GPS Career Planning

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If you grew up as a non-digital-native, you probably remember the days of using a giant, inconceivably folded map to take a car-trip.  I loved those maps, with the rough tapestry-like patterns of roads, the symbols, and even terrain markers so you got a sense of a third dimension.  We would plan a trip by marking the starting point and the ending point and meticulously “mapping” out a concise route of passage.  The person in the passenger seat was the navigator and usually had the map spread out over knees, lap, dashboard and even encroaching a little bit into the driver’s space. Sounds idyllic, doesn’t it?  But, can you also hear the complaining kids in the back seat (there weren’t any devices, just some books and maybe some crayons)?  And, can you remember what happened when you got off the right path somehow? There were harrowing moments of calling out street signs, landmarks, anything that might help the poor navigator figure out where in the world on the tapestry woven roads we might actually be.  That description doesn’t even account for the anxiety of trying to get back to the planned route.  (And once you did, folding the map back up properly was an art, not a science.)

Career planning used to be exclusively like using one of those old-fashioned paper maps.  A person would become qualified to join a chosen profession, find an entry-level position, and slowly slog through climbing up a pre-determined ladder of next level positions.  In my profession, as an academic physician, we would start as instructors or possibly assistant professors and progress methodically through the ranks. Sometimes a promotion required a change of institution.  One day, we might become section directors and then a few would become Chairs.  A tiny percentage of Chairs might then go on to consider becoming Deans of Medical Schools.  When I started in my career almost two decades ago, this was the regular, usual and expected route for “leadership success.” This is still a rock solid route to leadership success for some.

 But, the world has changed

Obviously, for digital natives, the concept of a paper map is archaic (right up there with rotary dial phones).  GPS has almost entirely replaced the old-fashioned paper map.  Are paper maps even sold anymore? For digital-natives and non-digital-natives alike, GPS has been a godsend.  Every device I own has a maps app on it and I can’t actually get anywhere without GPS.  I have even been known to turn on GPS in my own neighborhood, just so I can pinpoint an exact address without having to bother with house numbers.

Similarly, career trajectories have also changed.  It seems to me that there is no longer a “usual” pathway or even “usual success” anymore.  As a Department Chair, when I meet with my faculty members, I often talk about how success looks different to everyone. There are many ways to incorporate leadership roles, which are usually equated with success, through less traditional routes. The diversity of leadership positions is vast and physicians are being tapped for nearly every one of them these days.  One can take a teaching route and become engaged in medical student or resident education leadership, or more of a research route and become the Chair of an Institutional Review Board or run core facilities–or a clinical route and become a service line director, a chief medical officer, or even a hospital CEO.  There are a thousand routes to “leadership success” that were just not dreamed of or planned for in the past. 

And, so the career planning must change, too

If the trajectories are no longer straightforward and the paths are no longer set in stone, or even linear, career planning may also need to change.  I remember sitting down with my beloved mentor and sponsor, Dr. Virginia LiVolsi, in the first year of my career.  She and I got out a piece of blank paper and a pencil, and created the journey map for my career. The milestones were specific, traditional, and obvious.  The implication was that I would keep my head down, stay focused and not deviate from the plan.  And, to be perfectly honest, that is what has essentially happened.  I just don’t think that this map-like approach works for everyone who is coming up in the ranks today. There are too many options and too many possible alternative routes to allow accurate planning for a destination, let alone for the exact and specific milestones and path. If I asked some of my junior faculty members if they wanted to be chairs someday, it is likely I would get back a deer-in-the-headlights look, and then the answer, “I have no idea. There are just so many different things I am interested in!”  And, I absolutely love that answer.  It demonstrates that we live in a wonderful, open world of broad possibilities and many formulas for success.

These days, I have started talking about GPS career planning, instead of paper map planning.  We choose a starting point, and possibly a general destination (though even this needs to be more flexible than ever before.) Then we turn on our GPS, listen to her instructions, and start driving.  Using this method, we don’t need to worry so much about knowing the route.  We don’t worry too much about following the exact directions that she indicates.  Why?  Because we know that if we get slightly off course, she will give us a darn good alternate route and we will still arrive somewhere in the end.  If we get really off course, she will somewhat rudely ask us to make a U-turn at the next available option.

The most amazing thing about GPS career planning is that it allows diversions.  It allows us to be directionally correct and heading generally towards the goal without the rigidity that closes off interesting experiences and opportunities.  We get to experience the life along the path, instead of just staying focused on the next milestone or target.

 A few pieces of advice to those who are reaching to turn on your GPS

Think about your destination not as specific jobs or roles, but rather as a level of leadership that has multiple possibilities within it. This encourages even more flexibility and will allow rich experiences along the route.  A wonderful tool that I love to integrate into GPS career planning is a leadership competency grid, which I will cover in a future blog.

Let go of preconceived notions of what success looks like.  This is not the era of your mentors and teachers. The way they achieved success will look nothing like the way you will achieve success. Try to stop comparing yourself to people in the past and start looking around for contemporary and just-ahead peer role models and exemplars of the way you envision your future success. 

Relax your death grip on perfectionism.  For GPS career planning to work, you need to accept that “recalculating route” is not an insult or a derogatory comment.  She isn’t telling you that you did something wrong, made a wrong turn, or screwed up. She is telling you that you should get set for an unplanned adventure and for an opportunity to explore and learn something you might not have even known you needed. 

Collect experiences, not skills. The beauty of GPS career planning is that you will be living your career trajectory instead of checking it off of a list.  The path will be rich with stories and experiences, all of which will amount to leadership skills.  But, focusing less on the skill acquisition and more on the stories that describe the acquisition will firmly set the experience into your memory. These stories will also become the answers to interview questions at your next level job interview.