How To Avoid an Epic Career-Planning Fail

This is the second blog in our 6 part series on how to get your career on track for success on YOUR terms. Click HERE to read part 1.


I am a serial planner. Organizing things, people, and projects started for me at a young age, as the oldest of eight children. When I was a kid, we had a north-facing room in the house with a lot of old-fashioned furniture in it, largely handed down to us by other relatives. That room tended to be dark and dreary. One year, I organized my siblings into creating a “haunted house” around Halloween. We’d pile blankets up between the furniture to create tunnels, use heavy books or whatever we could find to anchor them, and move the furniture around to create mini rooms where a sheet or towel-shrouded “ghost” could hide. Then, we would jump out and scare another sibling. I’d organize everything from the furniture location to which sibling “victim” came through our haunted room first.

This trend continued throughout my education. I’ve had “plans” for as long as I can remember. I coordinated an event for my fellow band geeks in high school. I made plans not just for where I wanted to go to college, but in which order I would apply to each school. I planned what I wanted to do for my Girl Scout Gold Award project, and where we were going on a spring break trip my senior year of college. I even had plans for when the “ideal” time for me would be to settle down and start a family. Sometimes things didn’t go according to plan. Nonetheless, that never stopped me from making the plans.

Then I accepted my first full-time job offer. Almost from the start, nothing went according to plan. My husband and I had gotten married the summer before my last semester as I finished up my Master’s degree. I had exhausted every possible avenue in the town where we lived, trying to find my first job.

After months of searching, I accepted a great job offer halfway across the country. We had purchased a condo in the college town where we lived (expecting to stay there), which now needed to be sold 6 months after purchase due to the move. I moved to our new city, while my husband stayed behind until 3 months later, when the condo was sold and he had secured a job in the city where I was working.

At my new job, I was excited to dive right in and make a big impact in the engineering world. My high expectations were not exactly aligned with reality. For example, I expected things to move more quickly at work than they did, and struggled with any sort of bureaucracy or red tape. The concept of working 8 hours, if you could get the work you’d been assigned done in 4 hours, required adjustment. I didn’t have a clear understanding of how long something should take or what completion of a task looked like. I didn’t know the right questions to ask to help me better understand the expectations.

Every single thing I did seemed to require a huge learning curve. I asked tons of questions, spent many nights trying to fill in the gaps in my knowledge, and tried to take initiative everywhere I could. Yet, most nights I’d come home, frustrated that I was moving at a glacial place, and struggling to figure out if this field was really for me.

Over time, I adjusted. At my first performance review, I was given very positive feedback. We were asked to set some goals for ourselves. So, I worked with my manager at the time to set goals related to the projects I was working on. That’s how my “career planning” began.

1.png

As I gained more experience, I moved into project management. I planned the tasks needed to complete a project. I put in the sweat equity and hard work to complete every task and meet every deadline. I developed a reputation as someone who got things done.

Years passed. I continued to plan projects and do the next thing that needed to be done. Until one day, after a particularly hard day at work around the time when my first child was teething and having trouble sleeping at night, I thought to myself, “Is this all there is? Do I really want my boss’s job 5, 10, or 20 twenty years from now?”

My immediate, visceral reaction to both of those questions was “no”. That scared the crap out of me.

2.png

I realized that in all the planning I had done for my employers and projects, I had never stopped to think about, let alone plan, where I actually wanted to go in my career.

I had never thought that success for me, despite the fact that I was and still am very ambitious, might not look like the “standard” career path. My perception of that career path was that you should get a great job, advance up the ranks, and after an appropriate time had passed and your dues were paid you’d earn a leadership position.

I had spent my entire career to that point with focus on my employers’ needs and agendas. And, with this realization, I became angry. Why had not one of my managers ever asked me what I wanted to work on? Isn’t it my manager’s responsibility to put me a role where I feel challenged and can excel? Why had no one ever asked me where I wanted to go in my career? Couldn’t anyone else see that I wasn’t loving my work (well, besides my husband who got dragged through a lot of this introspection with me)?

But then the little, niggling voice of responsibility stepped in, saying:

Steph, if you don’t even know what you want, if you haven’t even thought about it, how can anyone else help you get there? And who is the person responsible for your path? Who is the only person who can tell you with certainty that a path is right for you? It’s YOU, not your employer, or a mentor, or your manager, or anyone else.

