How to set career goals

Many businesses have been in survival mode for a couple of years thanks to the extraordinary upheaval of the pandemic. And that’s had an impact on careers, with ‘fire-fighting’ taking priority over long-term planning and development.

As the country tries to return to normality though, it’s a good time to take stock and draw up some plans for the next stage of your career – whether you’ve got a goal-setting performance appraisal coming up or not.

So how should you go about drawing up your goals? We checked out the advice from some experts.

Take the initiative

Don’t wait for a manager to ask what your goals are: the sooner you know what they are, the quicker you can look for opportunities to achieve them.

Tony Lee, a recruitment-trends expert from the Society for Human Resource Management, tells the Wall Street Journal people who have recently left education in particular can get stuck in the trap of treating career goals as “an assignment that is due by this date”.

Instead, take the initiative by starting a conversation with a boss, mentor or colleague about your professional strengths or what goals they have set and met in the past.

Set goals you actually want to achieve

You’re going to have to live with these goals for the next year or more – so they’d better be something you care about.

Time management coach Elizabeth Grace Saunders recommends asking yourself a couple of questions: “If I could accomplish just one major professional development goal this year, what would it be? When I think about this goal, do I get excited about the prospect of working on it as well as achieving it?”

That way, she suggests, working on them will feel less like a chore, and you’ll be more likely to succeed.

Be specific

What makes setting goals different from having dreams is getting specific. Working out the detail of where you want to be in one, three or five years means you can hold yourself accountable – and it’ll help you to break down the steps you need to reach your ultimate goal.

“Studies show you’re more likely to succeed when your career goals are specific,” says career coach Lea McLeod. “When you clearly visualize your desired outcome, you begin to see the possibility of achieving it – and you can start taking steps to build your plan.”

But be flexible too

We’ve all had a lesson in how unexpected events can derail our plans. So, make sure that you give yourself enough freedom to change course when you need to – whether that’s written into your goals or you just review them regularly.

“Typically, there isn’t a direct route to reaching your goals,” says entrepreneur and life coach Caroline Castrillon. “In Arianna Huffington’s words, ‘success is not a straight line, it’s much more of a dance and being open to possibilities.’”

Focus on what you can control

When life and business seem uncertain, you can create more stability by judging your performance on what you put in, rather than on unpredictable outcomes.

Executive coach Nihar Chhaya suggests setting goals based on career behaviours that generally have a positive impact, such as making a certain number of new contacts, setting a target for the number of ideas you offer to senior management, or taking on an extra opportunity outside your role every quarter.

“Not only will this give you a sense of control, but it also increases the likelihood of successful results in something that can then generate more passion in you to keep contributing,” he suggests.