Executive Career Planning


What do you mean you’re not happy?

Tom is a 48 year old general manager of a global business unit for a billion dollar health care organization. He is an operational wizard who has responsibly turned around several business units that were losing profitability due to operational inefficiencies. Based on his stellar track record, he was given a new kind of assignment, to define the strategic direction for one of these turn-around businesses that would be facing some very challenging marketplace conditions in the next 2-3 years.

It sounded like a great opportunity… but there was one major problem: Strategic business development was not his strength, nor was it something that Tom honestly wanted to cultivate to be his strength. He loved fixing businesses, not launching them.

Not surprisingly, this assignment did not go well. Tom worked hard, never admitting to anyone how much he disliked the assignment. As time passed, the work became even less gratifying and less successful. Based on some 360 degree feedback, it became painfully clear Tom’s team was not getting the kind of leadership they wanted and needed. Tom became even more dejected.

To show his commitment to improving his performance, Tom recruited an executive coach. His goal for the coaching was to learn how to be more effective in a role he hated. His coach had a better idea. She suggested adjusting his current role and team assignments so that his weaknesses would be delimited but the business task would be accomplished. For example, he delegated more responsibilities to team members who were specifically looking for development in the areas that he found particularly challenging and then used the team more regularly to critique and improve upon their overall progress.

She also recommended that Tom immediately work to identify exactly what he wanted to contribute, experience, and learn during future career assignments. And to work with his boss on getting only those assignments that would suit his skills set and better match his interests.

At first, Tom was unsure about value of developing a career plan at this stage of his work life. He was already a business executive, a leader of people. How much more specific did he need to be? Not to mention the fact that he believed that, as a member of the senior leadership team, he had a responsibility to accept every executive assignment. His boss had in fact lobbied hard for Tom to take this particular role. Backed by the recommendation of the organization’s executive succession planning team, his boss had made the case that a strategic planning assignment would give Tom some much needed skills and make him a more well-rounded resource for other organizational positions.

After months of working exclusively on improving his success in his current role, Tom still couldn’t get excited about his work or career direction. He decided to change his thinking and approach. Clearly this assignment was not a good fit and Tom needed to take control of his career.

Tom made three commitments: First, he planned to develop a more informed career plan (versus his vague and less self-directed: “do a good job and get promoted” approach). Secondly, he agreed to work with his management to arrange for better assignments where real organizational needs were being met and he could once again, be successful, enjoy his work, and grow in his preferred career role. Finally, he decided to optimize his current work experience along the dimensions that mattered most to him.

Why Should We Care if Executives Have a Career Plan?

Given the history of Enron, WorldCom, Arthur Andersen and Tyco, executives are eliciting little compassion these days. In fact, a recent poll by Fortune magazine found that executives are less popular than politicians. Despite our bitterness towards some of today’s leaders, effective executives are still the lifeblood of corporate America.

The key word here is “effective.” To be an effective executive, you must be motivated and driven both for your own good and for the good of the organization. Research shows that people who are placed in jobs for which they are best suited to perform are more effective. What constitutes “best suited” includes an integration of skills, knowledge, experience, values and interests. Putting that all together requires some intention and expertise.

Unfortunately, there are many executives in Tom’s position. You start your career in the right direction, but somewhere along the line your path takes a turn toward what market conditions dictate or what the organization or your boss presents as your career options. As you climb their career ladder, it is easy to find yourself in a position that isn’t right for you. For example, some people are not suited to managing people, yet the higher you ascend in an organization, the more people you manage. Bad bosses are often just people who aren’t good at leading others and aren’t genuinely motivated to make their mark leading others. But they just don’t know how else to get ‘ahead’ in a career.

Let’s face it…. Having a job and loving your job is not the same thing (even for executives). Being successful does not mean feeling significant; working hard is not the same as contributing what you feel you are best suited for.

To be an effective leader, there must be a marriage of skills and passion. It takes us into our adult lives to know ourselves and to be able to separate what we think we’re supposed to do to be successful and significant from what we know we want to do to achieve these goals. We must use our actual life experiences as data sets to examine patterns over time, to see larger themes and then to choose positions that offer the best fit with what we can do and what needs to be done within an organization.

Just because you have made it to the plush corner office, does this mean that you have found the needed marriage of skills and passion? Not necessarily. Being successful in the eyes of others does not always mean that you are happy, fulfilled and excited to go to work. And working hard, and leaving your career planning to others, is hardly the recommended formula for career fulfillment and job gratification.

This is why a career assessment is so critical. A career assessment provides the map executives need to make sure their career is headed in the right direction and that they are making career decisions that will help them find the optimal mix of skills and passion. And the career plan is a document that clearly and succinctly captures the direction, so both the individual and organizational management can base their decisions on reliable information.

What is an Executive Career Assessment?

