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Setting professional goals may be one of the most important steps you take to build your career. With clear, measurable, achievable goals, prioritizing your efforts at work becomes easier and more purposeful.
Professional goals are guideposts for what you want to achieve and where you want to go in your career. They can be short-term and tactical to help you today, this month, or this year. Professional goals can also be more strategic in nature to guide your long-term aspirations or calling to a second career.
Before jumping into examples and tips for writing professional goals, let’s explore why having such goals is important.
Here are three common scenarios and questions that many of us will face in our professional career journeys:
According to Kyle LeBlanc, personal brand strategist of Resumoxie, having well-thought-out and clear professional goals is the first step in preparing for all these scenarios. With preparation, you can maximize these discussions from a position of confidence in your vision, instead of reactively fielding the questions.
LeBlanc states that, “clear professional goals anchor your value proposition. By integrating goals into the narrative, you evolve from simply explaining accomplishments to framing why that work matters and how you will drive value in the future. This approach lets you take command of the discussion, regardless of the questions asked.”
There are no right or wrong professional goals, only the right ones for you. There are some best practices, like using SMART goals that support you in being clear on what you want to achieve and provide a framework for tracking your progress.
1. Gain insight by looking at past successes. As you consider what you have achieved in the past, think about how you feel about those achievements. How did they fulfill you? What was important about those goals then? What has changed in your life, in the business or in the market since then?
2. Start with your “why”. Your goals should represent what is most important to you right now, not “what might have always been important to you”, what you “should” want, or what “others” want for you. Use a simple values exercise to answer the question, “What is most important to me right now?”
3. Take some time for inner work. Once you are clear on your “why”, take a little time to think about what you want more of, what you want to do less of, and what you genuinely enjoy. Explore what you are clear on, what seems a bit fuzzy or not yet well-defined, and allow yourself some space for clarity to emerge versus trying to force it. If clarity does not emerge right way, not to worry. Creating goals is an iterative process so you can keep coming back to it any time you want.
4. Write down your goals. Now it is time to create some goals. Your goals should reflect what is important to you right now, taking into account your superpowers and what you love to do. Your superpowers are those things that you do almost effortlessly, that you are known for and that others turn to you when they need your specific skills or expertise.
You can use the SMART methodology to structure and evaluate your goals. Having clarity of your goals – where you are going, what is most important to you, how you will get there and how you will measure success – is the most important step. SMART is an easy way to help you create your goals, and assess your progress along the way, ensuring your goals are Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Relevant and Time-bound.
5. Compare your goals to your “why”. I have mentioned that creating goals is an iterative process rather than a point-in-time static task. Once written, check back with yourself to make sure the SMART goals you have created align to your “why,” that they leverage your strengths, and that they represent what you want, where you want to go and what is important to you right now.
To get you started, here are some professional goals that surface frequently with my clients.
(Note that these are not SMART goals yet. You will make them SMART by customizing them for you, adding in specificity, actions, measures of your success, and timeframes).
1. Communicate with influence and impact. As you progress in your career, it becomes increasingly more important to develop strong communication skills to influence and inspire others. It will be a given that you do good work. Now you need to show up as a leader through your spoken and written communication — both in meetings and large presentations or venues.
2. Develop executive presence. Spend some time on this popular professional goal, as it can be hard to define. It means something different to each of us. The culture of the organization can influence what “it” is and who has it.
Try thinking of a person with executive presence that you admire and write down what it is about them that you admire. This can be your starting point for some clues to how you want to build executive presence for yourself, but make sure you craft your goal to be authentically you as well.
3. Effectively manage through conflict. No matter how large or small your team, there are bound to be conflicts. High-functioning teams have good habits of being able to work through conflict. Developing these skills will support you today, in the medium-term, and set you up for leadership in the future.
4. Provide effective feedback to others. We all know good feedback when we receive it. It is timely, specific, includes examples, and paints a clear picture of what went right and what to do differently in the future. For many, giving such feedback may feel daunting, uncomfortable, or unfamiliar — or it might just be overlooked in the face of busy workdays and urgent escalations. Yet doing it right is the gift you give to others.
5. Effectively navigate uncertainty. In times of great uncertainty, it is natural for humans to seek out something stable to hold on to. Instead of trying to stop or manage change, or searching for someone to provide clarity and guidance, try looking inward. Developing your own resilience and leveraging your strengths leads to your ability to build your confidence to navigate no matter what change, transformation or uncertainty lies ahead.
It can also be helpful to consider what you have control of what you can influence, and what is outside your sphere of influence. Focus your energies on those things that fall into the latter two categories.
6. Adopt better time management. If there were ever a common goal among professionals, it is this one. Gaining control of one’s calendar involves some easy steps you can take, like blocking your calendar for think time or assessing if you need to be in every meeting you are invited to. All of this leads to prioritization, delegation, and ultimately your ability to graciously communicate and collaborate with others as part of this professional goal.
7. Develop inclusive leadership and teams. Consider what you want to focus on personally with this goal including how you want to impact your organization. This could involve fostering inclusivity and belonging across your organization through policy and process, developing yourself or your leaders’ skills in building more diverse teams, or influencing the broader organization to make DEI a strategic business priority.
8. Complete a professional certificate or degree. Continuing your education allows you to improve your skills, broaden your perspective, and differentiate yourself. Depending on what you are looking for, this could be both a short-term and a long-term goal.
9. Expand professional network and explore how other departments function. Having a wide and strong network of professional colleagues is a great way to support your career growth. Not only will it increase your visibility to opportunities, but it is a fertile ground for mentorship.
To widen your network, try writing down other departments you are interested in, doing some research to find out what they do, and access your current network for an introduction to someone who works in that department.
10. Volunteer to learn new technology. It is important to stay on the leading edge of technology and applications. Leaning in to learn new things may open opportunities to work with key customers. It could provide a way for you to support your team as new applications roll out, increasing productivity overall and further differentiating your value.
1. Set aside time to re-evaluate and assess your goals from time to time. Goals are not static because life is not static – what is relevant today might not fit tomorrow based on changing circumstances. So, re-looking at your goals on an ongoing basis is essential.
2. Enlist others to support you in achieving your goals. Think of your family, friends, and professional network as resources who can assist you in achieving your goals. They can be a support system to encourage you along the way, or they may have valuable expertise that can help you attain your goals.
3. Engage a certified or credentialed coach. Coaches are highly trained to support their clients’ growth and development, and goal setting is at the core of a successful coaching engagement. Coaches are skilled at asking powerful questions to help you be clear on what is important to you and to help bring clarity to your goal setting, whether for long- or short-term goals. Coaches can also help you get ready for career and goal conversations through role-playing and other techniques.
Setting effective goals is a key skill for becoming a successful and effective leader. Chances are, you haven't gotten to where you are today without setting and achieving goals, but we can all benefit from an occasional tune-up on our professional goals. True leaders are constant learners and always seek growth and improvement.
BetterUp helps develop the learner and leader in everyone through personalized growth that meets you where you are in your goals and your life.