That day, I shed most of my victim, somewhat-entitled mentality.

And, as you would expect given my serial-planner tendencies, I made and executed a plan to figure out exactly what I wanted out of my career, and how to get there.

THE RESULT OF THE PLAN

Fast forward 5 years, and I have a new career path that is uniquely suited to me. It took a lot of introspection, research, asking a lot of the wrong questions, and trying many things that didn’t work to even arrive at the point where I could tell anyone what I wanted.

For a while, I was so good at working within the constraints of what I knew, I was unable to even imagine something different. If I thought to myself, “Well, I’d like to be able to work from home,” my brain would immediately dismiss that thought as impossible given my current constraints. And, more often than not, what I thought I wanted on the surface (in this example being able to work from home), was very different from what I actually wanted (being able to have a flexible schedule, where I could work from anywhere and at my own convenience).  

At first, I struggled with asking and answering all the wrong questions. I made a plan to answer the wrong questions, which just resulted in further frustration and career angst.

3.png

When I finally figured out the right questions to ask and started taking action around those answers, my career satisfaction went through the roof. Those answers triggered a domino effect, with one action leading to another and then another that moved me further and further towards the career (and life) I wanted.

I believe that when you figure something out, you have an obligation to share it with other people if it might help them. This is especially true if you can’t find other resources to solve a problem you’ve resolved for yourself. I remember searching unsuccessfully for a book or other online resource that would help me before I started writing She Engineers.

“Surely,” I thought to myself, “I can’t be the only engineer who has struggled with finding herself in a place that looks great from the outside, but feels niggling doubt on the inside that there has to be more.”

So, through writing and sharing my resources, I started to help other women figure out the next step in their own career path. There is Lisa, a technically gifted engineer who was tired of getting pushed into a management role she didn’t want, and Ann, who was exhausted with the hours she was working and didn’t know anything beyond engineering consulting. There is Keri, who was underpaid and under-challenged in her government role, and Monica, who just didn’t love the technical work she was doing, but didn’t know what she could do about it while still paying the bills. (Note: Names have been changed in the above paragraph to protect the privacy of my clients.)

Once each woman knew the right questions to ask, each was able to figure out what she wanted, within days. It didn’t take her the years I’d spent reflecting and asking all the wrong questions to figure it out.

SYSTEMATIZING THE QUESTIONS

As an engineer, I love systems. I want to be able to plug everything into a “dummy-proof” equation and know the results can be replicated. I find great satisfaction in tweaking and massaging and revising those equations until they reliably produce the desired output.

My obsession with systems means I have a spreadsheet and often a “step-by-step” users guide for everything. Want to create a garden? I have a spreadsheet for that, including a layout, and automatic calculations for when my vegetables will be ready to harvest based on the date planted.

My 5 year old’s birthday party is this evening, and there’s a spreadsheet for that too. Since my husband is also an engineer, I’ve never viewed this tendency as “weird” (at least until some non-STEM friends commented on it). It’s mind-boggling to me how anyone can organize anything without a system.

That also means that – before I even approached other women about helping them to find their unique path – I systematized my own journey. I compiled the correct questions and created a framework to replicate my own results. That framework is the 5-step visioning process I am sharing in this blog today.

We have even created a free workbook to get you started in applying this framework to your own career………in 2 hours or less.  Just enter in your information to download it below.

mockupshots-StephanieSlocum21513-mock-00058.png
    Powered By ConvertKit

    STEP 1: DISCOVER YOURSELF

    Sounds easy, right? You live with yourself daily, so you should know yourself well. It turns out many of us (myself included) know much less about ourselves than we think.

    Just to make it through engineering school, you have be determined, and often stubborn. Even for those who feel engineering comes “naturally” to them, you have to be willing to work your tail off just to survive college, and do things like study while your non-engineering friends are going out to a party.

    That’s usually when engineers start adopting “the stereotypical engineer” as their identity. Engineers are logical and not driven my emotion. They are calm, even stoic. They are smart problem solvers who can figure out anything (usually solo) if they put their minds to it.

