Cultivate an open and well-groomed opportunity landscape

One of the things I get asked regularly when I am career coaching millennials just out of university is “How can I make a career plan when I am not really sure what I want to do as my dream job right before I retire?” Don’t worry, you are not alone. In fact, many people much further in their careers don’t have that vision either. So, what to do?

Career landscape – what is it?

Think of your career landscape as all of the possible jobs you can do in the world. When you start your career, you can literally do almost anything. After you have been working for 40 years in a particular field, let’s say human resources, the likelihood of you becoming an astronaut is pretty low. It would be impossible to be a Navy SEAL as there is an age limit. As you get older and more experienced in a particular field, your opportunity landscape (the list of the next jobs available to you in your career) gets smaller and smaller. If you are in management, the higher in the company you go, the less jobs stay here. There are only 500 CEO jobs in the Fortune 500 in the world as an example.

Life also happens. You may at some point get married and have children. You may now be limited in your next career steps as your wife’s career is located in Chicago where you live and she is the “bread winner” in the family making the most income to support the family. She travels quite a bit, so you need to be working nearby the schools and not able to travel unless she can confirm she will be in town to pick up the kids.

These are constraints to your career landscape – temporary ones – but real constraints to the list of opportunities out there you can take. Now, if you want to stay married, you need to work in Chicago near home and the kids’ school which involves little to no travel. Being an airline pilot, probably won’t work, right?

Keeping your career landscape easy to get to all corners

Part of maintaining your career landscape is insuring that you will still have the ability, and be best positioned to take on the jobs you need to get next in order to hit your dream job goal. There may be a job that pays great and you can work for someone you love, but it will take you off track of one or more of your career tracks to get to that final goal.

Always remember – only you can decide if this “detour” is worth for you at this time in your life and if there is a way to navigate your way back into your career path. There is nothing wrong with taking an assignment in let’s say contract management for a year or two, as you will learn a lot which will help you later in your career. But if you want to be a CEO, statistically most come from sales and finance with a P&L background, although that landscape is changing as well.

So, the key here is if you are going to take a detour, make it part of your story and legend. Do a great job in it, but move back to where you can maintain as many career paths to that dream job possible as soon as practical.

Be thoughtful about each next job and what it means to your personal brand (for more information about it, check my previous blog) – and like the way you keep your garden in order at home, you’re your career landscape well groomed. If you don’t, a bunch of weeds can block one or more paths to your dream job.

Using myself as an example, I have worked in both the public and private sectors extensively to maintain experience in both very different markets. I have been asked to turn around and start businesses, so people may look at my resume and may think I would get bored running a stable business. That’s not true, but you can see how small nuances in your experience can send a message you may not want.

Advice on your analysis of alternatives 

Just like you can decide whether to plant a tree, some flowers, or cactus in your garden, each job you take has implications in what your resume will say to future job prospects. Some jobs may look out of place, but with a good story and reasoning on why it augments your experience, that job could make you uniquely qualified to take on your dream job. Sometimes different is a good thing, just make sure you can explain why in color.

Maybe it is my engineering training or time spent as an acquisition official in the United States government, but one thing that I do when I am looking at a few potential job opportunities is try to objectively measure each one against another. I actually go so far as to create a spreadsheet with weighted columns to measure things like who I work for, is it new experience, more people, does it pay more (sometimes you take a pay cut to get the experience you need for that next job), etc.

Making a decision can be a very emotional experience and probably should be. You are going to devote most of your life to this job for the foreseeable future. It is important that you have the passion and drive to be great at that next gig. My advice here is to just make sure, when you look at the facts objectively, it maps into your career plan and you have seriously looked at all of the aspects of taking that next job.

Usually there are a lot of good things with each job and some sacrifices you need to make. You will be surprised, at least I was, when I made my first spreadsheet how many different aspects of a job are important to me. It also surprised me when I started weighting each score, what was actually important to me at the time (which changes as life goes on). I highly recommend doing this at each inflection point in your career for any job, whether a new role inside your company or outside.

In summary, keep your career landscape as open and easy to move around in as possible. Take the time to evaluate the paths to your dream job and adjust those paths with the market. As you are the hero in your own story on your resume, make sure what you have done and are about to do strengthens you being the right choice for that dream job. Also, take some time to yourself and do that analysis of alternatives on your job opportunities to add some objectivity to your decision – but rely on your gut and passion to make the right decision.

Keep charging, stay healthy, and what does your career landscape need some grooming today?




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