How to set and achieve career goals

For decades parents, professors, and bosses have instilled in us the importance of goals: figuring out goals, working towards goals, and achieving goals. This advice can become redundant, foggy, and frustrating because, truth be told, many professionals don't know how to determine their aspirations, let alone attain them. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines "goal" as "the end toward which effort is directed". But how does one decipher what they want in the end, and how do they get there?

"A lot of people go through life taking things as they come along," said Bud Bilanich, a US-based author, career mentor, and leadership consultant. "The less clear you are of where you want to go, the easier it is to drift through life doing things that are interesting at the moment."

While that's not all bad, he acknowledged, professionals then run the risk of looking back at their lives and realising they could have done something more interesting and inspiring — which brings up again, the importance of figuring out one's ultimate occupational goal earlier on, and then attempting to achieve it.

Throughout their careers people make directional blunders. They don't have a "big goal" in mind, Bilanich said. They also don't realise that to accomplish an objective they can move sideways versus upward in their careers; lateral moves have become acceptable and are often the right choice. And some professionals go to work "hoping someone will notice them and they will get promotions as they come", he added.

Some people want a "quick-fix solution" to their current career misery and move into another ill-suited position hastily without thinking things through, said Magali Toussaint, founder of U Diverse Coaching in Amsterdam. If a person craves change, "it doesn't mean you have to drop everything and work in the circus", she said. "But what do you want to achieve? What do you want to leave on this Earth?"

Bilanich and Toussaint offered the following tips for setting goals and achieving them:

Analyse yourself, seriously. The first step towards achieving your ultimate career goal — whether it is to be a CFO or a finance director or something else — is to evaluate your strengths, talents, and job situation, and determine what inspires you. "What are the things that give you energy?" Toussaint said. What activity stirs your emotions to the point where it's more than just a job? "When you're 50 years old, what kind of work do you want to be doing?" added Bilanich. If you're still undecided, talk with colleagues or friends who are happy with their careers and ask them how they got there.

Seek guidance from a mentor or coach. "A mentor is someone whose hindsight can become your foresight," Bilanich said. "Mentors, if they are good, will hold your feet to the fire and tell you that you can't achieve that goal in the amount of time you set up." Similarly, added Toussaint, career coaches can help you make a long-term change and prompt you to take action. Desire to achieve goals isn't enough. "If you don't put any action into it, there's no point. The right coach will challenge you and push you out of your comfort zone," she said.

Outline incremental and specific steps. Once you define your big career goal, determine what steps you need to take and what skills and experiences you will need to get there. You may need to move sideways to a post where you can broaden your talents and expertise. "There is no problem dreaming big ... but you need to realise it's going to be a climb, and sometimes you will be going laterally to reach that goal," Bilanich noted.

Be realistic and proactive. You likely can't go from a staff associate to CFO in short order, so set reasonable interim goals. Find ways to bolster your skillset in each career position, even though your job may not obviously allow it. If your ultimate goal is to be a company leader, think about ways you can
"demonstrate your managerial abilities", Bilanich said. "Volunteer for task forces or projects where you lead a group of people."

Be flexible. Things change. While taking steps to reach your big goal, "you could get sidetracked into something else that is very good for you in the long run", Bilanich said. For example, you may determine you have a knack for running a business and choose to start your own firm, even though that wasn't your ultimate ambition. Review your career goals periodically, and determine that you are on the path where you want to be.

Go with your gut. Occasionally, you may be forced to choose one career move over another. While one path may get you to your big goal faster, it may seem like the less attractive decision. "Sometimes you have to do what feels right for you," Bilanich said. "You need to know what appeals to you as a human being."

Cheryl Meyer is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at