    That also means we start to leave behind some of our old identities, even if they have been an intrinsic part of ourselves in the past. And, while I certainly believe each person needs to evolve and change to bring their best selves to the world, I believe that for female and minority engineers in particular, it’s easy to loose parts of yourself in an attempt to conform to this identity, especially when you don’t see many others like you.

    For me, that meant I shed anything and everything related to being “emotional”. It meant that I distanced myself from things I didn’t perceive (rightly or wrongly) to be relevant to my engineering career, like writing, and music, and the fine arts.

    I also recognized very early on that developing a thick skin was going to be essential, so I put up plenty of walls and barriers so I wouldn’t get hurt. I only allowed a very small and select group of family and friends, like my husband, to get to know the real me.  The trouble with this, is that when I started put up those internal walls, I also started to lose my ability to connect with those parts of me at all.

    4.png

    At the time, I believed that the work I did defined who I was. When I finally came to the hard realization that my work didn’t define me, I felt lost. I needed to rediscover myself, which was one of the hardest and most difficult parts of this entire journey for me, and also for many of the women I have helped. 

    I cringe to recall the years I spent trying to figure out who I really was if work was not my identity. I didn’t have any basis for what resources might help.

    If you’re feeling like I used to and not sure where to start, complete one of the many online personality or strengths assessment tools available online by googling “personality tests”. Or, download the Get Unstuck! 2 Hour Career Vision Plan below and check out Step 1 for my top personality test resource for engineers.

    mockupshots-StephanieSlocum21513-mock-00076.png
      Powered By ConvertKit

      STEP 2: IDENTIFY VALUES AND IMPACT

      The next step is to identify what you value and the impact you want to have on the world. Each of us has different values as a result of our upbringing and culture. What is important to me may not be important to you. For example, for an engineer who grew up in poverty, money may be one of the primary driving factor in your career. For another engineer, impact may be more important than money.

      Statistically women are much more likely to prioritize impact above the typical masculine status symbols of money and title. No statistic is true in all cases, but based on my own experience, and the experience of mentoring other engineers, I believe this is one of several key reasons that the traditional career ladder fails female engineers, and really anyone who was drawn to engineering in part because of the impact engineers have on the world.

      5.png

      How do you figure out what you value? Use the “eulogy test.” If you were a bystander at your own funeral, what would you want people to say about your life and career? If this was your last day on earth, would you be happy with what you did today?

      The prospect of death often brings the things you value into stark clarity. What are you currently tolerating in your life that doesn’t deeply matter to you?

      STEP 3: IDENTIFY STRENGTHS

      Next, identify your strengths. Some, like problem-solving, are often apparent. Strengths you stopped developing when you became an engineer are less obvious and may need to be uncovered. Your strengths are an intrinsic part of you, whether you are currently using them at this moment or not.

      When your day-to-day work does not take full advantage of your strengths, you’ll feel a sense of dissatisfaction a work. That feeling has earning power implications. When you aren’t excited and challenged in your work, you don’t put your best foot forward, and end up trending towards the “average”. When you are content with the “average”, the best opportunities, promotions, and earning potential goes to someone else.

      The interesting thing about strengths is that study after study has disputed that fact that people are “born” with certain strengths. There are some genetic freaks (I’m not one), but the vast majority of us have strengths primarily based on how much we have developed and practiced a certain skill.

      7.png

      Strengths are like a muscle that has to be used. Those kids for which engineering seems to come effortlessly? They often were encouraged from an extremely young age (often by someone in authority, like a parent or teacher), and learned their “natural” affinity. That’s not to say that every single child could or should be an engineer, just that those with affinity for it are (at least statistically speaking) extremely likely to have had someone in their past that introduced them to the possibility.

      I will even use myself as an example. My love of writing dates back to my 8th grade teacher, who both encouraged it and challenged me to do better (shout out to Mr. Wilson if you are reading this). My exploration of STEM as a possible career started with the fact that I have two science-trained parents, and multiple early excellent science and math teachers who made those subjects interesting, who never once implied that a girl couldn’t be good in those areas.

      I recognize I have been extremely privileged here. There are many stories of women and men who found a STEM career and didn’t have that exposure until high school, college, or later. Yet – once again from a statistical standpoint – these men and women are the exception and not the rule.

