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leah eichler

One of the best pieces of advice I received from a manager came during a performance appraisal early in my career. As the discussion wound up, I asked him what else I could do to provide value to the company. He responded by telling me to focus instead on getting the most out of my job experience.

It sounds self-serving, but it's not.

In many demanding roles, it can easily become routine to focus your attention solely on achieving specific business objectives. But remembering to distinguish your needs from those of your company plays an integral role in career planning. The more you focus on equipping yourself to advance, the more indispensible you become to your company. It's a win-win situation.

Susan Bulkeley Butler, the first female partner at Accenture (then Andersen Consulting), recalls how early in her career she would throw herself into each project assigned to her. Yet, when it came time to being promoted, she found it surprising that she didn't make the cut.

"I didn't know, but I learned this later, that I needed to perform the job I wanted before I got promoted," said Ms. Butler, the author of Become the CEO of You, Inc.

The book looks at how to approach your career as if it were your own company, including formulating business plans and assembling a board of directors, which she describes as "cheerleaders" who open doors for you.

"Many of us are letting things happen to us rather than making things happen for us," said Ms. Butler, who warns women against single-mindedly focusing on working hard and then holding out for that elusive tap on the shoulder.

"We only have one life and if we don't take responsibility for it, who are we outsourcing it to?" she asked.

A key component of the book, and Ms. Butler's approach, comes down to committing on paper to a five-year goal. Writing it down moves the idea from a foggy notion in your head to one that you can commit to and share with others. As she rightly points out, you can't expect others to help if no one knows about your plan.

"Writing down a plan heightens the sense of ownership and accountability for getting those activities done," said Stephanie Willson, McCarthy Tétrault's chief professional resources officer. She explained that the law firm encourages its lawyers to develop personal business plans to emphasize the view that non-billable hours can be spent focusing on their own advancement, which benefits both the employees and the company. The plans allow lawyers to focus on client relationships, business development or profile-building rather than singularly focusing on work for clients that requires immediate attention.

Other institutions view personal development as a not only important for an employee's career, but a tool that directly supports their overall business objectives.

At Bank of Nova Scotia, employees are encouraged to commit to personal development plans, in an effort to promote the acquisition of skills and experiences that fall in line with the bank's leadership profile.

"I think of my personal development plan as a yearly audit of my growth that keeps me disciplined about strengthening my competencies and acquiring experiences that support my career objectives," explained Janan Youshia, vice-president of leadership for Scotiabank.

"Taking the time to think about and commit to development is time well spent for career planning, just as it is for business planning. It keeps us focused on the things that will make a real difference in our professional and business lives," she added.

While the personal development plans promoted by McCarthy Tétrault and Scotiabank likely emphasize talent retention, there's nothing wrong with being self-serving about your goals.

Noting that having a lifetime career with a single employer isn't a good assumption these days, Martin Zwilling, founder and CEO of Phoenix-based Startup Professionals, Inc. believes "the most successful professionals treat their jobs like successful entrepreneurs treat their startups."

The former executive, who spent time at Fujitsu Software and IBM, suggests that professionals consider their careers to be in "permanent beta," meaning that it's a continual work in progress. He recommends that professionals look for new opportunities within a company every couple of years and outside of the company every five years. Similarly, Mr. Zwilling advises entrepreneurs to plan their exit strategy five years after launching their startup.

"It used to be that holding the same job for many years was seen as a sign of loyalty," Mr. Zwilling said. "Now it is seen as stagnation."