An executive career assessment is a data-based summary of the core career requirements that executives should pursue in their work lives in order to maximize their contribution and gratification. An effective career assessment for executives:

Captures themes (e.g., operational turnarounds; ensuring business development in mature markets) versus just job titles (general manager for a particular business)

Identifies the skills that an executive is motivated to continue applying at work versus just what he/she has been successful at doing

Summarizes executive ‘wants’ as well ‘don’t wants’ in order to ensure conscious decision-making and guide contracting with relevant others ( people are prone to rationalize when considering a new job and the ‘don’t want list’ helps keep them honest)

Spans the key elements of a career assignment which include: job content (i.e., the preferred industries; product lines; business problems or opportunities to be working in); job context (location; colleague/management characteristics; work/life balance requirements); role (i.e., managing intact teams; knowledge experts); preferred approach (heavily fact-based; expert-led; or team-developed); desired legacy or outcome (e.g., innovation; rapidity of outcome; quality); learning aspirations (boredom will set in when we are not learning what we want to be learning).

In general, a strategic career plan helps an executive:

  • Clarify professional goals and paths
  • Communicate more effectively with relevant others about professional interests, values, motivated skills, aspirations and where he/she wants to go in both the short and long term
  • Manage his/her career course while optimizing the current assignment more effectively
  • Refine his/her career course to better meet interests and motivated skill set
  • Effect a change in career course to get on the right track

A career coach can guide this assessment process. They know the best questions to ask, how to expertly interpret your responses, and how to capture the preferences and aversions that can guide you to making informed choices.

When I work with executives, I lay out four key objectives for overall career assessment process:

  • Objective 1: To gather data that (a) covers all relevant elements of career, educational and personal status and history; that (b) incorporates all prior and pertinent data (i.e., 360 assessments; performance reviews; style inventories)
  • Objective 2: To make sense of the data: (the goal here is to derive themes that define real choices moving forward so the executive can say: I want this and not that)
  • Objective 3: To create a career map which includes: (a) individual preferences for job content, role, context, approach, desired outcomes; (b) individual/ organizational/marketplace rationale for such choices; (c); strategies for professional development to be completed either before or during the assignment; (d) a tactical plan for career goal attainment
  • Objective 4: To develop a plan that optimizes the current role so that executives don’t wait until the ‘perfect’ assignment to practice customizing their role to both best fit their profile and ensure a successful result for the organization.

The result of the assessment is a one-page summary document that the executive can refer to and share with others when making career decisions.

When do Executives Most Need a Career Assessment?

There are certain moments in a career when a thoughtful assessment is particularly useful. They include:

1. When an executive receives sub-standard performance data and needs to develop an effective response. If he/she focuses only on tactical shifts in behavior to change ‘perceptions’ or outcomes, without addressing the fundamental job fit issue, there will be a disservice to the individual, his/her career, and the organization.

2. When the organization changes (e.g., through a reorganization or a merger) and the individual’s role/job will likely be reconfigured.

3. When there is a new boss.

4. When significant personal changes or emotional events occur (e.g., the attacks of September 11; health challenges for the individual or his/her family members) that trigger career examination or that have genuine work implications (i.e., in terms of travel, hours, accessibility, etc.)

What about Tom?

Tom’s career assessment confirmed what he ‘knew’ but had no clear language for, or confidence in. He was at his best—both personally and organizationally—when he was assigned responsibility for developing and implementing tactical plans that would quickly and responsibly improve business results. Tom, a European by birth, also wanted non-US assignments, which fit perfectly with his organization needs to improve many of their Asian and European operations. This was a new role for Tom’s organization but as many experts are forecasting, up to 50% of the new career assignments for top talent in corporate America do not appear on the traditional organizational chart.

Implications for Organizational Planning

Not knowing what an executive really wants to do is not just a problem for the executive. The organization’s succession planning efforts will also be hampered. Knowing in advance who can next replace the top tier leaders requires current and complete information regarding both the organization’s needs and an individual’s talent/ambition profile. About 85% of the executives I have coached over the past 10 years DID NOT have a clear and updated career plan to guide their career decision-making or their conversations with management when we started working together. They were able to provide a generic answer to the ‘what do you want to do next’ question but told me they were unhappy with the completeness or specificity of their answers. For people early in their business careers, mastering business basics is essential from both an individual and organizational perspective. So the ‘go where you can learn’ approach makes sense. But with more experienced professionals, the die has already been cast. Individual leaders are better suited to some roles more than others. While there may be skill/experience gaps to close with a new assignment, less visible but more pernicious gaps may exist related to individual interests, values or desires. When reviewed openly, these gaps often lead to completely different decisions for both the individual and the organization before valuable time is lost for both parties.

The goals of executive development and succession planning within organizations are threefold: to produce leadership effectiveness; ensure adequate benchstrength, and to provide meaningful development/succession plans. Without both the individual executive and the organization truly knowing an individual’s career aspirations, these three outcomes are severely compromised.


Laurie Anderson, PhD, is a clinical psychologist with over 20 years experience as an executive coach to leaders in organizations ranging from Fortune 100 companies to the World Bank. Visit www.drlaurieanderson.com or call 1-708-524-2444 for more information on Laurie’s services for individuals, groups, and organizations.

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