      The challenge when trying to uncover your own strengths is determining which is a “real” strength versus one that you’ve simply practiced more. You can do this by asking those closest to you what they see as your strengths. You can also consider those activities that you most and least enjoy. Typically, your strengths lie in the areas that you most enjoy, even if you aren’t using them in your current day-to-day work.

      STEP 4: IDENTIFY PRIORITIES

      Priorities change throughout the course of your life and career. In Sheryl Sandburg’s classic book Lean-In, she discusses how women may “leave before they leave” in their careers, making kids and spouse a priority before either one is in the picture. The result? Many lost career opportunities.

      My career was my #1 priority in the early years of full-time employment, often to the detriment of everything else. I went from an overweight 180 lbs. to an obese 230 lbs. by the end of my third year of work, and after my first child I was up to 240 lbs. when I brought her home from the hospital. I was so focused on my career priorities that gaining weight was simply an afterthought that I figured would be resolved when I had more time to make it a priority.

      Later, I refocused on the priority of health. I took a job promising better balance, and through prioritizing sleep, nutrition, exercise, and stress relief I got down to a much healthier 140 lbs. on my 5’-8” frame.

      When I had kids, priorities adjusted again (but in my case perhaps not as much as I had been led to believe, mostly because I love the satisfaction my work provides too). Then, as I wrote She Engineers, I gained some weight back again, mostly because the book took priority.

      6.png

      I openly admit that I had unhealthy habits and mindsets that led to my weight yoyo. I’m continuing to work on those, but this is not the point of sharing a little bit of my health journey with you. The point is that priorities can and do change. That is absolutely OK and expected, no matter what your manager might think about the fact that you used to eat, slept, and drink work……..and now you actually want to have a social and family life. (As an aside, the more of us that set “having a life” as an expectation of our work environments – and leave work environments that don’t serve us - the faster we will continue to see the work-culture change the vast majority of engineers’ desire.)

      Figure out your priorities in the immediate and slightly longer term (a year), and plan from there. This allows you to be flexible enough in your plan to pivot when needed, but long-term enough to actually make progress towards your vision. Not sure what your priorities are? Download the Get Unstuck Quick-Start Planning Guide for some questions to help you figure this out.

      mockupshots-StephanieSlocum21513-mock-00404.png
        Powered By ConvertKit


        STEP 5: YOUR VISION

        Once you’ve given yourself time to be introspective about your personality, strengths, values, and priorities, it time to create your vision.

        We do this a bit differently than many career development gurus in engineering. We don’t believe your life and work can or should be separated. It’s gross oversimplification, not realistic, doesn’t work with our always-connected global society, and only worked in a time where gender roles were much more inflexible than they are now.

        We don’t believe you can set a work vision or goal without considering what is going on in your life outside of work. We also believe that any attempt to set work goals without introspective consideration and input by the individual for which the goals are set, is setting up that individual (in this case YOU) for failure. That’s one of the reasons those “assigned” corporate-initiative goals in which you had no input at all are so daunting to meet.

        Your career is a part of your life. It isn’t your whole life. It’s time we stopped treating people as if they were robots, with an on and off switch for “personal” and “work” life.

        8.png

        If you love what you do, you don’t just think about it at work. When your best friend calls you with a personal crisis, you don’t tell her she is going to have to wait two weeks until your deadline passes before you can talk to her. If you have kids and have gotten a call to pick your child up from daycare because she’s running a 103 fever, you certainly don’t tell the daycare provider that you’ll be by tomorrow, when you have a less busy day at work. If you have an important presentation to your boss tomorrow, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to go home and not think about that presentation.

        If you don’t currently love your life, it’s time to take a look at how you spend your days, go back to the eulogy question, and figure out what you’d do differently – starting now – if you knew your days were numbered. That life is the one we craft your vision around, by guiding you through the process of what your “perfect day” might be.


        SNEAK PEAK INTO THE NEXT BLOG

        This is blog 2 in a 6-part series sharing with you how to get a career stall back on track. This blog summarized the first step, which is to craft your personalized vision.

        In case you missed the part one of the series, click HERE to read it.

        Next time, we’ll be talking about how you turn your vision into actionable strategies you can apply right away.