Aneasha Meade refused to be deterred.
Just a few years ago, she scribbled her latest career goal on a sticky note: become an account executive in three years. She added it to her vision board and created a meticulous plan that lived in the notes app on her phone.
Everything seemed straightforward. She’d start as a sales development representative, find a mentor, expand her skill set through workshops and eventually gather the experience she needed for the role. Then she ran into an obstacle. During a performance review while working as a sales development rep, her manager also told her she’d never make it as an account executive.
What Are Career Goals?
Her manager’s evaluation stung. To make matters worse, she lacked the career support to grow. But Meade had her plan to fall back on.
“Some people could take that as discouragement and make them go into their shell and not push forward,” Meade said. “For me, I’m the opposite. That’s where I really amped up my goal of finding a mentor.”
Today, Meade works as an account executive for the HR platform Justworks, and is well on her path to her next goal of becoming a senior account executive.
Careers often seem like they develop on autopilot. Plug in your position, factor in annual raises and promotion opportunities, and surely, you’ll get where you want to be.
But they’re also filled with setbacks, missed opportunities and self-discoveries. Without a career goal and plan to achieve it, you risk putting someone else in charge of your professional life. And with it, ending up in a role you didn’t want, or worse — stuck in the same position.
What Are Career Goals?
If you want to chart a path to career success, you need career goals. But it’s not always clear where to start or what the goal should entail.
Career goals are typically long-term targets that define what you want to accomplish in your profession, be it a job title, an ambition like starting your own company or specific salary. It’s not just what you want to achieve in one year or three years, but five years and 10.
What Does an Effective Career Goal Look Like?
As cited in the book Motivation: Theory and Research, psychologists Edwin Locke and Gary Latham discovered that the most impactful goals are ones that are specific — meaning clear and measurable enough that you objectively know when you’ve reached it — and challenging.
Granted, what’s challenging for one person will be different for another, but the point is that it should be ambitious and push you outside of your comfort zone. For example, if you work as an entry-level marketer, a specific and challenging goal might be to become the head of a marketing team in 10 years. Or, if you’re an entrepreneurial-minded software engineer, it could be to start your own company in five years.
By contrast, when a person sets a vague goal like “do my best,” there isn’t a tangible benchmark to reach. It can mean anything, and as a result, Locke and Latham found that people give themselves the benefit of the doubt when evaluating their performance. This leads to less motivation and lower levels of achievement. The same holds true when a person sets an easy goal.
So, where do these specific but challenging goals come from? How do you know what to set your sights on in your career when you’re just starting out? It’s a quandary business professors Maria Kraimer and Lindsey Greco explored in their study on goal setting in the career management process.
“The big assumption in research was ‘We’re going to measure career goals people already have,’” said Greco, who works as an assistant professor in the management department at Oklahoma State University. “My question was like, ‘Where do they actually come from?’”
During their study, which examined goal development for graduate students, they found that when a person has a psychosocial mentor — meaning someone they can go to for emotional support as they embark on their career — they feel a greater sense of belonging in their profession.
When that happens, people become more familiar with the indicators of success within their profession and what they want to accomplish. This helps them set more meaningful, quality goals, said Kraimer, who’s a professor in human resource management at Rutgers University.
“By having a mentor where you become friends with them, the student starts to identify with the profession that they’re studying,” Kraimer said. “Through that development of professional identification, you start to hold the same values of that professional group. And you’ll start to develop goals that fit with that professional group.”
Still, the process of setting a career goal isn’t easy. It takes more than saying, “I want to start my own company in five years.” It requires research and careful planning to map out the steps you need to take to reach that target — something most people overlook. Doing so, however, can have a lasting impact on your career.
Why Setting Career Goals Matter
Careers development is rarely a straightforward path. Without a goal, it’s easy to get lost in the swirl of day-to-day minutiae only to find what seemed like a promising start up the career ladder stalled out on the second rung.
