professional goals is to identify points of congruence between yourself and the company you work for. Match your desires, purpose and vision with the vision, mission, goals and philosophies of the company. This may require some extensive self-assessment, along with analysis of the company. But it is certainly part of the critical path to arriving where you want to be.
“For example, you can't be a project manager unless you've been a project coordinator. You can't become a program manager unless you've been a project manager. Be realistic about where you are in your career and understand the steps needed to achieve long term goals,” Courtney said.
Setting SMART Objectives
Once you have identified where you want to be and how this conforms to the company, the specific objectives should be set. Try to set 3 or 4 objectives for the year. Each of your professional objectives should be traceable back to one or more corporate goals. Progress and achievement should be quantifiable and associated with specific achievement dates. More extensive objectives may be broken down into sub-objectives or tasks.
Since your goal path is essentially a project, the principles of project management very much apply. Identifying deadlines, dependencies and the critical path should be part of the process. A helpful guideline to follow when creating your objectives is to be SMART: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely.
Specific: Objectives should be action-oriented and have specificity in terms of what you are going to do, why it is important, who must be involved, when will it occur, and how it will be accomplished.
Measurable: The progress of each goal is quantified by the achievement of the objectives which support it. The supporting objectives should be quantifiable and have more detail. Your objectives are action-oriented, but should be measurable in terms of outcomes. Measurable outcomes include quantities, rates of change, completed actions, efficiencies, observable actions, and other data.
Achievable: Objectives must be achievable given the timeframe and resources you have available. Consider the potential obstacles to achieving your objective. Do you have enough time? Do you have the resources required? Is achievement within the scope of your authority and control? Keep in mind the distinction between your perception of control and actual control. Some individuals are biased towards attributing outcomes to their locus of control, while others tend to attribute outcomes outside of their locus of control. Understanding your own personality and biases will help you set objectives which are both challenging and achievable.
Realistic: Objectives should not only be achievable, they should also be in line with the vision and mission of both yourself and the company. They do not need to be easy and may require changes to your behavior and priorities. Such changes will require determination and motivation which will be lacking if the objectives are not realistic. If objectives are beyond your reach or not closely aligned with your goal path, they are not realistic.
Timely: Your objectives are the waypoints on your goal path. However, you clearly don’t want to merely arrive at the desired destination, you want to arrive on time. Your objectives, sub-objectives and tasks should adhere to a schedule. There should be deadlines and milestones which are both realistic, but create the sense of urgency required to keep you moving on a steady pace in the right direction. Consider using a Gantt chart or some other tool which allows you to track the progress of your “goal project” to ensure you are staying on schedule. Being on time requires you to identify the dependencies and critical path so you know when and where to allocate your resources and efforts.
What path do you want to take?
For IT professionals, there are many paths to professional development which are mutually beneficial to both the individual and the company they work for. The SMART concepts should be utilized when considering objectives that make the most sense for you. Some examples include:
- Certifications: Perhaps the company is looking to win more projects which require competence in Oracle, so a database administrator sets a goal to become Oracle certified in database administration. Perhaps a software developer working for that same company sets an objective to become Oracle certified in application development within the next six months.
- Acquire New Technical Skills: Do you work for an IT consulting firm which desires to stay on the leading edge of technology? Perhaps you set an objective to learn an emerging programming language or software framework. Maybe the company’s clients are moving to an agile methodology, so you set an objective to learn agile and utilize it on a project.
- Develop Communication and Presentation Skills: As you move into more senior roles, the positions will be more client-facing and include larger scope jobs. Look for opportunities to make group presentations on a current project to hone your capabilities.
- Networking: Developing connections within the IT community is an excellent way to stay informed about developments in the employment marketplace and to stay current on industry developments. An objective to attend user group meetings on a monthly basis will provide exposure to different people, organizations and technologies.
“If you hit a plateau in your career, sometimes you need to take a step back. There may be a short term cost for long term career development. You might have to step back to get into an organization that can get you to where you want further down the line,” Courtney said.
Once you find your path, follow the guidelines above to ensure you stay on it and arrive at the right place at the right time. Take the time required to find that happy medium between your personal desires and the vision and mission of the company. Set SMART objectives which will guide you to where you want to be. Make sure you can trace each task to an objective, each objective to a goal, and each goal to where you want to be professionally. And hey! Try and have some fun along the way. If you don’t enjoy the path you’re on, you won’t be getting very far on it!