A Guide To Career Planning and Development

Think Success by Jayaram V

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by Jayaram V

Source: This essay was originally published in the book “Think Success, Essays on Self-help” by Jayaram V under the title, “Career Development," and reproduced with publisher's permission.

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The dictionary meaning of career is any job, profession or occupation taken up as a lifelong activity. It also means progress made in a chosen profession for the duration of a person's working life. A career, therefore, is not a job, but what you can accomplish through it in your lifetime. For most people, work is central to their careers and lives.

Many become so involved with their careers that they ignore their other goals and personal comforts. It invariably creates an imbalance in their lives and leads to unhappy consequences. The same jobs or professions, which make people happy when they are successful, also make them unhappy, frustrated and angry when they make wrong career choices, resort to unethical methods, develop too much attachment to their professions, or pursue wrong goals. The following suggestions are important to career planning and boosting anyone's career without losing focus and balance.

Understand group dynamics

What many people do not realize about their careers is that a person's success in any organization depends not only upon individual qualities and merits but also upon group dynamics and the culture of the organization. Your organization is a person in itself having a distinct character and personality of its own. It exists long before you join it, as it develops an enduring identity of its own, amidst change and growth, and outlasts you. So is the case with the group, or the team you work for. Once you join a group or company, your decisions and actions are influenced by your perception of the group, the power structure within the group and the norms the group follows.

Therefore, unless you understand the dynamics of group norms, group identity and conformity, and how the groups within the organization deal with individual members, you may not fit well into the organization or the teams you work for. Sometimes, your group may not appreciate your strengths and may even secretly want you to fail or expose your weaknesses rather than strengths. Your success within the organization depends a lot upon your alliances and political skills rather than your true talent. In many companies what matters in the end is not how much work you do but how you socialize and build your network.

Successful people learn quickly how power flows in their organizations, who the power players and game changers are, and build relationships with them. Through them, they extend their influence, power and authority, in addition to proving their own worth and establishing their authority. It is equally important that you let the stakeholders know your achievements and contribution, because if you are not careful others may take credit for your work.

Choose the right career

In choosing your career you can follow two criteria. One is that it should rank well in public esteem in terms of benefits and rewards, and the other is it should offer you a chance to use your skills and excel. The former gives you financial security and social status, while the latter contributes to your success, peace and happiness. You should consider yourself lucky, if your job offers you an opportunity to enjoy both. Ideally, you should choose a career where you can use your strengths and talents and excel. It is desirable to find such a job from the beginning of your career, so that your chances of success increase greatly as you gain experience and polish your skills.

Many people do not think about their careers until they complete their education. Then, they find some job and try to fit into it. This is a haphazard approach. Your career planning should start from your school days. You should choose those subjects where you are comfortable and specialize in them. Once you complete your education, you should opt for a career where you can put your academic and professional knowledge to good use. It is also important to specialize in a specific field. If you just get a degree without specializing in any subject, you may still achieve success by hard work, but you may not get the same recognition as the specialists.

Adapt to your job

In life we do not always get what we want. Many people end up in professions they dislike. If you are one of them, you have to decide whether to adapt to the demands of your career or find the one you like. In a competitive world or in difficult times, you may not always find a job of your dreams. Many people arrive at it through trial and error. They do many odd jobs or low paying ones before finding the one that suits them best. Your career choices diminish with age, as you settle down and become entangled in your family responsibilities. Once you decide to stick to a job or a profession, you should adapt to it fully and do whatever is necessary to fit into it and excel in it.

The worst thing that can happen to anyone in a career is to feel trapped and helpless. If you are chronically unhappy about your career or working conditions, you should examine whether it is caused by your career or your own negativity. Sometimes your dissatisfaction with your career may arise from comparison with others, when you feel that your friends or relations are enjoying better positions than you. You may also feel unhappy if you missed many good opportunities in the past. If you are the problem, you have to change your attitude and adapt to the demands of your career. Otherwise, you have to weigh the options and make an appropriate decision.

Take responsibility

Your success or failure in your job or career depends primarily upon your effort. Sometimes external factors may play a role, but if it happens, you can respond to them properly and minimize the damage. In a job situation you have different responsibilities towards the company you work for, customers or stakeholders, colleagues, and yourself. Your responsibility begins from the time you choose your job and continues until you leave. You are responsible for both decisions, and what happens to your knowledge and consent in between.

