Why career management is crucial if you want to continue to progress

Successful careers don’t just happen, they have to be carefully planned

Jim has done well. He studied hard, got a good science degree and walked into a well-paid job in the pharma industry. As the company grew, his career blossomed and he was promoted twice within four years.

Now married with a young family and travelling a lot for business, Jim is becoming increasingly anxious that his career has stalled. He didn’t get the last two promotions he applied for even though, on paper, he was a good fit.

Jim feels angry at his company. He is diligent, thorough, and always gets good job feedback, yet he seems to have been forgotten about.

Jim is not alone. The world is full of those who, despite enthusiasm and plenty of raw ability hit a brick wall in terms of career progression. The truth is most have done nothing “wrong”, other than failing to manage their careers effectively or assuming it was someone else’s job to do so.


"You have to take ownership of your own career. It is not up to your employer to build your career: it is up to you," says Peter O'Connell, founder of Career Development Associates.

There can be many reasons why people don’t prioritise career management. When work is challenging and the rewards are flowing, it is easy to assume this charmed pattern will continue. In your 20s and 30s, it is also easy to assume there is plenty of time in which to fashion a career. But letting “life” get the upper hand in the work-life balance is not a good career move. Neither is coasting, unless you genuinely have no interest in progression.

Taking control

Managing your career is an ongoing process and it starts with taking control and shaping your working environment rather than the other way around. Those who just let it happen often end up like Jim – disenchanted and hurt – whereas those with a strategy are far more likely to have fulfilling working lives.

One of the reasons people fail at career management is because it’s difficult. There are so many life and career choices available that it can be hard to commit. However, you have to start somewhere, so the first step is to think about what you want and within what time frame.

What kind of job do you want to be doing? How much do you want to be earning? How high up the management tree do you want to be? And do you want to stay at home or work abroad? What matters most, money or self-fulfilment?

On the flip side, what skill gaps and weaknesses need to be improved to help make it happen? For example, is this the year to have your competencies challenged by the rigours of an MBA?

The aim is not necessarily to set an overarching goal, such as reaching the role of CEO by the time you’re 40, but rather to achieve two key objectives: maintaining upward career momentum and keeping the doors of opportunity open.

Maintaining momentum does not necessarily mean hopping from one job to the other. It could and should include undertaking appropriate personal and professional development and looking for opportunities in house. For example, getting yourself on to a particular project team where you can extend your network, demonstrate your ability to take responsibility and generally raise your profile within your organisation.

“Ask yourself, what is your current expertise, not your experience,” says O’Connell. “The career currency today is that of the expertise, and impacts and change that you have delivered. ‘I can do…’ is propaganda. ‘Here’s what I have done’ is evidence and shows expertise.”

Next promotion

However, before you jump at the next promotion, bear in mind that in many workplaces promotions can equate to increased specialisation and the higher up you go, the more limited future opportunities will be. A promotion should be aligned with your long-term career plan and a useful stepping stone, not a dead end.

To be realistic your plan needs to be action orientated, with short-term goals to be achieved in a year or less and long-term goals to be achieved within one to five years. They should also be Smart – specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time limited. This does not mean a plan should be inflexible as things inevitably change. But the key point remains: with a plan, you can alter your course to suit the prevailing winds; without one you are at their mercy.

Progressing your career does not have to be done in isolation. Many companies today place great emphasis on career development so you’re giving yourself a head start if you join one of them.

It is also worth bearing in mind that few jobs are for life now so having a career plan will ensure you can make the necessary transitions smoothly.

Secondly, with people working for longer, the concept of employment until retirement age followed by doing nothing is outdated and managing a career that could take you to 70 or beyond requires careful planning.

“Ask yourself what can you sell to a potential employer about yourself,” O’Connell says. “Identify and be clear about what you would bring to a role in another business. You must ask yourself ‘why would a business hire me’ and not allow fear and the fear of failure to stop you.”