You may get passed up for a promotion or find yourself in a job different from the one you wanted. The promotions and raises you do receive can end up blending together because there’s always something more you should be doing.
Setting a goal gives you a North Star to follow. It puts those setbacks and accomplishments into context, and allows you to see the bigger picture of your career. It’s not just a process for Type A individuals, either. It’s been proven that people who set goals are more successful than people who don’t, Kraimer said.
“People who set career goals tend to have higher salaries, more promotions and are more satisfied with their careers.”
“We have found from research that goal setting does help predict career success,” Kraimer said. “People who set career goals tend to have higher salaries, more promotions and are more satisfied with their careers.”
Why is that? For starters, the process of setting a goal encourages you to take control of your career. It can be easy to think that managers will put you in a position to succeed, but even the best managers can’t predict what you want out of your career. And in some cases, you may end up being promoted into a role that doesn’t suit your preferences. Moving from a software engineer to engineering manager may seem great on paper, but it also means shifting from code-based work to people management, which isn’t a fit for everyone.
Goal setting requires you to think about what you like doing, what you don’t like doing, what skills you need to acquire and how you can go about developing those skills. In that way, it can be a useful strategy for not just advancing your career but also combating burnout, said Wendy Saccuzzo, head of hiring services for Tech Ladies, a company that helps women in tech find jobs and advance their careers.
“If you’re stuck doing things all day long that aren’t energizing to you, it’s hard to feel good about the work you’re doing,” Saccuzzo said. “We’re motivated to do a good job most of the time, but once we lose that motivation because we’re doing work we don’t like, nothing is going to change unless we take control of it ourselves.”
Having a clear and actionable goal also makes you more resilient when things don’t go your way. When Meade’s manager told her she’d never make it as an account executive, she relied on her goal plan to keep her on track. Instead of reeling, she was able to stay focused on her first step of finding a mentor.
“If there’s a setback, I always have [a] clear idea of, ‘This is what I need to do to pick things back up,’” Meade said.
The real power of goal setting, however, isn’t necessarily what it helps you achieve. Instead, it’s really in the feeling we get when we make progress toward our goals, Greco said.
“If you can imagine where you start your career is at the bottom of the hill and at the top of the hill is your ultimate career goal,” Greco said. “As long as people are making progress, they tend to be pretty happy about things.”
How to Set Career Goals
Whether you’re starting your career or entering your midpoint, setting a career goal can set you up for success in the ensuing years.
It’s a personal process that requires self-awareness, research and careful planning. While each person’s goal will look different, there are some common steps you can follow to set yourself up for success.
4 Steps to Setting Career Goals
- Define what success looks like to you.
- Create your goal plan.
- Break down your long-term goals into steps.
- Evaluate your progress.
Define What Success Looks Like to You
Where do you see yourself five or 10 years from now?
This is the question that lies at the heart of the goal-setting process, and it can be challenging to answer. The easy route is to pick a role that’s above you on the established career ladder. But chasing promotions or a specific salary because that’s what others do will only lead to hollow achievements.
To set an effective career goal, you have to first ask yourself: “What does success look like to you?,” said Oliver Rolfe, author of two life and wellness books and founder of the financial executive search firm Spartan International Group. The worst thing you can do is set a career goal based on a company career development chart without reflecting on whether that’s what you really want.
“Understanding what success means to you is probably one of the most important things you can do before setting goals.”
“Success can mean financial success, it can mean promotions, it can mean positions of power or achievements. There are so many different facets you can bring into it,” Rolfe said. “Understanding what success means to you is probably one of the most important things you can do before setting goals.”
To that end, a career goal doesn’t always have to be an external indicator of success like obtaining a specific job title or making a six-figure salary. For some people, success may be more internal, like being in a role where they can give back or being at a job that they love.
Whatever your answer, it’s important to make sure the goal is clear, specific and measurable, Greco said. If success is being in a role you can give back, define what that means. Is it being in a position of power so you can organize a volunteer effort? Or, is it working for a company that’s trying to solve global warming?
