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Working for and leading teams at great global companies such as Marriott and Walmart has given me a chance to observe countless careers unfold. Through managing the world’s largest performance management and employee engagement programs I have been able to glean great insight at a macro level into what matters most to people and what leads to a successful and a fulfilling career.

What is equally insightful, though, are the many individual and group coaching conversations I have had with others to help them in their careers. This more personal connection is enlightening because it reveals what they are thinking and the motivations behind what matters to them. During a recent group-mentoring circle I was leading, I asked people in the group to raise their hand if they knew what job they wanted next. Not a single hand went up. In my experience this group is not unique, and over the last few years I have noticed that this is a trend that actually seems to be worsening.

When someone does have an answer to the question, the most common response I receive is based on a reference to a job title. For instance, a Manager states that she wants to be a Senior Manager, but is not sure of anything beyond that. If you are aimless about what to do after your current job, you cannot realistically put forth a strategy to get there. Similarly, it is hard for others to properly assist you in building a deliberate development plan since you have not given them a target to consider.

The Internet and social media have created a new job search environment where people have become more comfortable waiting for opportunities to find them; so much so that a recent article even referred to 2014 as the year of the passive job hunter. While you can find good opportunities this way, you are likely missing out on even more. As T. Boone Pickens said, “A fool with a plan can outsmart a genius with no plan any day.”

In my experience this trend of limited preparation – which can be described as a form of career negligence – is driven by 4 primary factors:

  1. The economy. With the recession, people became complacent and felt grateful to just have a job during a time when so many others were losing theirs. This “gratitude” led to an acceptance of the status quo at the expense of actively managing their career. Instead of “hunkering down” to weather the storm, employees should have been more active than ever to ensure they remained in control of their careers and were proactively seeking out the right opportunities. The job market is picking up, but regardless of it’s status I can guarantee you that companies will always hire top talent, even during difficult economic times.
  2. A new model of work. I think Sheryl Sandberg stated it best when she said to picture your career more like a jungle gym than a ladder. Gone are traditional linear career paths where there is only one option for your next job. Now you can move up, over, and even down (not to mention other options such as expat assignments and moves into other functional areas). It used to be easy to pick your next job because it was the one at a level higher than you. You can no longer rely on such a clear-cut path, nor is it enough to simply put in your time so that you can get promoted.
  3. Generational Shift. In the next few years the Millennial Generation will represent nearly half of the workforce. They entered it equipped with a new set of tools and expectations. They are much more comfortable with technology and building virtual relationships (something their supervisors may shun). Many believe that Millennial’s have an increased sense of entitlement, which could result in them waiting for their next job to find them. This helicopter generation is not accustomed to traditional feedback, and therefore may not be getting what they need to prepare. Current approaches and techniques need to be adapted to prepare for this rapidly growing generation in the workforce.
  4. Lack of Understanding. People often are not sure where to begin and this lack of understanding can quickly lead to frustration. I believe that career growth is most effective when it’s a two-way street. Though you control and are ultimately responsible for your career, it is influenced and enabled by others. Managers, mentor, peers, and even customers have a stake in your career. Something is wrong if you ever find yourself at a point where you have more clarity about your career options outside of a company than you do in it. If you find yourself in this situation don’t be afraid to ask, particularly when you have a passive boss when it comes to career discussions.

If for one of the reasons above (or any other reason) you find yourself sitting on the sidelines when it comes to your career, there is a simple 3-step framework you can follow to bring clarity to your career trajectory: view it in terms of “Now, Next, Then.”

  1. Now. This relates to your current job and two types of skills you must hone and develop: the skills you need to succeed in your present job and also the skills you need to develop to prepare for your future. It seems obvious, but many people fail to realize the quickest path to their next job is to do excel in their current job. Specific Action For You to Take: Identify the one major performance area you must improve the most in your current job. If you have had a recent performance review this is a good place to start. Better yet, set up time with your supervisor and ask for candid feedback on what it is. Then put together a plan to develop in this area so that you can maximize your contribution in your current job and set yourself apart.
  2. Next. This is the job that you want to move into after your current role. The lens for your next job should not be solely to find your big payday; it should be about what job will provide you enjoyment and enable you to develop the skills you need to get the job after it. Short-term thinking for a quick bump in pay can actually set you back if the job does not enrich your skillset. When you are considering roles you should include “Career Development” as a core component of your Total Rewards package. With each job you want to be sure you will acquire skills you need in your career portfolio of experiences. Specific Action For You to Take: Identify a project or initiative you can contribute to that is outside your current role, but that will enable you to gain experience necessary to succeed in the job you want next. If you have trouble with this, instead ask to job-shadow and attend meetings with someone on the team.
  3. Then. This is the “what’s after what’s next” view and may seem the hardest to determine because it occurs the farthest out. In reality this will be much easier once you figure out your “Next” in step 2. Through doing so you become only one step removed from figuring out what you want to do here. This will enable you to create a trajectory that focuses not only on today, but the short- and long-term career goals you seek. This awareness will enable you to determine how to best balance the amount of time you spend on today versus how much time you spend on tomorrow. Specific Action For You to Take: Find a mentor that is in or has had the job that you want after your next job. Set up quarterly meetings with this person to learn more about the job and how you can prepare for it.

Career development is one of the most important factors you will consider when deciding to stay with or leave a company. There is an old saying that employees leave bosses, not companies. Most of the time what this really means is that you leave because your boss did not provide the career support you needed. While your career will be challenging and at times difficult, it does not need to be complicated. Oftentimes the hardest part is just getting started with mapping it out; once you do, you will find it easer to take the actions necessary to get where you want to go.