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How to Make Your Career Reach Its Full Potential

Best Practices, KAIP Academy, Learning, Professional Development, Training

By Ryan Hatcher

Years ago, I received a great piece of advice from a former boss who started an agricultural services business in his basement with a fax machine and a phone. In just two decades, he built an international consulting powerhouse largely credited with opening markets all over the world to domestic apples, cherries, wine, and many other West Coast crops.

He claims the key to his success was something he learned from the apple farmers he worked with early in his career: “Plant today what you want to harvest in 4, 7 and 10 years.”

Strategic, long-term planning is both a necessary and common practice of any successful business, but what about a successful career?

Many in my parents’ generation didn’t need to plan their careers. My mother taught in the same school district for 39 years where raises, tier increases, and pension benefits were all set in stone. This kind of linear career path is still somewhat common in the public sector (albeit with more department hopping) but the days of the “Company Man” working his or her way up with the same private sector organization for 30 years and getting the gold watch upon retirement are largely over.

With the rise of professional and physical mobility fueled, in part, by increasing technology and connectivity, job hopping has become common among younger workers. Whereas the median tenure for employees 65 years and older is 10.3 years, the median tenure for workers between 25 and 34 is only 3.2 years.

As a thirtysomething consultant with an average tenure of less than one year per engagement, I help bring that number down (and terrify my stability-minded mother). For the first few years, I took jobs out of necessity, for pay/responsibility increases, or because they seemed interesting with only a vague idea of long-term benefits.

My friends in tech operate much in the same way. Silicon Valley companies are continuously rewriting the e-book on poaching recruitment, and qualified employees can switch jobs as easily as replying to one of the dozens of LinkedIn solicitations they get every month.

Besides opportunity, what drives most workers to jump ship? A recent LinkedIn study found that 59 percent cited a stronger career path and increased opportunity as their primary reasons for leaving; this narrowly beat ‘better salary’ (54 percent) and ‘more challenging work’ (47 percent).

This study demonstrates two things: The desire for career advancement is enormous and most employers do a poor job fulfilling that need. With this in mind, workers have little choice but to take matters into their own hands.

So, in a world where we are all trailblazers of our own career paths, how do we incorporate strategic, long-term planning?

  • We can start by thinking of our careers as long-term investments. Short-term gains in salary or titles are exciting, but leaving a job prematurely can sacrifice valuable experience and relationships.
  • Staying current on emerging skills and certifications will increase opportunity in whatever direction we decide to take.
  • Most importantly, as with any long-term planning, focus should be on a discrete and defined set of goals. Without a continuous focus on set objectives, we risk wasting years on dead-end tangents and getting bypassed by peers.

By devaluing short-term gains, investing in professional development and focusing on a defined end point, we can create the framework for long-term success. Then comes the real challenge: discipline.

Much like any strategic investment, resisting the urge to tinker and make changes, big or small, is the hard part. Distraction via shiny objects is the enemy of long-term success.

The whole process seems simple, because it is. The reason so many people find strategic career planning challenging is because doing it correctly requires sacrifice. Foregoing a higher-paying opportunity or spending weekends collecting certifications aren’t choices many people have the self-control to make.

However, much like farmers, the most successful professionals are the ones who can develop and execute 4-, 7- and 10-year plans.

It is only with discipline, vision, and patience that we can create the necessary environment for apple trees, businesses, or careers to truly reach their potential.

About the Author: Ryan Hatcher is a skilled communications and management consultant with over a decade of experience campaigning for government, public affairs, and political clients. A recent addition to KAI Partners, Ryan serves as an executive consultant providing communications support to one of California’s heath care agencies. He resides in Sacramento with his wife, Nikki, and their two dogs.