If it’s to do a job that you love, then you have to define the qualities in a job that make you feel happy and then take the time to reflect on your enjoyment each year, Greco said.
“As long as you measure yourself against that goal, then it’s still actionable because you’re thinking about it,’” Greco said. “Is it important for you that you’re really happy [at work]? If it is, then changing your situation [when you’re unhappy].”
Don’t be afraid to set your sights high, either. As Locke and Latham found, you’re more likely to raise your level of performance to the difficulty of the goal. Just make sure it’s realistic.
If you’re an entry-level sales rep and you want to become a CEO, great. Give yourself a realistic timeline to accomplish that. Ask mentors or other people in those positions what skills and experience you will need to become CEO and how long it takes to reach that target.
While falling short may sting, don’t let it override your other accomplishments, Greco said.
“You might set a really lofty goal for yourself and if you’re not making progress or didn’t get the promotion, it can lead to depression or affect your well-being,” Greco said. “One important thing to think about there is that people aren’t great at interpreting why they didn’t reach their goal. One reason you might not have reached a goal is because it was too lofty, but you worked really hard and you actually accomplished a lot. And that’s OK.”
Create Your Goal Plan
Once you identify your overarching career goal, it’s important to write it down and map out the steps you need to take to achieve it.
While every goal is different, there are some universal characteristics that all effective goals should contain. Psychologists Locke and Latham found that for a goal to bring the most out of a person, it needs to contain five elements, as outlined in Motivation: Theory and Research:
- Clarity: The objective should be specific and easy to understand.
- Challenge: It needs to be difficult to achieve while still remaining attainable.
- Commitment: It needs to be meaningful to the individual.
- Feedback: It needs to include some form of measurement that can give the person feedback on their goal progress.
- Task complexity: The tasks to achieve the goal should not be overwhelming.
With those characteristics in mind, there are a number of methodologies you can use as a blueprint for achieving your goal.
4 Career Goal-Setting Methodologies to Know
- SMART goals
- OKR goals
- One-word goals
- Career road mapping
SMART Goals: One of the most common goal-setting methods, the acronym stands for specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-based. The strategy requires breaking down your long-term goal into smaller short-term goals with specific actions you can take to achieve them. Within each shorter-term goal, you’ll assess how you plan to measure your progress and when you plan to achieve it. Stephanie Lovell, head of marketing for job recruiting website Hirect, said this strategy is great for anyone who prefers the certainty that structure provides.
“SMART is a lot more granular and it’s asking for a lot of input initially,” Lovell said. “It’s great for people who need more rigid goal setting.”
OKR Goals: If granular goal setting isn’t your thing, you may want to consider OKR goals, or objectives and key results, Lovell said. Again, starting with your overarching goal, you’re going to break it down into specific objectives. Then, you’ll list the actions you can take to get there and the key results or metrics you’ll be tracking to evaluate your progress. Without the pressure of deadlines, this process is more effective for people who value flexibility in their goals, Lovell said.
One-Word Goals: As the name implies, this strategy is about distilling your goal down to a single word like “bold” or “visibility.” The method is designed to simplify your goal and make it easier to sustain your focus on it over a long period of time, according to the website My One Word. Every task you take on should be working toward that single word. Because of the abstract nature of this strategy, Lovell suggests pairing it with the OKR method. Use the word to shape the direction of your objectives and key results.
Career Road Mapping: Saccuzzo came up with this goal-setting strategy while struggling with the direction of her career. The process takes a value-based approach to goal setting, starting with identifying what you find empowering or enjoyable at work and making that your goal. From there, you’ll write three tasks that are energizing and three that are depleting, along with steps you can take to do more energizing work, all on a single page. Over time, you can refer to that page to reflect on your current position and identify actions you can take to keep working toward your goal.