Responsibility means doing your duties diligently, taking accountability for your actions and accepting their consequences with courage and honesty. It means that you should know your duties, possess knowledge and skills, perform your tasks according to the best standards, and take responsibility for your own growth and career. You cannot take credit for the success of another, unless you genuinely contributed to it, nor can you allow others to exploit you for their own ends. You should also give credit where it is due. If you properly use the communication channels available to you, you can avoid most of these problems.

Keep learning continuously

To remain competitive in this fast changing world, you have to constantly improve your skills and job knowledge. In fact, for career growth, it is imperative. Years ago, I participated in a course about database design and development. The faculty member who trained us in SQL programming was particular about how efficiently we wrote the code but also how nicely we presented it with comments and indentation. In the class, he would keep reminding us that technical people who worked in big organizations for a long time would lose their competitive edge as they would be mechanically doing the same repetitive tasks for years without learning anything new. The might move from technical positions to become managers and generalists, but their technical skills would get rusted as they would have fewer opportunities to keep pace with the progress made in their field.

It is true that many big companies take time to adapt to current technologies because of the costs, risks, and other factors and allow inefficiencies to creep into their systems. Those who work for them will have to learn on their own to keep their knowledge current and remain competitive. Alternatively, in a small business you may not get enough opportunities to learn and improve. It means that you face the risk of obsolescence when you join an organization, unless you take care of your learning and career. It is not wise to ignore your career goals and skill development when you work for others and not let them influence your learning choices. Instead, you should constantly improve your knowledge and skills and keep challenging yourself by setting new learning goals, whether your job or profession is using them currently or not.

Have career goals and plans

An important part of career planning is that you must have a clear idea of where you want to go in five years or ten years hence. It is better if you can write down your goals clearly and specifically because it helps you to work for your success with definitive aims. If you cannot do it (which may mean your ambition has waned), at least you should have an idea in which direction you want to progress and where you want to see yourself in future. Having goals in itself may not help you much, but it helps you to plan your future and prepare yourself mentally.

Having mentors within and outside your field of interest, socializing and expanding your network through regular contacts are an important part of your career planning. They help you to prepare for managing higher responsibilities, and expand your zone of influence. Your mentors help you to learn from their knowledge and experience, while planning helps you to organize your resources and activities around your future goals and use them effectively. Both are essential for achieving excellence in any field.

The challenges you face in the early part of your career are much different from those you face later. In the early stages as you begin your career, job knowledge, job skills, team work and relationships matter. However, as you progress, leadership, social and business skills, and executive functions such as decisions making, planning, etc., become important. During this stage, if you work in an organization, you have to know the politics of management and leadership. You have to learn to form alliances with your peers and colleagues who are the decisions makers, and avoid making enemies. The higher you go, the chances of making mistakes and suffering from them increase, since you will be under the radar of many people, some of whom may be competing with you for the same space and attention. Learning in a career is thus a continuous process. You have to learn not only to perform your job better but also to survive and succeed.

Be proactive

In simple terms to be proactive means to stay ahead of a problem. In mechanical terms it means replacing a weak part before it breaks down and causes a systemic failure. In organizational terms it means creating backup plains, maintain checks and balances, planning for breakdowns and catastrophes, identifying and reporting problems in time, establishing and maintaining a line of command to deal with problems and complaints, resolving grievances before they become conflicts, taking measures to prevent security breaches, and anticipating the market trends to remain competitive. A few years ago a company's email system completely broke down because someone forgot to delete a test module from the code before moving it into the company's main servers. No one proactively monitored the installation process, or foresaw the problem and tested the code before uploading it.

Many such problems can be prevented by being proactive. In personal terms, proactive means to avoid delays and procrastination, preventing health problems, keeping the costs down, saving for the rainy day, and planning for contingencies. Proactive thinking is a state of mind. It is a leadership quality and part of a pragmatic and positive approach, in which you take the initiative and assume ownership for your role and responsibility. Since they are forward looking and risk-averse, they are the most sought after people in every organization.

