Executive Career Planning: The Six-Step Solution

For ambitious executives, the world has never offered more or better opportunities to build exceptional careers. But those opportunities won’t just fall from the sky. The best careers are built by finding not just a good opportunity, but by seeking out the ideal position - and taking the right steps to capture it. The best careers result from the best career planning. 

There is no one magic formula for career planning. But all effective plans are rooted in a few critical component elements. Call it my personal Six-Step Solution.

Step One:  Know what you want.

The Greek philosophers said “know thyself.” They were on to something, especially for the budding executive. Be honest with yourself. Ask the hard questions: What do I most want in a career – compensation, personal satisfaction, challenge, recognition, lifestyle, family security? What are my priorities? What kind of leadership or executive role do I envision for myself? CEO? COO? A specific C-suite role? Some other specialty or specific responsibility? 

Executive Career PlanningStep Two: Think critically about the opportunities that match your goals. 

What kind of organization, business or association offers the best match? Where are they located, and where do they operate? Or does that matter to me? Are new opportunities emerging somewhere, say in a new business, or another geography? Do I have a target set of prospective employers, or sectors, or geographies? Or am I open to the best opportunity, wherever it may emerge? 

Step Three: Identify strengths - and weaknesses. 

What skills and experience are essential to my ideal position? How are those requirements evolving? Where do I stand in that list? What are the building blocks I need to put in place? Where am I exceptional, and where do I need to focus on improvement? And maybe most important, how do I go about that process of professional growth?

Step Four: Don’t forget the family. 

How do my professional and personal aspirations affect those closest to me? What’s best for them? How does that affect my ability to pursue an opportunity? What are the ‘deal-breaker’ issues when I consider any opportunity?

Step Five: Value your values. 

What personal and professional values define me? What principles guide the way I live my life? What kind of organizational culture is most likely to align with my value system? Success as an executive depends as much on cultural fit as with technical skills. Can I recognize a good cultural fit when I see one?  

Step Six: Build your network

Don’t be afraid to ask for advice, or for help. Do I have a trusted advisor, or a mentor? Who can best fill that role – providing insight, candor, solid advice? What professional groups can help me to stay on top of my profession? Which ones give me the best resources I need to grow and develop, and to meet the kind of people who can help me in my career aspirations? Which ones might help me spot the best career opportunities? How do I best manage my personal and professional reputation and standing among the people who count most to my career? 

Don’t be afraid to try the six steps. Talk them over with a trusted mentor or successful colleague. Or reach out to those who specialize in helping others find, recruit and develop the best organizational leaders. But start some kind of planning now. Not tomorrow, or next week, or some day. Now.

After all, it’s only your career at stake.


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About the author

James Zaniello's picture

Jim Zaniello is president and founder of Vetted Solutions, a Washington, D.C.-based executive search firm specializing in serving the leadership needs of associations, nonprofit organizations, hospitality and destination marketing industries nationwide.

Zaniello possesses a unique understanding of the executive search process, developed through more than two decades in positions ranging from nonprofit executive director to publisher of the leading tool for nonprofit executive search.

For 10 years, Zaniello conducted searches at Association Strategies, Inc., a leading Washington, DC-area executive search firm focusing exclusively on associations and nonprofits. As vice president at ASI, he oversaw all facets of the search process, from candidate identification to compensation negotiation to successful on-boarding. Throughout his tenure at ASI, he leveraged his deep network of contacts to successfully fill dozens of executive-level nonprofit positions.

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