Many of us struggle to answer the question ‘which role do you want to move to next?’ and even more of us are left frustrated by the direction in which we want our careers to go over the longer term. This lack of clarity can be detrimental to the choices we make and our ultimate career happiness.
The uncertainty about what we really want to do leads to one of three outcomes. One: you stay in your current role and after a period of time, stagnate and feel demotivated. Two: you hop around from role to role, in the hope of finding the answer. Or three: you progress to the most obvious role or the easiest next move. Sometimes, this can pay off, but more often than not the frustration remains and the desire to get to the bottom of what you really want is left unsatisfied.
Planning your career too rigidly, however, is unlikely to solve the problem. Organisations change too frequently for career plans based on specific roles to reflect the reality. Instead, you can look for clues using different time frames and mind frames. These clues can help you to stitch together a vision of what possibilities you could explore for your career – and understand which ones most closely align with what you’re good at, what you enjoy and what is meaningful to you.
The time frames and mind frames act as tools to help you make sense of all of the options in front of you. These tools can be useful to you as part of your own career development and reflection, or for you to use as prompts with people you manage or mentor.
Time frame 1: in the past
Think about your career to date. Imagine you are drawing a timeline, with career highs and career lows marked from the start of your work experience right up to your current role. Are there any consistent themes that arise when you look at the moments that mattered?
When I do the exercise, I see that many of my low points have been when I’ve not had enough freedom in my role or when I have been too isolated and internally focused. My high points, though, are repeatedly when I’m working within high-energy teams, launching new products.
The insight you can glean from this activity can help you to identify your career must-haves and your must-nots. Aim to have three of each from this exercise.
Time frame 2: in the now
We all have weeks that feel great and some that just feel like hard work. The important thing is to understand where the specific energy gain and drain occur in your week.
To find out, take a look at your diary over a four-week period. Order the meetings and activities in your calendar into two columns. The first column should be the things you scheduled that generated energy for you. For me this would include things like team one-to-ones, presenting across the business and collaborating with my peers about business plans. The second column should be the things that drain energy from you.
Time frames and mind frames act as tools to help you make sense of all of the options in front of you.
This insight helps you think about what you want to work on and also where you want to work. For example, some of my energy drainers are generic update calls or process meetings. When looking at future organisations or opportunities, you can use this insight to more critically assess whether the culture or activities involved in them are going to create or kill your energy.
Time frame 3: in the future
Think about the roles that really excite you, particularly future roles that you might not feel quite ready for. This is a valuable source of insight that can open up your thinking about career possibilities, particularly if you find yourself falling into the trap of just looking at the obvious next step. An easy way to do this is to use a tool like LinkedIn to scan for and save jobs that excite you.
Set up a few filters to create an initial list to review. Try not to be too restrictive in order to get a broad but loosely relevant list of roles. The aim here is not to search for the perfect role, but really to explore the elements of roles that resonate with you.
From your initial long list, get to a shortlist of five roles and then review the specific elements of each role to identify what it is within them that makes you feel so positive. From this activity, you should aim to write down a maximum of 10 role elements that generate the most interest and excitement for you.
You can go a level deeper with this activity too and identify the skills and experiences these roles are looking for. This can help to inform your personal development plan and help assess whether your next role provides you with an opportunity to develop these skills for the future.
When you have completed these three exercises, you will have six career must-haves and must-nots, a table of your energy gains and energy drains, and a list of 10 job features that excite you. This information is the fuel you need to have a meaningful conversation about your career development.
The question of ‘which role do you want to move to next?’ is not about having a perfectly prepared answer to tick a box, it is your opening to share your insight and create opportunities that more closely align with your unique career needs and aspirations. Talking in these terms, rather than narrowly about a single role, can open up the conversation and the career possibilities you can then explore.
Helen Tupper is commercial marketing director at Microsoft and founder of Amazing If