When I left my job in strategic planning for the vagaries of life as a freelance writer, the last things I thought I’d be taking with me were KPIs, annual plans and risk registers. And yet, four years on, I find myself sitting down with a spreadsheet, ready to enter in my monthly targets for the next year and consulting charts and graphs from the past 12 months to see where I succeeded and where I need to do better in 2018.
Back in 2013, after I found myself analysing the details of someone else’s work for the third year running, I realised that if I really wanted to make the leap into writing full-time, I needed to start using these tactics on my own career. So I booked a day of annual leave, sat down with a notebook and some Post-it notes and did my very first SWOT analysis – on myself.
Your own DIY strategy day lets you manage your career trajectory in a structured way outside the confines of your actual job
Strategy away days normally conjure up cringeworthy trust exercises, stale sandwiches and giving examples of when you’ve lived your company’s values. That’s not to say they’re always a waste of time, but when you’ve got looming deadlines and an inbox full of unread emails, it can be hard to relate it back to what you actually do day to day. Your own DIY strategy day, however, lets you manage your career trajectory in a structured way outside the confines of your actual job. It’s about preparing for a new year with concrete targets, not fluffy New Year’s resolutions.
Step one: identify your values
At best, corporate values give you a shared purpose; at worst, they can feel like a cheesy marketing exercise. But working out what yours are and figuring out how your career could embody them is a big step on the way to having a professional life that fulfils you emotionally, whether it’s creative, philanthropic or pays enough to let you see the world and donate to causes you care about. If your current job doesn’t seem like an obvious fit, how can you take steps either to pivot towards something that does, and which uses your skills and experience, or look at what you do from another angle?
Step two: SWOT up
Let’s face it – no one knows how to answer the “What is your biggest weakness?” question in job interviews. But if you give yourself an annual SWOT analysis – that is, figuring out your strengths and weaknesses along with identifying opportunities and threats to your career – then you’ll not only have your answer, but you’ll hopefully have a plan in place to address those weaknesses. Whether it’s skilling yourself up in the one “essential criteria” aspect you never meet or volunteering your time to get practical experience in something you only have a theoretical understanding of, identifying and tackling your weak areas turns a tricky interview question into an opportunity to showcase your career and personal growth with plenty of recent examples.
Step three: draw up your own risk register
Most companies will have a risk register: a document charting things that could go wrong, how likely they are and what you can do about them. It might seem pessimistic, but this kind of worst-case-scenario thinking can also be the best thing you can do for your career. Even if redundancy isn’t likely, calculate what your options would be as well as how long you can survive financially. This way, you will feel clearer about when to make the right move, rather than taking the next thing that comes along.
Not everything that will disrupt your work will be bad – if you’re planning on taking maternity leave, a sabbatical or a secondment, how can you make sure it minimises the impact on your long-term career plans? Maybe you can look at attending a course or conference during the time you’re away, or putting in a plan to wrap up any large projects well in advance of when you’ll be leaving. If you’re planning longer-term, do you need to think about a promotion or pay rise to handle childcare costs or course fees? Don’t spend too much time focusing on what could go wrong, but having a plan in place means that you’ll be able to respond better if it does.
Step four: chart your goals
I once sat in a seminar about performance management where the facilitator made us chant “If you treasure it, measure it!” over and over again. Although I wanted to sink into the floor at the time, it does actually make sense. How are you making sure to track the things you’re trying to accomplish? Maybe it’s giving a talk at at least one conference next year or maybe it’s logging 10 thousand steps a day – either way, abstract goals are fine, but if you want to actually achieve them then you need to chart your progress in a meaningful way.
Step five: check your progress
The reason New Year’s resolutions don’t work is that you make them in January… and that’s it. Set aside regular check-in sessions and put them in your calendar and keep them there. If you’re lucky, there’ll be some goals you can tick off, or at least evident progress made towards them. Be honest, if you haven’t made the progress you expected to – why? There might be valid reasons, like illness or family issues (in which case they should be on your risk register!) but either way, this is the time to get yourself back in the game.
The fact that this is your own personal DIY strategy day means that you can tailor it exactly as you want to. Want to plan while rocking out to death metal? No co-workers are around to ask you to turn it down! Want to drink bulletproof coffee out of a #girlboss mug? Go wild on Etsy. Your mileage may vary – while mine involves meditation and face masks, yours might start with a workout or brunch with someone in your network. The important thing is that when you come to sit down at the end of this year to plan 2019, you’re proud of what you’ve accomplished.
This is part of our special new-year series called Small Change, Big Difference – small things you can do in 2018 (and not big unrealistic resolutions you can't keep). To read more in the series, click here