Getting out of my way: Goal Setting for the Mid-Level Professional

Creating professional goals can be stressful, but are necessary to move on and move up. Below are some the lessons I learned that helped me get out of my own way and develop better professional goals that actually helped me advance my career in meaningful ways.

A pad of paper with the word Goals written in ink with a circle around it.
I needed to better consider my own goals as my own responsibility for advancement in my career.

The first ten years of my career had me working for nine different supervisors. Which meant I was under constant and always-changing evaluation. For this reason, the annual review time of the year used to be my least favorite time of the academic year. Having to quantify and qualify the work I had done during year was the easy part of my job. Having to do the same with my own goals and outcomes was what used to stress me out.  No matter if I had a spectacularly amazing year with my students and programs I would stress out. Worried that my work wasn’t living up to my potential or, worse, was negatively impacting students and my relationships.

In those 10 years, I had never gotten anything less than satisfactory on a work evaluation. I imagined that the only goals I could write were about things in my professional life. Really, I thought I had to completely start-over doing or change 180 degrees in my work relationships.  Never occurred to me that I could set goals that actually helped me get a new job or a promotion.

Neverending Stress

I would also stress out because I always seemed to get the same feedback on my evaluations –  like the need to communicate better with my peers and my students, the one thing I knew I could do.   I just knew that if I wanted to elevate my career and work for those promotions I would need to really concentrate on this feedback I was getting and really dig deep into what I needed to fix.

Until I realized after the 12th evaluation in 9 years that this feedback cycle wasn’t working for me. You see, I had bought into the idea that this arbitrary once-a-year evaluation was going to set my work goals for an entire year and maybe because I was not focusing on my communication style it was hurting my relationships, and that there was something wrong with my professional work that was keeping me from advancing.  I was wrong.

What I Learned

Below aI share lessons learned that helped me get out of my own way and develop better professional goals that actually helped me advance my career in meaningful ways. I hope you find them useful in your own search.

Your strengths may not be valuable to the team/your supervisor.

For those familiar with Strengths-Based Leadership, you will understand that every leader has a short-list of strengths, that effective leaders should know your strengths and invest in others’ strengths to build a successful team. And while we can all be valued for the knowledge and expertise we bring to the table, we may not always be valued for the ways this knowledge and expertise is put into action.  On every team, we often play different roles that help the team advance but sometimes the strengths we bring may not look or feel as valuable.

According to the DISC, one of my biggest strengths I bring to a team is being an Influencer – someone who works to shape the environment or community through influencing or persuading others.  How this comes across to others was looking like I was being super chatty and always looking like I was having a party with students.  How this came across to me was investing time in persuading people to try something new or different, and leaving them with enough information to take risks.  However, for those I worked for that had different strengths, my extra talkative nature seemed a negative.  I had to figure out how to make this a positive strength for the team instead of the perceived liability.

What I Learned: Step up for any and all professional staff training opportunities

While I knew how great I worked with students, I struggled with how to influence my peers in ways that was meaning for them. This meant taking different approaches to their learning styles and reinforcement of their learning. As I made my influencing style meaningful for my peers my communication style with students became easier to understand.

This type of training helped me with my management plans. When I had a skill I wanted to develop, I began to develop a training for my peers to reinforce my own learning. That type of learning application was useful when training dollars were low.

Your professional goal setting should match the next position you wish to get

Early in my career, one of my supervisors was trying to counsel me out of higher education.  She did not believe that my work, my style of work, my ability to engage others, really anything was worthy of staying in my field. Knowing my contract for the following year was cancelled did little to motivate me. But one thing she did say stuck out at me: she didn’t believe I had the skills to do the next level of work in that office or any other office.

And she was right.

I had spent most of the year trying to improve my current skills to please her rather than trying to develop new and useful skills for a new institution and supervisor.  Nothing would change her view of me professionally. But I could invest time in learning the skills required for the next job I wanted. In that way I could authentically say in interviews that my skills grew to meet the needs of these new jobs I was applying for.  And it worked.

What I Learned: Catalogue the skills required for your next position

Need to supervise staff but you don’t have that in your current position? Volunteer for any committees where you are the chair, or a divisional or all-college event where you manage and direct staff. Need to manage budgets but you don’t manage your departmental budget yet? Improve the current accounting system in your own department and offer to train the staff in your office, or at the very least train the people who you have influence over like students. Ask for a skill every six months as ‘other duties as assigned’ that you can manage and will support departmental or divisional goals, such as leading an assessment assignment or planning a graduation event.

Don’t beat yourself up or compare yourself to others

I have worked with some amazing student affairs professionals who have gone to do amazing work in our field. Nearly all of them helped provided opportunities for me to help in whatever ways I could, either on committees, in presentations, or with after-work conversations and cocktails. I saw nearly all of them advance to associate directors and executive directors, all types of deans and assistant vice presidents and would congratulate all of them for their promotions and hard work that showed. And for a while, I would silently beat myself up for not reaching these same heights of public advancement.

Because one of the reasons I dreaded the annual review: each year I set myself up to believe that I wasn’t doing enough to move on and move up. It took me years to realize that I was only partially correct – but it took me a few years to realize why.

What I Learned: My professional goals should align with my personal aspirations

I had spent years trying to satisfy my supervisors instead of working on my strengths.  Plus I had spent years improving programs and processes that didn’t need change instead of being innovative, taking risks.  I relied on my current skills to get noticed, rather than investing time in learning new, up-to-date ideas. However I didn’t take advantage of my professional associations past the networking that I had mastered. I stopped beating myself up when I realized that my goals weren’t about advancing my career. Instead they were about advancing my students experiences, and I began to understand I had nothing to be ashamed about.

By comparing myself, I failed to notice what I was accomplishing on my own campus and in my own profession.  It was only then that I realized how I influenced my organization, within the division. I didn’t need those titles to tell me that I made a difference because I could see it for myself in my job. And that was enough. And still is enough.

Once I got out of my head and began to think about what was necessary to improve the use of my strengths and how these strengths were already helping me become an expert, I began to consider these annual evaluations as a check-in rather than once-a-year experience. I could better quantify my experiences and give evidence for what I had done and knew better what I wanted to do. And I would make it clear that I was looking to move-on if my current position didn’t match my new skills – making the organization either keep up with my skills or find a person who wanted that job instead. My motivation to move-on was now resting on my shoulders. Once I got out of my way, the path to success became much more clear.

Career Coaching for the Mid-Level Career Professional

I have worked with entry-level and mid-level career professionals for nearly ten years, helping them reconsider their strengths and ways to learn new skills. I can review your resume and cover letter, and give pointers on how to better answer questions during in-person interviews.

Schedule an introductory meeting so we can discuss a plan that works best for you.

2 thoughts on “Getting out of my way: Goal Setting for the Mid-Level Professional

  1. Pingback: Navigating Institutional Politics (or how I learned what I wore mattered more than I thought) – Leadership and Values in Action, LLC

  2. Pingback: Supervision Skills Matter, or Why I Still Remember a One on One from 16 years ago – Leadership and Values in Action, LLC

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