Are Your Planning Your Future, or Does It Just Happen?

by Ed Bergeron, PE, LLS

Many of us who started firms 30 to 40 years ago started with only a vision. Some of us wanted simply to exercise our independence; some of us thought we had better ideas than our bosses; others had schemes to earn more money. Few of us had distinct, long-term plans.

Now we probably wish we’d done a better job planning our career and future. I’ll blame it on the ignorance and bliss of youth! My plan for this article is that it will help prevent some common mistakes from being repeated.

80-20 Rule

The fact is (and I see it in our firm) that 80% of our staff is just letting their careers and futures happen, while 20% are actively planning where they want to be in a few years. All of us can think of many examples of the 80-20 rule (or the Pareto principle) in our lives. One way the rule plays out is that 80% of the effects are the result of 20% of the causes (80% of the important work in life gets done by 20% of the people who are the doers).

A good example is volunteer organizations where an important few people do most of the important work. Often it seems to be the same people over and over, year in and year out getting things done while the others … aren’t. In fact, a friend of mine who spent many years in leadership roles in his professional organization recently said, “It’s my time to become part of the 80%.” Are you part of the 80% or 20%?

When it comes to our careers, why should we be part of the 20% who plan where they’d like to be in two, five, or ten years rather than the 80% who may think they’ve done all they need to do by obtaining an education and a good job, and now it is time for the company to tell them what’s next?

Let’s look at the logical, some may say the inevitable, progression of an engineer’s or surveyor’s career path. We start with our first job, wherein we progress through an internship that leads to licensing, project management, group leadership, and hopefully ownership or stock in the firm. Finally, firm founders plan their exit strategy for retirement with you in mind for taking over. The process can progress quickly, slowly, or even become stalled, depending on motivation and planning.

Non-planners

How do we recognize the characteristics of those who aren’t planning their careers? Non-planners are both young and old. They show up for work and put in their time: eight hours and little more. They are reliable members of the team and do their assigned tasks effectively, but they may have to be reminded to complete their time reports, fill out expense forms, write meeting memos, and follow up on other administrative tasks that they believe are unimportant compared to their technical expertise. Sometimes you also may hear, “This is not in my job description” or “This is beyond my pay grade.”

Another characteristic is that they’ve stagnated in their position within the firm. A friend recently said, “For me work is like a bad habit. I just get up and do it every day.” A characteristic of older staff members who haven’t planned their careers is demonstrated by a decline in motivation and productivity; in some cases basically they’ve retired on the job.
You may say that we can’t all be “chiefs” and that every firm needs “indians” to carry out the assignments. You are correct, but are you planning to be one of the 20% chiefs or one of the 80% indians? My point is that you must plan for either. Don’t just let it happen.

Planners

The characteristics I see in those who are planning their careers are demonstrated by a desire to seek out the most challenging projects and assignments. They volunteer for extra-curricular activities in the firm, and they are more than willing to work overtime when their assignment requires it. Many are planning to move up in the firm’s leadership (and possibly ownership, too) and they make this known to the current leaders. They work diligently to distinguish themselves from others by putting forth 100% effort at all times. They are consciously adding value to themselves and the firm. It also is easy to see that they are leaders in professional and civic organizations outside of the firm.

All of us have different levels of motivation and desire. Some people are recognized as task oriented and are the “go-to people” when something has to be done or when a difficult problem needs to be solved. Science tells us that some of these characteristics may be in our DNA. So what do we do if planning our career doesn’t come naturally? Are we interested in being part of the active 20%?

Take Charge

If you want to plan your career, there are many resources that can help. Start by seeking a mentor. It doesn’t have to be an older, experienced member of the firm; your mentor can be a peer who seems constantly to have lots of balls in the air at the same time, yet seems to complete every assignment or task effectively with a smile and a controlled level of stress. It doesn’t even have to be someone within your firm. A mentor needs to be merely someone with traits that you admire and seek to emulate.

There are many books that will help you plan your career. Probably one of the most recognized is Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Covey’s first three habits are focused on what he calls “private victory.”
  • Be proactive.
  • Begin with the end in mind.
  • Put first things first.
I’ve read this book many times over the years and find it helpful in getting my career refocused and motivated.

Another book that’s focused specifically on young engineers and surveyors is Stuart Walesh’s Engineering Your Future. This book is in its second edition, which is an indicator of success in itself. Walesh covers all of the pertinent career-planning topics, including self-management, communications, relationships with others, ethics, and leadership.

I’ve just finished reading a book by Keith Ferrazzi, Never Eat Alone: How to build a lifelong community of colleagues, contacts, friends and mentors. It’s all about relationships in today’s fast-paced world, and I highly recommend it.

Finally, there is the old standby from management guru Peter Drucker, Managing Oneself. Drucker published his first articles in Harvard Business Review before most of us were born. He’s simple and straightforward with his recommendations, and this little pocket book is an easy read at only 60-pages long.

I hope this article has convinced you that planning your career is a practical and effective way of accomplishing your life-long goals. Start with the motivation to move from the pack of 80% to the recognized 20% doers. I think it was Alice (in Wonderland) who said, “Any road will get you there if you’re not sure where you are going.”
Ed Bergeron, LLS, PE, has been the president of H.E. Bergeron Engineers, located in North Conway, New Hampshire, for 36 years. He has a BS in civil engineering and an MBA. He is the author of A Pocket Guide to Business for Engineers and Surveyors, published by Wiley.

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