5 things you can do to get clearer on the career you want

About half of my coaching clients end up focusing on career. When they come to me initially it may be about some other issue, such as having a lack of confidence. However, when we dig deeper most often what ends up transpiring is that the person is deeply unhappy and stuck in career rut.

This post is for those of you who may not be able to have a coach, for whatever reason. Or you may know someone, a friend, colleague or family member, who you just know is stuck.

The following five activities are ones that have had the biggest impact with clients, helping them to have major breakthroughs, insights and build the courage to do something new.

#1 Really go deep on the things that matter most to you in your worklife

For this I use a values activity which I first came across 15 years ago. It’s one that I end up using early on in most coaching relationships. It is really something that should be done with another person but there’s nothing to stop you giving it a go on your own.

Step one: Get a blank piece of paper and draw seven lines across the page, and one line down on the far left-hand side (about an inch in) and one line down on the far right-hand side (about an inch in).

Step two: Ask yourself, “What is the most important thing to me in my working life?” Key is not to over-analyse or think too long. Go with your gut and the first thing that pops in to your head. Write this down in the first box on the far left-hand side column.

Step three: Repeat the question and write the answer in the next box down on the far left-hand side column. Keep going until you have seven items. You might find that the sixth and seventh you struggle with. That’s quite normal.

Step four: Now comes the tricky bit. You now have to make a choice. Ask yourself “if I had to choose work that gave me my first item or my second item I would go for…?” Again, try not to overthink this or be overly smart in your logic. Go with your gut.

Step five: Put a tick against the item you chose and a cross against the one you didn’t.

Step six: Repeat again, choosing between item one and item three; then item one and item four; so and so forth.

Step seven: Once you’ve exhausted item one, then go to item two and compare it to item three, then item four and so on.

Step eight: Keep going until you have chosen between all items in turn. You should have rows of ticks and crosses.

Step nine: Add up the number of ticks on each line, for each item. Write the number down for each item.

Step ten: Put a ‘1’ against the item with the highest number of ticks, through to ‘7’ against the item with the lowest number of ticks. You now have your order of importance for the things that matter to you in your worklife.

Remember all of these things are important to you. What this activity does is give you an idea of what’s most important to you at this point in time. Sometimes the order of priority can change according to what’s going on in your life. Again, that’s quite normal.

Most coaching clients get real clarity from this exercise, particularly in relation to the kind of organisation they do or don’t want to work for. It also helps some to understand why they may be so unhappy – in that they are working somewhere that’s the complete opposite to what they value at work.

#2 Use your creativity to tap into thoughts that have lain dormant

In this activity, I ask coaching clients to go away and make a collage of their ideal career. Sometimes I get a look of fear or horror from a client. To breakthrough these reactions, I tell them to remember when they were a little child and then ask them to think about what they wanted to be when they were young. Most have told me, using this as a starting point then fires off all sorts of thoughts and ideas.

The client then brings their collage to our next session. If you’re doing this without a coach then think about someone you trust who you can talk to about your collage. They should be someone who understands why you’re doing it and aren’t afraid to ask you some probing questions.

I’m always interested in why people picked certain images – and were there any they were going to use but then decided not to. Why was that? Why lots of colour? Or use of monochrome? Talking about the reasoning behind the images you’ve chosen can give all sorts of insights, in a way that just talking in a traditional coaching sense can’t. Some clients end up framing their collage and putting somewhere prominent as a way to motivate them.

This activity is more comfortable for some than others but stick with it. Lots of my clients talk about feeling really absorbed and hence, more relaxed the more they got into the activity. And let’s face it, there is something fun about cutting stuff out and sticking things down!

#3 Think big, start small

This activity helps remind us of how much time we have left. As well as coaching and consultancy, I lecture on several Masters programmes. The students, particularly the younger ones, want everything now. Don’t get me wrong. I empathise. I was like that too. Hungry and ambitious and wanting that promotion now!

But when you think about it, with the way the world is and is continuing to go, most of us have a long time working. Some of us may have many different careers, let alone jobs.

The big…

I recently had a client who is in her early thirties. She was putting a lot of pressure on herself to do something, anything, that was different. I presented her with a piece of paper with forty boxes mapped out on it. Each box represented a year, i.e. a box for roughly every year she had left at work. This was an eye opener for her and also helped her to become a bit calmer about her situation. I asked her to write a career goal in each box. She got as far as four years from now which is pretty good.

This combined with the values exercise (see number one) helped this client to see that she was pretty happy where she was already but there were some things she needed to do which would increase her skill set.

…and the small

Another client went through a similar activity to the one above and from this, he realised he was in an organisation that he was never going to be happy in. Initially, he thought it was the role but as we dug deeper it was more about the company. With this in mind, I asked the client to come up with a realistic date in the future for when they would leave.

As the client had identified January 2019, I drew a box for each month which took us from the coaching session to January 2019. I then asked, “If you want to start your new job on 6 January 2019, when do you need to hand your notice in?” The answer was then plotted in the December 2018 box. I then asked, “For you to hand your notice in then, what needs to happen in the weeks before that?”

By questioning and going backwards in time, we were able to build a realistic, detailed step-by-step approach to helping this client find and ultimately, work for their ideal company.

This activity is incredibly helpful for people who are feeling overwhelmed, unable to see a way forward, or who are so confused that they have frozen.

#4 Write your ideal job description

If the collage activity really doesn’t do it for you (and hey, that’s okay… it’s not for everyone) then this one might work better. This is about words not pictures, although you’re still required to use your imagination.

I always suggest to people that they do this somewhere they feel relaxed and I insist they don’t do it at work.

If you’ve never written a job description then don’t worry. You don’t need to have. For those who haven’t, here are some ideas to help:

  • Job title
  • Salary
  • Main things you’re responsible for
  • Key projects you’ll get to work on
  • Skills you need
  • Any special requirements which are non-negotiable for you

You can make your job description as grandiose or simple as you like. No-one will see this but you and whoever you choose to show it to.

One client I worked with had some brilliant insights as she realised she actually wasn’t too far away from her ideal role. This activity helped her clarify the kind of skills she needed to develop whilst beginning her research into the kind of organisations she could apply to.

#5 Create your ideal working week

This is similar to activity four, in that it requires you to use your imagination. Some clients find it helpful to write their ideal working week in a diary format.

One client created an Outlook style calendar which detailed their ideal working week, the kind of work they’d be doing, how it fitted with family life etc. He then took me through each day, describing what he’d be doing first thing (spending time with his children), where he’d work (mix of office and interesting drop down spaces in London), and the kind of work he’d be doing. The client even talked about the kind of people and clients he’d be working with. In reality his working week was Monday to Friday, although he worked a lot of weekends. On his imaginary calendar he would work Monday to Thursday, with Sunday mornings for catching up on emails, planning for the week ahead.

At the start of our sessions, he said he was fine with this as he enjoyed his work and was paid a lot of money to work hard. However, what this activity showed is he was less happy than he’d realised and in particular, he had an insight about the lack of time and attention he was giving to his children. This, in turn, helped him to work through how to raise this with his boss and adapt his working pattern (which he now has).

I hope you’ve found this post helpful. Some of the activities may resonate with you more than others. That’s perfectly normal. If you’re stuck in a career rut then I’d absolutely encourage you to at least try one of the activities. You never know, it could just give you the light-bulb moment you need.

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