Career Planning: How to Become an Executive

Career planning usually elicits one of two kinds of reactions in people. Some people find the concept of career planning so abstract or dull that they don’t understand what it means. And other people – the ambitious, the competitive, the self-motivated – are often so presumptively oriented to their own career advancement that they fail to interrogate their own approach. Both of these strategies, while natural, present their own limitations. Both are ways of failing to take advantage of the practical benefits career planning can offer. What is career planning, and what advantages does it hold? Let’s explore.

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What Is Career Planning?

Let’s start by asking, what is career planning, and why is a career plan important? A career plan can take a variety of forms, but in essence, it is an understanding of the values, objectives, skills, and resources by which a person will embark on the long arc of their career. A career plan is part of what separates a career from a job or a gig. A job or a gig that remains merely that is one that does not connect to a long-term plan. It is simply about sustaining you or fulfilling some other short-term objective.

Creating a Career Development Plan

No matter where you are in your career journey, you can benefit greatly from taking the time to sit down and create a career development plan. A career development plan often takes the shape of a “5-year career plan” involving a series of objectives in accordance with your values and goals. This can empower you to take proactive charge of your professional fate, instead of sitting back and hoping for a promotion.

Of course, nothing in business or in life goes perfectly according to plan. You shouldn’t look at a career plan as a set of criteria by which you’ll judge yourself, or your life-situation, successful or not. Nor should your career plan function as a rigid and unchangeable list of demands. Rather, think of it as a tool for visualizing your long-term goals and shaping your present choices to help steer toward them. But career plans, like all other plans, will inevitably be subject to constant updating and revision. Your circumstances will change, as will your preferences, your values, your beliefs, your tastes, your skills, and your resources.

One key but often overlooked step in developing a 5-year career plan is having a vision for the type of roles you want to have in the future. This can require some research and networking. Another key step in developing a career development plan is creating a “fact base” on what it takes to obtain any given professional position. For example, getting from where you are today to where you want to be may require an internship, a recommendation, international experience, volunteer experience, an MBA, or else.

Career Plan Template

Your career plan can, of course, take any variety of forms. But many people find it helpful to work with a simple career plan template. The first step in career planning in this way is to make an inventory of yourself as you are in the present. List not only your skills and qualifications, but also your work and lifestyle preferences, as well as your deepest values. From here, come up with a definition of what success at the end of a life’s work means to you. And from this point, try to build a series of objectives on a descending timeline: your goals for the end of your career, your goals for five years in the future, your goals for one year in the future, and your plan of action for the next 90 days. And remember to make your goals SMART, that is: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound. Take a look at this simple career plan example.

Career Plan Example:

Name: Jane Doe
Age: 38
Qualifications/Skills: Masters in Business Administration, 10+ years experience in Management Consulting, Gardening/Horticulture
Values: Independence, flexibility, financial security, time with family and friends, creative fulfillment/inspiration.
Metrics of success at retirement: Financial security, physical and mental health, time to spend with loved ones, having made something of one’s own.

[At this point, Jane notices that her values and sense of success don’t align with her current work situation. She has a high-paying job at a notable firm, but the work-life balance takes its toll on her mental health and relationships. Further, some of the other benefits of her current position, such as frequent stimulation, fast pace, competition, and prestige/social capital are not as important as other things she values and is not getting from her current position. She considers a change in careers to align more with her values. Jane considers her lifelong passion for gardening, which never seemed like a feasible career. Could this be combined with her experience in consulting? Owning a gardening business might let Jane take greater control of her time and gain work-life balance. This would align Jane’s work with her values.]

10 Year Goals:

Own a gardening company that supports Jane’s family and lifestyle while allowing her a flexible schedule. The company is well-established enough that Jane can choose how and when to engage with it. This is only possible because of years spent building, learning, and refining the operation of the business.

5 Year Goals:

Own a profitable gardening company. Jane still puts in more regular hours than they will in ten years, but this is okay – the work is fulfilling, and it will eventually help refine company operations to the point that Jane can shrink her time investment.

1 Year Goal:

Open a gardening company with enough financing that it can endure hiccups and slow growth on the way to financial sustainability.
90 Day Action Plan: Continue working in her current job, while saving money to put toward a gardening business. She plans to use her spare time to research the gardening industry and options for securing startup capital.

How to Become an Executive

For many people reading this, your career plan involves becoming an executive in the corporate world. If you’re wondering how to become an executive, or even how to become a chief executive, then you should study the trajectories of the people in those positions and design your career plan accordingly. For many executives, the quickest way to the top was founding or buying their own company. Others begin by working entry-level positions at large corporations and exceeding at every role they’re given, until eventually they are promoted to an executive position.

Still others move between roles and companies throughout their career, advancing when the opportunity presents itself, until they land at the top. This dynamism works for some, though it’s not without stress and risk. This course will generally require a large network. If you don’t have a network, start building that today. If your current company isn’t offering you the possibility of advancement, then you may need to consider moving on. Earning an MBA or other recognized degree is often a viable option to increase your value to potential employers, and give you a boost on your way to becoming an executive.


Many people shy away from formalizing a career plan or a set of career goals because they fear failure. But career planning is not a contract or even a rigid set of expectations. The point of making a career plan isn’t for the sake of the plan itself, but for the benefits the act of making the plan gives you. Taking the time to clarify your goals will help shape your behavior toward the things that matter most to you. Ready to create your career plan?

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