Improve your communication skills

In today's context communication not only means the traditional communication skills, but also knowing how to send and manage e-mails, deal with media, publicity, public relations, customer complaints and grievances, online communication, social networks, Internet marketing, etc. It also includes how you communicate with your colleagues and peers and influence them. Nowadays, many employers regularly monitor Internet communication, and social network activity of their employees, during working hours and during work from home.

Hence, you should be careful about what information and messages you leave online or what information you store in your office phone, laptop or computer. In today's world, you should know how to speak for yourself, defend your decisions, actions, and opinions, communicate your achievements, and stay current with the happenings in your organization. You should also know how to set standards in speaking, listening and observing, when you lead and organize teams or manage people.

Do more than expected

Your success depends upon your effort and dedication. By doing more than what you are expected to do, you will earn recognition and good will. You will set in motion the law of compensation, which will bring you rich rewards. Years ago I was asked to prepare a report on a small African country where the company I worked for wanted to open on office and expand the business. They wanted to know whether the operation would be viable. I spent a few days gathering information about the country and its market conditions, and prepared a detailed report. I submitted the report with additional information, which the company did not expect me to cover since they did not give me much time. The committee to which I submitted the report was impressed by the details and the relevance of information and sent me a letter or appreciation signed by all the members. I did not get an immediate reward for my effort, but it left a good impression upon the stakeholders. It is better if you learn early in your career about the importance of going an extra mile or doing more than necessary.

Successful companies, employees, and professionals practice this principle to stay ahead in competition. They give you more than you expect from them. Every assignment that you get in your job is an opportunity to improve your skills, and prove your worth, commitment and dedication. Some people whine when they are asked to do extra work. You should look for those opportunities even if it means some inconvenience. To succeed in any career, you must do more than what is expected. It sends a clear message to your peers, customers and everyone that you are serious about your job and you can be trusted and entrusted with higher responsibilities.

Pay attention to details

How many times you might have sent e-mails or posted messages on the Internet and realized that you did it without checking the grammar or spelling? Simple mistakes can prove costly and cause you embarrassment. If you work for a long time in the same job or in the same team you may become comfortable with the routine and ignore the details. It can cause you problems. For example, a friend of mine was supposed to make a product presentation in a nearby town. He drove there for two hours only realize that he left behind the most important file that was crucial for his presentation. Someone else had to drive all the way to give him the file.

The golden rule is that you must be diligent in your work, as if you are self-employed and no one is supervising you. It is how people develop trust in you and look to you when they need help. If you are in a leadership or managerial positions you have to be even more careful because you depend upon others to complete your tasks. You may make mistakes if you do not monitor their work properly or pay attention to details. If you want to be successful in your career, you must pay attention to detail. The same rule applies when you perform simple tasks such as making presentations, preparing reports, writing programs, planning projects, or sending e-mails. You cannot ignore the importance of quality in your work even if it is a routine task.

Maintain ethical conduct

In a professional sense, ethical conduct refers to the practice of values, morals, and recognized standards of ethical behavior in performing one's duty. It means in performing your duties you should be consistent and truthful, maintain the highest standards, comply with rules and regulations applicable to your work, undertake your duties with due diligence and care, do your work lawfully, keep confidential information confidential, and provide accurate and correct information when you are asked to.

It also means that you should be truthful, honest, sincere, transparent, objective, fair, impartial, respectful and lawful in your thinking, attitude and actions as you undertake your professional responsibilities and duties. At a purely personal level, ethical conduct refers to the means you adapt to pursue your career goals and perform your professional duties.

Aim for long term rewards

Stress is so common in call centers that people easily burn out and leave. To motive the employees who work there, floor supervisors organize competitive events to reward those who make maximum calls or collect the highest amount during the peak hours. Prizes are given instantly in front of everyone after the contest is over, amidst claps and cheers. The winners are given small gifts or monetary rewards for their effort, which include movie tickets, bags of candy, T-shirts, coffee mugs, etc.

Sometimes a team supervisor organizes a pizza party during the lunch hour and invite all the team members. Life in a call center is very hectic and result driven, and those who work there are seldom promoted to higher positions. At the most they manage to become floor supervisors, which adds to their woes since it makes them responsible for the team effort also. Therefore, most of the them stay there temporarily until they find a better job.

