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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

How to Set Ambitious Career Goals You Can Realistically Accomplish

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It wasn’t working for my client, Miranda. She’d gotten her degree and was doing well in her role at a Big Four accounting firm, but something was missing.

Sure, she could keep going, receive generous compensation, and continue to advance. But deep down inside, no fireworks were going off; she couldn’t see herself on this path for the long term.

But like so many other employees who feel stuck, she didn’t know how to make a career pivot. On one hand, she wanted to reach for the stars, but on the other, she knew that she had limited experience in a specific industry and needed to be realistic about what she could pursue. Ultimately, she wanted to land a financial leadership role in the healthcare industry.

What Miranda learned is that if you want to change something; for example, chart a new path, ditch a boring job, or pivot in your career, you’ve got to start by setting a goal.

By working toward a goal, you end up getting much more than your desired outcome. Setting and achieving meaningful career goals provides three essential career nutrients: increased job satisfaction, higher self-esteem, and improved quality of your life.

But how do you form a right-size goal that’s ambitious, but doesn’t overwhelm you? Here are a few tips to help you truly understand how to achieve goals.

You Need Clarity

Studies show you’re more likely to succeed when your career goals are specific. So, start by peering into the future and creating a vision for your ideal self and career. What would that look like in one, three, or five years?

Ask yourself: What’s your job like? What kind of skills and responsibilities do you have? Who is your employer, and what is your job like? What are you totally awesome at? What kind of team do you work with?

When you clearly visualize your desired outcome, you begin to see the possibility of achieving it—and you can start taking steps to build your plan.

Miranda wanted a role at a regional healthcare organization, where she would oversee financial planning and reporting as part of a dynamic, progressive team—one with a culture that valued and respected its employees. And she wanted that position by June of 2017.

It Has to Challenge You—But With a Realistic Outcome

If you’re in your second year of public accounting, and your goal is to become CFO of Apple by the end of next year, you have your head in the clouds. Although you may know the basics of accounting, you have a long road ahead of you before you’ll be the CFO of one of the world’s largest companies. Just sayin’.

Miranda realized that for her desired outcome to actually be realistic, she’d need to acquire more knowledge and additional skills. So she did the research, spoke with people in similar jobs, and realized that by taking a few additional courses and volunteering as the part-time CFO of a small nonprofit, she could start acquiring the skills and knowledge to achieve her goal. And that made it imminently more realistic.

You Must Be Committed

I’ve heard so many people say, “I hate my job and need to make a change.” But they take zero action to make that change happen. They’ll give you a hundred reasons why they don’t go after that change, but you can boil them down to one: They simply aren’t committed to that goal.

If you believe your goal is important and attainable, you stand a much higher chance of succeeding.

Miranda committed to her goal by adopting a mindset that set her up for success—she saw herself achieving her goal. She was clear in her desired outcome, and perhaps most importantly, she was willing to share her goal with others, which held her accountable to making progress along the way.

You get commitment only when you are convinced that the goal is important to you and that it’s attainable.

Feedback Is Essential

Miranda identified a couple of key mentors and coaches to share her goals with and committed to providing them with regular updates.

To make sure she could provide a significant update every time she spoke with these mentors, she broke her ultimate goal into more bite sized action steps, which required shorter timeframes. For example, she set a goal to have one conversation per week with someone working in her desired industry and role. From those informational interviews, she identified potential target employers and what it takes to succeed in that role.

Each time she made some progress, she shared her insights with her mentors, and they helped her make tweaks to her other action steps based on what she was learning. Having a feedback process allowed her to stay motivated, stay on track, and feel a sense of accomplishments throughout the entire process.

You Must Create the Right Conditions for Success

Successfully achieving your goal requires just two conditions: time and practice.

When Miranda set the goal to connect with one person a week, she did it for a good reason: It was a realistic goal that she knew she’d have time to accomplish. She could have said, “I’ll connect with seven people each week.” But given her current professional commitments, the complexity required to achieve that objective would have been overwhelming. By week two she likely would have fallen behind, become discouraged, and perhaps even given up.

To avoid burning out and quitting on unrealistic goals, create intermediate objectives that you have enough time to complete, given your real-life commitments.

Then, practice! Miranda was getting great relationship-building practice in her weekly networking meetings. She knew that would be essential for any career move she made. She was also getting great hands-on practice creating financial statements in her volunteer position. This gave her time to learn, experiment, and fail in a safe environment, while she kept moving her career plan forward.

I’m highly confident Miranda is going to achieve the career goal she set for herself. And when she does, it will be a huge win for her. Not only because she’ll achieve her desired outcome, but also because she’ll have built a fabulous winning experience on setting and achieving a career milestone—one step at a time.

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