Four reasons why “I have a plan for my career” rarely works

Business people team and diagram. Isolated over white background
Reading time: 4 Minutes

I have heard many stories from people early in their careers about how they intend to eventually become a senior executive leading their influence function. Sometimes they have plotted a path in their own organization. I love the aspiration! It gives me comfort that key organizations will succeed across future generations given the talent we have gunning to lead them. I see the motivation that professionals display from having thought about or documented their career development plan. It is inspiring.

However, some of these plans are not anchored in reality. I see four reasons that can cause career plans to be reduced to broken dreams or irrelevant paper exercises:

1 – Uncontrollable events

There are many possible drivers that could derail any career plan - economic cycles, natural disasters, technological innovation, environmental shifts, wars, elections, and changes in relationships or public sentiment, to name a few. The world of your dreams will not be the world you face a decade later.

Most “career-path day dreams” ignore the potential for these events and the impact they can have on your professional trajectory.

2 – The “chain of retirement” delusion and similar sequential scenarios

Some folks create their own dramatic sequence of events that ultimately put themselves in the desired leadership seat. It could be a series of key retirements that advance the them on the organizational ladder, or it could be more complicated.

The problem is that the likelihood of such a scenario coming true is very, very low. The probability of a sequence of steps happening is always lower than the probability of any of the individual steps in that sequence. In a coin toss for example, the likelihood of flipping “heads” is 50%, but the probability of flipping twice in a row and producing the same result is only 25%.

So, if you take a sequence of say four or five steps, the likelihood of the entire sequence happening in that way is so slim it starts to approach zero. Probability for a sequence is multiplicative, so the shrinking prospects just accelerate with each step.

It is far more probable that a professional will work in more than a handful of organizations over their career. Make a plan that will help you succeed anywhere, leveraging your basic competencies.

3 - Competence bias

We naturally view ourselves as competent, sometime supremely so.

Generally, we assume we know what we need for success. But we don’t yet understand the topics that we don’t know, much less appreciate that they even exist, so it is not a safe assumption.

This cognitive bias, known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, occurs when people with limited knowledge in a domain tend to grossly overestimate their knowledge or competence when compared to their peers. Call it “youthful overconfidence” if you want.

This reminds me of the generic human knowledge map that has been circulating for years. Consider a pie chart of the three types of personal knowledge – the things that you:

What you Know diagram

Some people call it the iceberg of human knowledge. The majority of a person’s needed available knowledge is ‘under the surface of the water’ and remains invisible if allowed to stay undiscovered.

Category 3 in the diagram, is the knowledge that you really have to sort out. There obviously is some information that you will never need to know, but another portion of that huge pie slice can be very useful to you and your career.

How proactive you are about trying to narrow the “knowledge awareness gap” can play a big role in your professional development and ultimate success. Which brings me to the next reason why many aspirational plans fail.

4 – Not actively seeking professional development as a way to grow competence

If you ignore the realities of the knowledge map, and make no attempt to fill the gaps where it matters, you will remain blissfully ignorant, and ultimately underperform in your career.

Fulfilling the minimum required hours of training, or successfully spending your training allowance may not provide the knowledge you need to perform well. Form will not overcome substance here.

The six pillars of Radical Influence are intended to guide you on the journey of professional development. The pillars fill key knowledge and competency gaps and set you up for career success, no matter which influence function you are in. I am ignoring for the time being specialized subject matter expertise such as environmental science, law, diversity, governance, or ethics for example. The pillars address the building blocks of radical influence, independent of subject matter.

The six pillars are: Situational Awareness, Business Partnership, Value Management, Issue Management, Cognitive Science and Psychology, and Innovation. (Read more about the six pillars.)

These pillars apply to any influence function as a whole as well as at the level of a single person. Everyone in the department must understand how each pillar contributes to the department’s collective performance, as well as overall performance of the entire organization.

The best career advice is to be a life-long learner. Aspire high and never stop learning, since opportunities will arise. Good luck on your random, and interesting path!


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