The point is, unless they are desperate, people do not prefer doing any job or pursuing any career that do not offer long term rewards or opportunities for career growth. Short term gains may give you temporary happiness, but do not contribute much to your motivation. If you are looking for a successful career on an enduring basis, you must look for jobs where you can aim for long term rewards rather than short term.

Long term rewards are qualitatively more satisfying and morale boosting. They also change your life substantially and financially. Sometimes you may have to sacrifice short term goals for long term rewards. For example, by working for long hours you may not get immediate rewards, but eventually you will succeed in earning recognition. Besides, it adds to your stature and reputation as a conscientious and reliable person.

Organize and prioritize

Several years ago, a friend of mine who worked for a government organization told me that he was posted as the manager of a remote rural office in a southern state of India. When he went there to report for duty, his predecessor received him and introduced him to the staff. After exchanging a few pleasantries, they sat down to complete the formalities. My friend told me that after acquainting him with the daily administration and the major problems that needed his immediate attention his predecessor took out a small pile of papers and office keys from his table drawer and put them on the table. With his hands upon them, he told him that the papers needed his immediate attention as they were most recent papers he received from the regional office. The rest, he said, were routine documents or official circulars, which he either kept in the cupboards in the manager's office or sent to the staff. He did not open the cupboards to show the papers and my friend did not ask for it as he trusted his words and did not foresee any problems.

Later, after he took leave, my friend opened the cupboard out of curiosity and found a pile of loose papers stacked inside. The files were neither indexed nor named. The person who handed him the charge and managed the office for the previous three years followed no filing system as he solely relied upon his memory to trace the papers from the pile. He sent the routine documents to the staff for filing while he put important ones and confidential information in the cupboards inside his office under lock and key.

My friend had to spend several days to index and organize all the information and train the staff to follow a similar system at their level. He said that it was clearly the worst case of disorganization in his experience and he learned many lessons from it. What happened in case of my friend is not uncommon in many parts of the world, especially in government and bureaucratic institutions, where people run their offices without any accountability. They often do it deliberately to cover up irregularities and loopholes, and avoid paper trail.

Proper organization in any aspect of life is important for success, peace and happiness. Whether you work for yourself or others, you must be organized and systematic. Your organization skills begin with your immediate surroundings and the discipline you follow in your life. Without organizing and prioritizing your work, you will suffer from problems and stressful situations as you make mistakes or do not find the required information when you need it. After you reach a certain stage in your career you may use the services of an assistant or a secretary to do it, but until then you have to organize your life and work to improve your productivity and efficiency.

Do not neglect your personal life or your family

Your personal life and happiness are more important than your job or career. Your success has no value unless it is shared by your family members. In the ups and down of your life, they share your joys and sorrows and provide you with a sanctuary to recover and recuperate when you are down and beaten. None would be happier to see you succeed in life than your immediate family. If success and your preoccupation with the demands of your job keep you away from them, none would be unhappier about it than them.

Even if you are very keen about achieving success in your life at all costs, you should not ignore their needs and expectations. They are the shareholders of your success and your cheerleaders. Any success that you achieve should improve their lives and happiness. Otherwise, your success would be without any meaning to them. Perhaps in the end when you retire from your career, it may not also mean much to you. The purpose of having a career is not an end in itself. It is the means to a complete life in which there is a place for your success as well as your relationships. In pursing your career goals, you should never lose sight of the truth that your life is not a part of your job, but your job is just a part of your life. Therefore, why not make your family the stakeholders in your success?

Plan for the contingencies

When I received the news of my father's unexpected death, my wife and I had to rush immediately. My father lived in another state, about 600 miles from where we lived. Since it was a long drive, a friend of mine volunteered to accompany us and give us company and support. During the journey, we had to drive about 100 miles through a dacoit infested area, which was largely made up of hills and forests.

