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What Career Path Fits Your Goals?

You daydream of different industries and new roles, but consider these four options before taking steps on a new path.

By Dan Coughlin
Job Search

I’ve learned that writing a book is an exhilarating experience. Essentially an author is handed 250 blank canvasses and is allowed to create whatever he wants. However, the canvasses do have to fit under a certain theme and the chapters, while being able to stand alone in terms of their uniqueness and contribution, have to connect to one another in some meaningful way.

Your career is like a book where you fill in the blank canvasses.

Writing a book requires a person to do two things:

1. Step back and visualize how the chapters fit together.

2. Step to the keyboard and fill in the words.

To build a great career you need to step back and visualize how the various jobs you take on fit together in a meaningful way and step forward to each job and execute your responsibilities masterfully. This article is about stepping back and visualizing how your next job will fit meaningfully within your overall career path.

Start by answering these questions

You have roughly 1,000 different things you can do as your next job. As a starting point to narrow your job search, I suggest that any job you take on should fit within your purpose, passions, strengths and values. Take out a sheet of paper and answer these four questions:

  • What is the purpose I want guiding my career?
  • What gets me excited when I do it?
  • What am I good at doing?
  • What beliefs determine my behaviors?

After you answer these questions you’re in a much better position to select your next job. Some people might argue that in a recession money should be the driving force. In other words, the only question that should be answered is, “How much does the job pay?”

I don’t think that is a good idea. If you take a job just for the money and you find no purpose in your work, you have no passion for doing it, you are not particularly good at it, and the work does not match your values, then you are destined to fail. So how worthwhile will that good paycheck be then?

Once you’ve found your career “center of gravity,” consider which career moves fit within it. Walk through the following four career moves and picture what they would look like for you:

1. Same organization, expanded responsibilities

The grass is not always greener at the next organization. And if you keep chasing greener grass eventually you will run out of grass to chase. Sometimes the very best career move for you is to stay within your organization.

Two organizations I worked with for over a decade as a consultant are McDonald’s Corporation and Marriott International. I admired these two companies long before I worked with their executives and managers, but in being side by side with these individuals I learned one of their most important keys to success: they provide opportunities for people to expand their responsibilities. At McDonald’s USA, many of their top executives started working in a single restaurant. Then the person became in charge of the restaurant, and then oversaw four restaurants, then 16 restaurants, then 500 restaurants, and ultimately all 13,000 restaurants. And with each expansion of responsibilities the person’s breadth and depth of leadership and management skills grew and grew. The same pattern is true within Marriott. I’ve seen a bellman become general manager of major Marriott hotels.

Is there a possibility that you can expand your responsibilities within your organization as your next career move?

2. Same organization, different responsibilities

I have a good friend who received her degree in economics from Northwestern University. She started her career in finance at a large national company. After a few years, her boss offered her a brilliant piece of advice: learn different parts of the business and it may help you later in your career. So she went on to take jobs in marketing, sales and operations. Today she is the c hief g lobal m arketing o fficer of a massive company that spans countries around the world, and she never had to change employers.

If you’ve become a great performer within a particular function in your organization, then your next best move might be to leave that function and dive into a different one. If you know operations, apply for a job in human resources or marketing or sales or business research. Master the different aspects of your organization and make yourself dramatically more valuable.

What function within your organization could you step into to expand your skill set?

3. Same industry, different organization

Sometimes you just need to refresh your perspective, opportunities and relationships. A lateral move to a different company in your same industry may be just the ticket to reignite your career. Like a professional baseball player who finds new levels of success with a different team, you may find that people view you differently when you walk through a different door.

A friend of mine went from a sales manager position at Procter & Gamble, which was his first employer out of college, to a sales manager position at Brach’s Candy. He was still in the consumer goods retail industry, but he was seen in a new light. Instead of bosses seeing him as the 21-year-old college grad with no experience, he became seen as a fast-rising 25 year old with experience at one of the world’s greatest companies. Suddenly he was given opportunities that he never would have received as quickly at P&G.

Assess your situation. Are you being perceived by your boss and peers in ways that are keeping you from receiving meaningful new opportunities? Is it them or is it you that is keeping you from advancing in the organization? That’s a tough call to make, but it’s a crossroads we almost all face at some point.

Can you leverage your industry knowledge into a new job that may lead to an even brighter future for your career?

4. Same skills, different industry

This is the move that opens up your career chessboard considerably. It is where some careers accelerate to new heights and where others crash and burn. Leaving an industry is fraught with challenges. For one you’re leaving your contacts and relationships and reputation behind you. The personal brand you’ve built for yourself is no longer going to win you new opportunities. You have to start over and build a brand new one for yourself. If you’ve been a star performer, this can be a daunting mental challenge to overcome. You also are leaving behind all of the industry knowledge you’ve developed that allowed you to resolve issues quickly and move forward effectively.

However, if you move forward with your enhanced experiences, maturity, sense of purpose, passions, strengths and values, you may very well build a far stronger brand in the new industry. This is certainly a viable option if you want to create a variety of new opportunities for your career. My friend went from Brach’s Candy to a tremendous opportunity in the medical- device industry because he was willing to let go of one industry and step into the challenges of another industry.

Turn a dead end into an eight-lane superhighway

Invariably it was the forced stops in the game that caused some of the world’s greatest performers to step back, rethink their next move, and come back with renewed focus that made them vastly more successful in their new job than in their previous ones. In 1981, at the age of 39, Michael Bloomberg was fired at Salomon Brothers. He went on to build Innovative Market Systems (later named Bloomberg L.P.) that today is worth $16 b illion. In addition, he has been Mayor of New York City since 2001. None of this may have happened if he had not been forced to deal with a dead end.

If your career has suddenly run into a dramatic dead end, I encourage you to step back and start over. Go back to the original questions concerning your purpose, passions, strengths, and values. Then go through each of the career move options discussed in this article, and visualize what your next job might look like.

  • Do you want to seek a different position in your company, possibly in a different function?
  • Do you want to seek a job at a different company in your industry where you can leverage your industry knowledge?
  • Do you want to seek a job at a company outside of your industry where you can leverage your passions and strengths while still operating within your purpose and values?
  • Or do you want to start your own business where you can create an organization that reflects your purpose, passions, strengths, and values?

Your career consists of a series of chapters. Choose each job carefully, execute your responsibilities as well as you can, and take time to step back and visualize your next chapter.

(Author’s Note: If you would like the MP3 recording of this article, please e-mail dan@thecoughlincompany.com, and put in the subject heading: “MP3 on Visualizing Your Next Job”.)

Visit www.thecoughlincompany.com. There you can sign up for Dan Coughlin’s free, monthly e-newsletter, The Business Acceleration Newsletter, watch his Free Business Acceleration Video Library, and read his complete archive of articles on business acceleration. Dan is a business keynote speaker and seminar leader on leadership, innovation, and branding. He is also an executive coach and author of four books on generating sustainable, profitable growth. His books include "Accelerate", "Corporate Catalysts", "The Management 500", and "Find a Way to Win". His clients include McDonald’s, GE, Toyota, Prudential, Coca-Cola, Marriott, Boeing, Abbott, SUBWAY, Kiewit, and the St. Louis Cardinals.

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