Career Craft 101: Setting Professional Goals

Photo courtesy of Pixabay.


Today we’ll launch a series of posts covering advice on the basics of professional development - from deciding “what you want to be when you grow up” to finding and scoring your dream job to keeping your daily work environment pleasant and productive.

We’ll start with the most basic of career basics … goal setting. Since we’re still in “resolution territory” in January, the difference between a goal and a resolution can get sort of fuzzy. Blogger and author Ryan Eidson asserts that “a resolution is a statement of what you want to change,” while “a goal is a very specific statement of what you want to achieve by a certain date (or have as an ongoing habit).” That’s a good distinction. It also goes a long way toward explaining why the gyms are crammed to the walls now, but will be considerably less so come March or July.

In the area of career, you could easily resolve at this time of year to “find a better job” or “ask for a salary increase,” but that declaration on its own isn’t going to get you anywhere. Here are a few pointers for setting effective career goals from several experts.

Tips for setting your career goals the right way

Set the right goals. Regardless of where you are in your career, if you’re thinking about setting a goal that you aren’t excited about, just stop. Elizabeth Grace Saunders, a time coach and author of “How to Invest Your Time Like Money,” recommends in the Harvard Business review that to kick-start your goal-setting process, you should ask yourself three questions:

  • If I could accomplish just one major professional development goal in 2017, what would it be?
  • When I think about working on this goal, do I get excited about the process as well as the outcome?
  • Is my motivation to pursue this goal intrinsic, something coming from within because it is personally interesting and important, or is it extrinsic, something that I feel would please other people?

Saunders asserts that if a proposed goal feels like a chore, it’s unlikely that you’ll make much progress on it. While the goal itself may feel like it’s something that fits the needs of your professional role, if you lack enthusiasm for it, it isn’t truly matching your preferences or ambitions.

Don’t set too many goals. In addition to limiting our career goals to ones that we can get excited about, it’s also a good idea to limit ourselves to a few, carefully selected, goals, rather than trying to accomplish 10 things at the same time. Marketing strategist and professional speaker Dorie Clark, author of the career-change manual “Reinventing You,” advises working professionals to pick just two goals to focus on, and to aim to achieve them or show significant progress within six months (that is, she advises scheduling two cycles of professional development per year, not one).  She explains why this tight focus is necessary:

The point of goals, of course, isn’t to successfully complete tasks we blindly set ourselves to years ago. Nor is it to maximize our accomplishment of small-bore trivialities. Instead, what counts is our ability to master the right kind of big goals — the ones that can change your life, like positioning yourself for a promotion to the C-suite or writing a book or launching an entrepreneurial venture.

Break huge goals into tiny pieces. If you’ve set for yourself one of the life-changing goals that Clark just mentioned, you’ll need to set the right time frame for it. In a post on Greatist that describes yoga clothing company Lululemon’s approach to goal-setting (the one it shares with employees and interested customers on its website), Laura Schwecherl notes that aspiring goal-makers are encouraged to set 10-year goals, then immediately break those mammoth ideals into steps that include 5-year and 1-year action steps. She writes:

Many times, people set one-year goals that are easy to visualize and within arms’ reach, like completing a 5K or getting a promotion at work. But the problem with only setting short-term goals is that they don’t contain a bigger picture. Lululemon advises goal-setters to start making little changes immediately, since those can add up and end up influencing who they’re hoping to become in 10 years.

Find a sponsor. While we often hear about the importance of “accountability” in goal-setting, some experts take that idea of involving others in your planning process to a new level. Sylvia Ann Hewlett, chair and CEO of The Center for Talent Innovation, wrote in a recent Inc. magazine article that goal-setters should move from looking for mentors (those farther along the road on your career path who might help you envision your next position) to sponsors, who can advocate for your promotion and open doors and opportunities for you.

However, Hewlett cautions, don’t expect to just call up a potential sponsor and get on their hot list. Sponsorship must be earned. She continues her explanation:

Sponsorship must be earned - not once but continually. There are a variety of ways to get in front of would-be sponsors: Ask for stretch assignments in your target sponsor's line of sight; request a meeting with your target sponsor for career development advice; approach a target sponsor and suggest collaborating on a project of interest to that person, emphasizing how much you can help with the legwork as well as the ideas; identify concrete ways you might help a prospective sponsor solve a looming business challenge. Just doing good work isn't enough. Take the first step and make yourself not only a hard worker, but an emerging leader worthy of a sponsor.

If you meet a big career goal, you have options about what you do next. You might be approaching 2017 goal-setting after having achieved something amazing: landing your dream job, licensing a “killer idea” and reaping the profits, or climbing to the top of the leadership structure at your organization. Tatsuya Nakagawa, in an intriguing post on Lifehack, has a number of good suggestions for setting new goals after you’ve accomplished a major life goal. Some of my favorite suggestions include:

  • Set a new (bigger) goal.
  • Fulfill an unrelated childhood dream.
  • Join the community and help others achieve a similar goal.
  • Don’t let it die a slow death - keep going, change goals, quit or stay involved in a different capacity.


The Questions to You:

  • What are your professional goals for 2017?
  • What do you find the most challenging when setting professional goals for yourself?


~Liz Massey, Managing Editor, ASU Alumni Association