However you plan, make sure you take the time to write the goal down on paper. People who write out their goals are 1.2 to 1.4 times more likely to achieve it than those who let it sit in their head, according to a study from Mark Murphy, founder of the leadership training company Leadership IQ.
For Saccuzzo, writing a goal down helps keep her committed to her mission and gives her something to refer back to when she’s lost.
“If you write it down, you’re making a connection in your brain, which allows you to really encode it there,” Saccuzzo said. “Now, I’m more likely to achieve it because I’ve made that commitment.”
Break Down Your Long-term Goal Into Steps
Whichever methodology you choose, Lovell suggests starting with your long-term goal and working backwards. So, if you set a target to become a CTO in 10 years, think about what hard and soft skills you need to succeed in that role, what experience you must have and what kind of company you want to lead.
Then identify where you need to be in five years to reach your goal. Since careers can take winding paths, though, don’t lock yourself into one specific job or target, Lovell said. Instead give yourself options for success.
“Set out four or five different roles or companies that you think would be great for yourself to be in, and recognize that you could get to one of those or you might not get into any of them and that’s OK. Something else might come up,” Lovell said. “It’s about being really flexible.”
From there, think through what you need to accomplish in three years. Each long-term goal is generally made up of smaller tasks — which can also be thought of as micro goals — that help you reach the larger target.
“There’s no way that you can jump from zero to 100 without having some steps in between.”
“There are always many goals that lead up to the ultimate goal,” Meade said. “There’s no way that you can jump from zero to 100 without having some steps in between.”
For Meade’s own goal of becoming an account executive, she started with finding a mentor because they could offer her support and identify information she might not know. Step two involved attending workshops and seminars to expand her sales skills. Step three focused on researching companies she’d like to work at, which was followed by reaching out to people at those companies to network. And then finally, applying for those jobs.
The same process holds for value-based goals. Think through what role you need to be in to do more of what you love, what tasks you can try to take on and even what you want to avoid. Doing so will give you steps you can take to achieve goals based on internal motivators like career satisfaction or making a difference.
Evaluate Your Progress
Too often people go through the work of mapping out their goals and then shove them into a drawer. But if you aren’t tracking your progress along the way, it’s easy to lose sight of where you’re going.
Saccuzzo suggests keeping your goal plan somewhere visible, whether that’s on a desk, in the notes app of your phone or a bulletin board. Doing so will make sure your target is always present in everything you do.
But it’s not enough to always be thinking about your goal. You also need to take the time to track your progress and hold yourself accountable. Unlike other work tasks, only you can hold yourself accountable to the goals you set.
How closely you track your progress will depend on the individual and the goal metric. For short-term goals, it can be as simple as checking boxes when you complete the tasks you laid out in your plan. For your long-term career goal, Lovell recommends reviewing it every six months.
During that time, reflect on where you’re progressing toward your long-term goal and where you’re falling short. If you’re missing deadlines for your micro-goals, ask yourself why. Is it because you’re missing an important skill? Is the job no longer the right fit for you? It may be that the goal you set out isn’t realistic or perhaps your perspective has changed. Maybe the goal you set out for yourself isn’t what you want anymore.
The only way you’ll know is if you constantly track your progress and reassess your goals.
“It’s in those six-month check-ins — being really open and flexible to making updates, making changes and checking in to see where you’re at,” Lovell said. “Don’t allow yourself to slide on things. Make sure you are progressing and you are learning but allowing yourself the room to be flexible.”
Career Goal Examples
While choosing a career goal is a personal exercise in deciphering what’s most important to you and your life, it can still be difficult to know what to aim for.
As Kraimer and Greco found, speaking with a mentor can be a great way to identify what career opportunities are available to you and how to reach them. It can also be useful to reflect on what you want out of your own career. That said, below are a few common career goals and questions you need to ask to get started.
5 Career Goal Examples
- Securing a job title
- Working for a prestigious company
- Earning a specific salary
- Making an impact
- Gaining career satisfaction
Securing a Job Title
One of the most common goals, this one focuses on climbing up the career ladder, whether that’s to a leadership role or a prestigious individual contributor position. Before setting this goal, research the target role’s day-to-day responsibilities. Make sure that’s something you’ll enjoy doing.
