January marks a fresh start, a time for setting goals and making resolutions generally geared toward self-improvement: Time to get fit, eat more healthfully, declutter your home, etc. But a new year can also be an ideal time to take stock of your professional situation.
You don’t need to be a C-level executive to have a career plan. If you’re not pausing every so often to consider where you are and where you want to be professionally, it’s easy to drift through your days without a clear direction—or in some cases, find yourself stuck.
Executive coach Julie Cohen, author of Your Work, Your Life, Your Way: 7 Keys to Work/Life Balance, works with individuals and employers engaged in a range of industries and job roles. Through her Work.Life.Leader leadership program, the Philadelphia-based career coach says she helps her clients “become more effective professionals, more satisfied personally, and more impactful as leaders.”
Cohen says too many people assume that simply doing a good job and exceeding expectations on performance reviews will keep them advancing in their profession. In today’s world, she contends, this outlook is no longer realistic or practical.
In our changing employment landscape—where a long tenure with a single employer is increasingly less common, and “free agency” has become more of the norm—Cohen stresses the importance of taking ownership and responsibility for your own professional growth.
“Everyone needs to forge their own path,” Cohen told The FruitGuys Magazine.
While her coaching focuses on mid-career professionals and those already in leadership positions, she has valuable tips that apply to people at all stages of life and career. She suggests beginning with this three-step process:
1. Take Stock
Who are you and where do you want to go? You may need to spend some time reflecting on this: Consider your strengths and skills, the projects and goals you find most engaging, and your salary and scheduling needs. If you’re not sure where to begin, there are a host of free career self-assessment tools available online, including some tailored for those considering a career change. These tools range from personality assessments to questions about specific job-related tasks that can help highlight your skills and guide your career decisions.
After taking stock of your goals and priorities, think about your current situation. Are there opportunities to grow and advance in your role or within your company? Don’t limit yourself by only considering a particular team or department, and investigate whether acquiring new skills could expand your potential pathways.
“There might not be an officially delineated career path that’s waiting for you,” Cohen says. “Therefore, it’s imperative for you to do [this kind of personal assessment].”
2. Evaluate Your Impact
If you’re looking to grow or get promoted within your organization, “It’s important to first understand your current role and to confirm that you’re meeting and exceeding expectations,” Cohen explains.
This may take some thoughtful conversations with your supervisor or others who can support your professional growth. Periodic performance reviews are a good starting point, but don’t be afraid to ask how you’re doing and what more you can do to help your team solve a particular business challenge or reach its goals. “Others should see you as someone who has an impact and who wants to continue to have an impact on your organization’s success,” Cohen says.
Once you’re sure that you’re covering all the bases in your current job, ask about taking on more responsibility and potentially advancing in your role. It’s important to frame your approach carefully, in order to make the right impression. “Make it about the business, not about you,” Cohen advises. “You might say something like: ‘I believe I can have a bigger impact,’ or ‘I want to be sure you’re getting the most out of me.’ Let people know you’re committed to your own growth and development—and that you see the success of your organization as central to that growth.”
Offering specific, concrete ideas and assistance shows thoughtful initiative and leadership qualities. Identifying a current business challenge or project you’re interested in tackling can be a great way to demonstrate your skills and further potential: “I have an idea for how we might solve XYZ business challenge. Is there a good time to talk about how we can implement that?”
3. Build Your Skills
What if you’re stuck in an organization that can’t provide growth opportunities or invest in professional development? Maybe you want to transition into a different role that requires specific skills or training your employer isn’t willing or able to provide. In that case, it’s up to you to acquire those skills.
The good news is, there are more options than ever to do this—many of them are free or low-cost and available 24/7 online. The rise of Massive Open Online Courses (aka MOOCs) offered by numerous top-tier universities, along with learning sites like Lynda.com, Coursera, Futurelearn, and many others, has made online education a viable choice for working people. With à la carte options from business writing to data science to software and programming skills, you don’t have to commit to a degree or certificate program to advance your expertise.
This DIY route takes some work and self-discipline, and you may have to pay something out of pocket, but the investment in yourself will pay off over time. “It’s never a negative to develop skills that are transferable,” Cohen says. Focus on building skills that are clearly aligned with the kind of role you want to fill—whether that involves public speaking, technology, management, or something else.
You may decide you’re on the right path and commit to being grateful and productive in your current line of work. You may want to take small steps toward exploring further growth or set your sights on a major transition. Whatever your situation, taking some time to reflect on where you are, how you feel about the work you do, and where you see yourself going is a powerful way to start off the year.
Elisabeth Flynn is a Philadelphia-based writer and editor, and has spent the last 15 years working in the nonprofit/social innovation sector, including stints at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Mazzoni Center, an LGBTQ-focused health and wellness provider.