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Do you know what you want? (Your career may depend on it.)

May 24, 2016 Susan MacKenty Brady

In my last blog post, I tackled confidence and worthiness—two topics that are very near and dear to my mission to help women leaders overcome seven common hurdles that they often face as they ascend the leadership ranks. Confidence, in fact, is only one piece of the puzzle—I would argue that our own worthiness, or said differently, a favorable opinion of ourselves or someone else—is equally (if not more) important. When we have compassion for ourselves and others—and feel worthy, we are better positioned to ask: What’s next on the horizon for me?

When asked what their next professional step will be, many leaders will admit to not having a clear answer. All sorts of “what ifs” seem to pile up, including but not limited to the fear that I heard recently from a high-potential manager at a Fortune 10 company: “I want to keep my options open, so I don’t have a plan for what’s next.” As a result, we are often leaving our fate in the hands of others. We might think: Perhaps my manager will come to me with a great promotion. Or, maybe a senior leader in my company will see my value and offer me the opportunity of a lifetime.

Having worked with and heard from thousands of women in businesses around the world, I am still struck by how many of us feel ambivalent about what we want for ourselves. Recent research by Deloitte in Multicultural Women at Work: The Working Mother Report suggests another interesting trend: Salary increases, access to professional development, career pathing, and the ability to get ahead rank as the top factors necessary for organization’s to retain female talent. Interestingly, and perhaps an exploration for a future post, we also know that black women are more likely than white women to have long-term goals (Black Women Ready to Lead, Hewitt & Green, 2015). Contrast this with recent polling that we have conducted with high-potential women leaders, and time after time we see an astoundingly low number (3-5%) of women who have clarity on their next professional step.

What’s going on? My experience is that mid-career women are so busy (many with fully committed personal lives) that they don’t stop to think about a plan for their professional future. Ironically, they can speak fluently about the future growth of the organization that they work in, are willing to have planning discussions about where they want to retire, and/or the ideal profession for their child based on their current interests. Okay, how about we pause and think about ourselves for a change?

Let’s set aside for a minute that planning for our professional future may, in fact, unfortunately invite bias from colleagues and management who assume that we are acting with only our self-interests in mind. When coaching women (and men who manage women), I suggest pausing to intentionally get clear about what we want in the future. Instead of looking at the next 20+ years (this can be daunting!), pick an age in the future (I like round numbers—or milestone birthdays like 35, 40, 45, 50, 55…) and envision yourself at that age. Then, ask yourself: What are the things that I would be disappointed about if I didn’t make happen for myself between now and then?

Don’t think too hard—simply notice what comes to mind. The answers might range from wanting a slower life, less or more travel, an overseas work assignment, living in a warmer climate, marriage, more time with loved ones, a leadership position, working for a specific industry or company brand, or skilling up in a functional area. Chances are, however, you’ll find some answers from within. Trust me on this. It’s a great exercise to do for yourself and with members of your team.

The hardest part is actually taking action. Chances are good that you want to participate in meaningful work for an organization where you feel valued and respected. Complacency about our own desires (professional or other) can easily seep in—especially if you are busy and somewhat satisfied. I would argue, however, that it is not our manager’s job (or anyone else’s for that matter) to come up with a professional path for us that we will find gratifying. It’s our job. We need to get clear about what we want, and stop telling ourselves that ambivalence is okay. How can we expect more women in positions of leadership unless we raise our hand and say: “This is what I want!”

In my next posts, I’ll focus on how to ask for what you want and then taking charge of your personal brand. Once we become clear about what we want, it’s our job to: 1) Practice negotiating around everything, and 2) Figure out how to show up in ways that clearly articulate our unique value.

For now, my call to action is to ask yourself (and the women on your team) this question: Do you know what you want next professionally? If not, seek clarity.

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