If you’re an engineer and you enjoy working in the codebase, then it may not make sense to be a CTO even if that’s the next step on the career ladder. Or, you may discover that you want to be a CTO at a smaller startup where you can have more opportunity to shape the code. Understanding exactly what a role entails and what resonates with you will ensure you pick the right target.
From there, reach out to a mentor or people in those positions and ask them what they did to get there, Greco said. What skills, certifications and experiences did they need to have to reach that position? Identifying those steps will help you chart specific steps to make this goal attainable.
Working for a Prestigious Company
Similar to obtaining a job title, this goal emphasizes charting a specific career path. If working at a big name company is meaningful to you, it’s important to research different companies and industries. Identify what you’re passionate about, what you like about those companies and where you might best fit in, Lovell said. Then reach out to people who work there or review their LinkedIn profiles to see what paths they took to reach that job. Since this goal is contingent on outside factors like job openings, it’s important to have a few options in mind.
Earning a Specific Salary
Another popular extrinsic goal, this objective is most effective when paired with other goals. What does making more money mean to you? Whether it’s more freedom to travel or an early retirement, having another objective in mind will make the money you earn more meaningful. To set an effective financial target, review the salaries of people in your field and the experience level required to earn that amount. It may also help to hone your negotiation skills so you can effectively push for higher salaries as you navigate the job market.
Making an Impact
Impact-oriented goals are based on intrinsic motivation. What does making an impact mean to you? Is it influencing other people’s career paths? Playing a crucial role in the development of a game-changing technology? Giving back to the community? These can all be powerful goals. It’s important to identify what impact you want to have first and foremost to make this more specific.
From there, list how you plan to measure your impact. This could be the ability to volunteer once a week or even a sense of satisfaction in what your company is producing. It can also be helpful to think about what role or salary amount you’d need to obtain to make this goal possible.
Gaining Career Satisfaction
For some people, it’s enough to just be happy in the work that they’re doing. This type of goal can be nebulous, but it’s still possible to make it specific and measurable, Greco said. Start with reflecting on your current situation. Are you happy? What aspects of your job do you find satisfying? What tasks can you do more of to make you happier? Every six months, hold yourself accountable to those tasks and assess your situation.
Don’t Set Your Career Goals in Stone
When a goal is set and a plan is laid out, there’s a tendency to treat it like google map directions. Follow point a to b to c, and eventually, you’ll end up at your destination.
But career goals are rarely that straightforward. It’s impossible to predict every step needed to reach your end target. You may not reach the goal you set in the timeline you established. While that can be frustrating, don’t let it discourage you.
Allow yourself a moment to take it in, then reflect on your current progress. Think about why that goal didn’t work out. It could be that you were too ambitious, and you need to readjust the timeline. Or, it could be a sign that you’re not getting the skills and development you need in your current role, and it’s time to set a goal to look for a new job.
Sometimes it can reveal a goal that’s no longer of interest to you.
“You might realize, ‘I’ve decided I want to change my 10-year plan. I’ve seen something in the market or in my professional life that’s more important to me,’” Lovell said.
It’s also important to give yourself the freedom to explore opportunities outside of your plan. Sometimes taking a job or opportunity that isn’t directly relevant to your goal can help you understand your career in a new light. Meade accepted a temporary business development representative manager role just to see if she’d like it. It wasn’t in her plan to become an account executive, but the experience did confirm her commitment to become one.
Earlier in Lovell’s career, she wanted to be an executive producer. She started with working on commercials, and over time, realized that she actually enjoyed working in marketing and managing people. Today, she’s the head of marketing at Hirect.
After all, life is bound to throw all manner of obstacles at you. There are a lot of different paths to a happy and successful career. Your career goal is simply meant to help get you there.