Developing a plan

When I was in college, we all assumed that jobs – and careers — would appear when we graduated.  Most of us found the Career Center on campus a few weeks before graduation, when we walked in and stated, “I need a job.”

In the current economic and technological climate, the process of finding a job starts much earlier, and job seekers have access to a massive amount of information about opportunities, salary ranges, and openings.  The sheer volume of data makes an organized approach to careers even more important.  Traditionally, such discussions have happened with faculty advisors, employers, mentors, and friends.  The quality of the conversation varied greatly.  Many people used the “spaghetti” approach to figuring out which the career they were most interested in pursuing.  (You remember the story about the apocryphal roommate who tested whether the pasta was done by throwing it against the wall to see if it sticks, don’t you?)  I’ve known a number of people who have applied for so many job openings that the process looked random.  When a job possibility worked out, they would try it out to see if it “stuck.”  If so, great.  If not, they would cast more applications into the world and try something new.  This approach is neither thoughtful nor productive, and it often wastes the time and energy of both the job seeker and the employers. 

People with leadership skills are more likely to take charge of the situation and approach the job – and career – process with a plan.  One effective approach is the “individual development plan,” or IDP.  This has been used in some workplaces to help employees set personal goals (whether to build on strengths or address weaknesses), but the value can be much broader and more valuable, and it can be used in both career planning and performance improvement.

Lots of consultants will be happy to help you develop an IDP for a fee, and a Google search will produce a number of bureaucratic-looking templates, but the format matters less than the process.  The most important aspect is thinking through your personal skills and interests, looking at where the gaps may be, and considering options in the context of your values and motivators.  Many different paths can accomplish this goal, and the self-knowledge gained in the process is particularly important.  The result can be a clearer sense of direction, specific goals for improvement, and a greater sense of accomplishment and satisfaction,

However, some tools are more useful than others.  One that has just become available is (, a web-based tool that is supported by the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s “Science Careers.”  The site includes assessment tools with a series of questions to help you identify your talents and interests.  Leadership ability is part of the equation.  The outcome is a suggested list of careers to consider, along with personalized development plan and a mechanism for holding yourself accountable with e-mail reminders.  The site is free and confidential, although the focus is clearly on preparation for careers in science and engineering.

A number of business leaders have recently called for replacing annual performance reviews with an individual development plan.  (One worthy example is Samuel Culbert’s article titled “Get Rid of the Performance Review!” in The Wall Street Journal, available online at and most recently updated on June 21, 2012.)  The criticisms of annual reviews include the anxiety they create, the real or inferred punishment for honest self-appraisals, and the negative effect on teamwork.  I’ve certainly observed the destructive aspects of “annual reviews” on individuals and teams.  Changing the conversation to being about individual development makes great sense to me.  Whether the actual development process uses or some other approach, the end result can be valuable. 

Leadership is about developing the talents of others, not punishing their weaknesses.  As we are all thinking about resolutions and plans for the new year, is this a good time to consider an IDP – for ourselves and others? 

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