In these past few weeks of this new year, I’ve noticed a trend among quite a few executive coaching clients. They’re feeling a bit deflated, unsure of the direction of their career, questioning where they are. Without a true sense of purpose, they tell me they are feeling lost and without meaning. In short, they lack a clear game plan to aim for – a “North Star” – that will move them toward what they really want.
It’s easy to keep going, day in and day out, without thinking about what we’d like our lives to look like in the future. But if we don’t stop to reflect on what we truly want at the beginning of a year, we will likely flail throughout the remainder of the year, untethered and unclear of direction. The next thing we know, it will be January of the next year, and we’ll feel as though we accomplished very little. As Laurence J. Peter, author of The Peter Principle, wrote, “If you don’t know where you are going, you will probably end up somewhere else.”
What about you – how clear are YOU about your North Star?
Plotting Your North Star
To get a clearer idea of your own personal North Star, I encourage you to do what I call the “End-Point Exercise.”
1. Draw a horizontal timeline and write this year’s date at the farthest-left end of the line. Ask yourself: “At what age will I retire and/or quit working full-time?” Answer honestly, and then write your retirement year at the far right end of the timeline.
2. Now, ask yourself:
“By the time I’m ready to retire, what’s the ideal type of position I’d like to have?”
“When I get to this stage, what will I need to have accomplished in order to feel that I achieved what I wanted in work and life?”
“What kinds of activities would I like to do in retirement?”
“How do I want my life to look like in all areas – professional, personal, family, social, community…?”
“How much money do I want to have to live the kind of retirement I desire?”
3. Next, imagine you’re at your retirement party. You’re sitting at the head table, and you’re being honored for your career achievements. Who will be in that room, paying tribute to you? What will they say about you and about what you’ve accomplished? What would you like them to say about you? Envision this scene clearly in your mind.
4. Be honest when you ask yourself: “From the current direction I’m headed in my career, am I likely to reach that point when I retire?” If not, write down what you need to do – and how you need to be – to achieve that level of career and leadership success. Maybe you need to develop new skills or character traits. Perhaps you need to create new internal or external connections or learn how to “manage up” better, helping senior leaders know more about your contributions. Create a list of all that needs to happen in order to achieve your goal at retirement.
5. Looking at your list, rank them in order of those you need to work on the most, i.e. the skills and abilities that are currently weakest for you. For example, you may feel that you’re most deficient in making sure that management is aware of your accomplishments, or you may need to develop better self-leadership or people-leadership skills, such as learning how to address conflict or the ability to delegate and lead a well-oiled, high-performing team.
6. For the sake of focus, divide your list into time periods. For example, in the coming year, you might decide to focus on strengthening your time management and networking skills. In the following two years, you might focus on increasing your level of delegation, or you may decide to put away more money each month toward your retirement fund. Use these time-dimensions on your list to create an action plan, and include short-term, medium-term, and long-term goals.
Once you have your list, you’ve now got your North Star – your clear, long-term aspirations – as well as some mini-goals you can work on along the way. Those short-term mini-goals can drive your direction for the specific year ahead. And when this year comes to a close, you’ll have something to show for it that will serve as a stepping stone to lead you exactly where you want to be in the future.
Several coaching clients have made surprising discoveries through completing this exercise and, as a result, a few even changed their career trajectory quite dramatically. Others have simply realized they need to develop certain people – or self-leadership skills in order to reach that end point. Whatever the outcome, it’s all related to having a clear and direction-driving North Star.
Where will your North Star journey take you this year… and beyond?