How to Take Control Of Your Career

September 1, 1995

Engineers and engineering managers, whether at the outset or in mid-career, must "control their careers to assure the direction and advancement they desire." That's the message from Glenn E. Schirmer, vice president, Barton-Aschman Associates (Evanston, Illinois.), who urges, "Every individual must define success for themselves, set their own priorities, and choose a career path that will give them a feeling of fulfillment." As employer paternalism and job security are fast disappearing, it becomes increasingly critical for individuals to assume the responsibility for their own personal and professional growth.

FIVE BASIC PRINCIPLES FOR SETTING CAREER GOALS AND ESTABLISHING PROFESSIONAL OBJECTIVES. Engineers and engineering managers must actively participate in their career advancement and not just expect it to develop, cautions Schirmer, "Many engineering organizations do not deal well with esteem and self-actualization needs," he writes in "Journal of Management in Engineering." Engineers are "by nature systematic and goal-oriented," he continues, which is "good when the goals of others are recognized and encouraged. Too often, however, the need of others to achieve goals is overlooked," he observes. To avoid this happening, he advises engineers and engineering managers to adopt the following five basic principles in setting goals that, "if achieved, will result in advancement."

1. IDENTIFY A FEW TASKS FOR WHICH YOU CAN TAKE PERSONA) RESPONSIBILITY. With successful completion of these tasks comes the feeling of accomplishment and opportunity for recognition.

2. SET MODERATE GOALS THAT REQUIRE THE TAKING OF CALCULATED RISKS. Significant goals require work, yet are achievable. Failure due to lack of effort may not be excused, or forgotten, but it is avoidable. Failure to achieve unrealistic goals also is avoidable. "Don't bite off more than you can chew," he advises. You can strive for higher goals in the future.

3. MAKE SURE THAT YOUR EXPECTATION OF THE GOAL IS THE SAME AS THAT OF OTHERS. Communication of goals is extremely important, because their "timely and cost-effective completion must be made very clear to all."


5. SEEK REACTIONS. Ask supervisors, peers, and possibly mentors, for periodic report cards. Reality testing provides you with the recognition of a job well done or of areas needing further improvement. Feedback will also help to redefine goals and to avoid failure.

MENTORS CAN BE A GREAT ASSET IN PROCESS OF SETTING GOALS. "Each of us can benefit from having mentors," Schirmer believes. "They are the people who through teaching and guiding help us to avoid making mistakes." The benefit of mentors is not that they shield one from all mistakes, but "that they minimize the inefficiency of 'learning the hard way,'" he says. In seeking out a mentor, he advises selecting people who:

Typically mentors are thought to come from within the company or organization. Not so, says Schirmer. "While potential mentors may be present in your firm, also consider individuals in you family, in your social circles, or in professional associations," he relates. "All you have to do is identify, recruit, and then use them as a feedback mechanism," he advises.

SETTING PRIORITIES TO POSITION ONESELF FOR SUCCESS. Individuals must establish priorities within two contexts, he advises. The first relates to the question: "What really makes me happy?" This requires, according to Schirmer, a realistic self-characterization, including interests, skills, strengths, weaknesses, values, work and lifestyle preferences. Four categories to be examined:

APTITUDES, which are the strengths that an individual possesses. Engineers, for example, are strong analytically and feel a sense of achievement when a problem is solved. Once in the profession, he says, other aptitudes must be identified. They may include social skills, research orientation, organizational ability, prudence in business sense, and so on. However, he warns: "whatever the aptitudes, complete clarity and honestly is required to identify them."

SHORTCOMINGS, or weaknesses that are present in an individual's makeup. He acknowledges the difficulty in "viewing ourselves in these terms," but identifies some weaknesses, including: impatience; an uneven temper; impracticality; poor communications ability; and theoretically weak. Here again, honesty is paramount. He also cautions that "Anything that is a strength can just as easily be a weakness."

PREFERENCES, are perhaps the simplest element of self- characterization. As he explains it, "They are individual likes and dislikes, and are identified in everyday experiences." Preferences should be based on what you most enjoy doing at work, in leisure, and during personal activities. "They should also be based on the type of people that you enjoy working or socializing with, and under what circumstances you feel the most comfortable," he details.

EXPECTATIONS, both personal and professional must be examined. Personally, some people expect to have free time to spend with family, friends, and on leisure activities. Others, he says, want to integrate their personal life into their professional life. "These personal expectations must be considered when making career choices," he states. Similarly, professional expectations must be evaluated and weighed with personal expectations. Some people seek a "good, secure, meaningful job. Others expect autonomy in performing their work," he explains.

Once having performed the self-characterization, he says, a list of personal, social, and professional priorities will naturally evolve. This leads to the second context, which is the organizational framework and environment in which these parameters exist. These priorities should be the determining factors in finding an individual niche, which then should be pursued, he advises. Different organizations provide, or permit, different types of opportunities for people, he observes. "Some are paternalistic, others are systematic, some require selfless dedication, and others allow high degrees of flexibility in performing the job," he details.

"Organizational traits must be evaluated against individual priorities to identify groups of companies that will accommodate the total person," he states. "Once a niche within an organization has been identified, the positioning process continues through self-improvement," he advises.

CAREER MANAGEMENT IS NOT A STATIC PROCESS. "Everyone should have a personal ladder to climb, and to take it one rung at a time," Schirmer writes. "Once a career plan is established and activities for development are identified," he explains, "the process of career management begins." However, he advises, the plan is not static, and must be "massaged and altered to adjust to changing conditions in the work- or marketplace, outside influences, and changing individual priorities." The career management process is ongoing, and not a one-time occurrence, he observes. Career management is a proactive process enabling engineering professionals to make choices, adapt to circumstances, to change, and ultimately to control their own destiny, he concludes.

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