People usually drove through it in caravans with police escort in the front and back. When we reached that place in the middle of the night, we decided not to wait until the caravan was formed and the police escort was ready. We took a chance and drove through it alone in pitch darkness. After we traveled alone for a few miles, when we were negotiating a hill, the

back tire of the car punctured. We had no clue what punctured the tire and whether anyone deliberately did it to stop the car. We had no option but to stop on that desolate road to change the tire. We were too afraid to switch on the torch light we had with us, since we were on the top of the hill and the light could be seen from far by anyone. In that eerie silence and darkness, we changed the tire quietly and started again. We drove nonstop until we reached a safe town where we stopped briefly to get the damaged tire repaired and sealed.

We were lucky by all means, considering the stories one heard about the incidents that happened in the area. Kidnappings for ransom were very common. Part of the luck was because I took proper care to maintain the car in good condition and check the condition of the spare tire each time I left the town and went on a long drive. Imagine the situation if I did not keep my car in good condition or check the spare tire before leaving. In life and work, many times problems arise unexpectedly. Since you never know how things will turn out, you have to always plan for contingencies and keep backup plans. The same holds true for your career. Nowadays, when recession and economic downturns are frequent, you should prepare for unexpected developments in your life and career.

Know how to handle power

Power is the ability to take decisions, perform actions, or control and influence your actions and of others. Power arises from positions of authority, knowledge, skills and relationships. Whether you are an employee, businessman, or a professional, you have to know when to use it and when to obey it. One of the problems many midlevel managers face in their careers is that they do not know how to handle the power they are vested with or respond to the power others hold over them.

A friend of mine, who was a performance driven executive used his power excessively and caused a lot of suffering to the people who worked directly for him. He took pride in his leadership to keep people under coercive control. At the same time, he acted very submissively before his superiors and tried to please them. His subordinates disliked him, while his superiors did not respect him as they knew what was going on. If you are a career driven and task oriented person, you may hurt others by your actions and decisions even if you do not intend to hurt anyone. It is difficult not

to make errors when you have the power to make important decisions and deal with people from a position of authority. If you use too much power, people may not trust you, or express their true opinions before you. If you do not use it, they may not listen to you or respect you. Even if you are good to people, you may still displease a few who may not like your style. Therefore, you should know how to use power and lead others with minimum negative consequences.

Power is always a means, not an end. You have to use it to perform tasks and control processes, but not to make yourself important, settle scores, or make personal gains. True power comes from inside when you believe in yourself and when you are comfortable with being yourself. When you occupy a position of authority, you should know how to radiate power, without using threats or fear, or showing off your importance with rhetoric.

Many times when you negotiate with others, or when you have to resolve tough problems, you may have to act as if you do not have any power. In an organization your power is always limited. For example, even if you hold the highest office, you cannot set your salary or decide your retirement benefits. That power rests with others. Therefore, however powerful you may be, you still need the help, support and goodwill of others. It means you must be kind and a good person.

Learn from failures

Failure is relative to your hopes and expectations. What you think is failure may be success to others. Many people remain so focused upon their success or their goals that they do not really feel elated when they reach their goals. You will feel more excitement in the idea of achieving something or reaching somewhere rather than when you actually achieve it. Success is not an end in itself because there is no guarantee that with success you will live happily forever. Your success may create circumstances that may lead to suffering. For example, you may earn a lot of wealth, but may create many enemies for yourself or suffer from tax problems and bad reputation. Therefore, you should learn from both your failure and success, without losing your balance and focus.

Help others

Mr. Venkat Sharma retired as a senior engineer after working for nearly 35 years in heavy equipment manufacturing company in India. A year after his retirement, I attended his 60th birthday party and 35th marriage anniversary organized by his friends and family members. Nearly three hundred people, other than his relations, joined the celebrations. Most of them were his students whom he trained and coached when he worked as a faculty member in the corporate training college. There were some whom he helped with his money or advice. He never missed an opportunity to call people and inquire about their welfare.

When people became sick or lost their relations, he went to see them and console them. He helped many people to get jobs or join as interns. The love and affection he received from the people who came to see him was very visible. Venkat Sharma used his career not only to achieve personal success but also to practice his humanity and kindness. In my opinion, it is true success. Your success must radiate its own fragrance and touch the heart of others. It must help them to realize their goals. Helping others should be the career goal of every professional including you, so that in the end you can have the satisfaction that you helped many people, without any expectations and contributed to their growth and happiness.

Suggestions for Further Reading

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