MarieAnn North

Choices and sacrifices go hand in hand.

As one's career progresses, many opportunities are presented, and the choices are often difficult. So how do we proceed along the path of career advancement without regretting decisions along the way, or being disappointed in the end? As we look back on our career paths, we need to see that the hard work was worth it, the sacrifices were not too great, and that the end point was all it was supposed to be.

While there are no guarantees, there are approaches that improve the odds of success-and personal satisfaction with the decisions made along the way. These approaches require a fresh approach to planning your career advancement. The process starts with identifying the content of the "three circles" that constitute your individual definition of career success: compensation, job satisfaction, and lifestyle expectations. In making choices and evaluating the outcomes, keep your horizons short. Think in terms of three years. The market is too unpredictable for 10-year (or even five-year) plans, and focusing too far out can result in missed opportunities.

The Money

The first circle to define is compensation (and along with it, job title). How much do you want to make in three years? How much do you think you are worth? Be realistic. Write down the number, and once you've completed this career plan, do not change that number for three years. Not taking the time to define your worth can lead to two negative outcomes. You may feel chronically undervalued and underpaid, leading to negativity that spills over into other aspects of your work and life. On the other hand, failure to define what it means to be compensated "enough" can lead to greed and compromised ethics.

Is the amount you wrote down more than you currently make? Can you get there in your current position, or is it more than your current job will ever pay? If the latter is true, in the compensation circle, write down the job titles of the positions that pay the amount you strive to make. Later on, you will need to decide if you are qualified for those positions-and willing to pay the price.

What if you achieve and exceed the amount you documented over the course of three years? Don't adjust up. Be thankful for rewards that exceed your plan (in any of your three circles).

The Job

Now start on the second circle: job satisfaction. Compile a list of what it is about the job itself that excites and energizes you. Start with the opposite. What are you not good at? If you can't think of anything, ask those you work with! What sorts of things wear you down? Success has nothing to do with being good at everything and everything to do with finding your unique niche. Build on your strengths-don't invest great efforts to improve weaknesses unless they are truly career limiting. Instead, hire others on your team who thrive on the things you'd just as soon never have to focus on again.

After you've realistically identified what you don't do well or don't enjoy, write a list of what you are exceptionally good at and truly enjoy. What are you passionate about? What energizes you? Don't limit your list to your current job, which may not encompass many of the things you are good at. If you are struggling to write your list, avail yourself of some of the excellent testing tools than can help identify who you really are in the workplace (it is unlikely you will achieve circle one if you have not done the work to find out what you are truly good at). Finding a role that fits who you are will greatly reduce job stress.

Review the first two circles before moving on to the third. Does the job (and income level) you aspire to utilize the strengths you identified in the second circle? If not, you may achieve the title and income you wanted, but find you are truly miserable in the role that comes with it. Is your first circle still realistic, or does it need to be adjusted? Circle one is easier to adjust than circle two, which is based to some extent on genetics (along with a generous amount of training, learning, experience, and growth).

The Life

Now concentrate on the third and final circle: What are your expectations of life outside of work for the next three years? What do you expect of yourself? Do you have balance between work and play? What does your family expect of you? Do you have the energy and support to obtain additional formal training, such as an executive MBA? Can you relocate for a great opportunity? What kind of hours are you willing to put in on the job? Do you expect to sit down to dinner with your family at 6 p.m. every night? Can you make personal sacrifices and postpone some things you want out of life for the next three years to achieve the other two circles?

If circle three is full to overflowing, maybe you already have what makes you happy, and the adjustments need to be made to reduce expectations in circle one. After all, this is your personal definition of success-not one forced on you by preconceived ideas of what you "should" do or be. On the other hand, some of us have focused exclusively on circles one and two, and totally neglected circle three. All three circles are of equal importance. During various career phases, one circle may require more attention than the others, but in the end, there needs to be a balance. If your third circle is empty, then your career plan should be to fill it with at least a few things you are contracting with yourself to achieve in the next three years (not someday), unrelated to work.

An interesting exercise puts this into perspective: Quickly (in 15 minutes) write down 25 things you want to do before you die! No analysis-write whatever comes to mind. Sadly, studies have shown that the higher up you advance on the career ladder, the shorter your list becomes. Your administrative assistant may come up with 25 items before the 15 minutes is half up, but you may struggle to get to five. Don't stretch the 15-minute time limit-that's cheating! This exercise may highlight the need to focus on circle three and make some compromises elsewhere. We all know how to set goals, but do you still have the ability to dream? Does your third circle (what you wrote from the logical part of your brain) reflect your instinctive wish list (your dreams), or is there a disconnect? What energy are you willing to invest in you to make your dreams come true in addition to your career goals?

Review Your Plan-and Celebrate Your Circles of Success

Look at all three of your circles together on one piece of paper. Do they still make sense? Did you aspire to an income level and job title that would require new qualifications that come at a price, while also listing a 40-hour work week as your life priority? Disconnects are the source of frustration and stress. On the other hand, if your plan is balanced and realistic, maybe your employer is getting in the way! Perhaps a new work environment will become an obvious necessity.

You now have a three-year plan. There are three things left to do. What's standing in your way of achieving your career goals? Make a list-quickly. Off the top of your head, what are the obstacles? What are the excuses you have used up until now? Are they really obstacles, or could they be things that are no longer important? Look at your plan. What things can you take off your obstacle list?

Second, make a "not to do" list. Now that you have a plan, what is it that is no longer worth your time and energy? What are you going to stop doing?

Finally, find someone to hold you accountable to your plan. Someone who is unselfishly invested in your career. Someone you respect, who will believe in you, encourage you, be honest with you, push you to excel, pick you up when you fail, and celebrate the circles of your success.

MarieAnn North, FACMPE, is CEO, Posada Consulting, Charlotte, N.C. (

Publication Date: Monday, September 01, 2008

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