Have you ever tried to make it to a restaurant to meet up with your friend for dinner without an address and maybe some help from Google Maps? Impossible, right? The same is true in your career. If you don't know where you're going or how to get there, you might begin to feel stuck and directionless.
But you don't have to. That's why professional goals matter. Perhaps you have a performance review where you’re asked to lay out what you’d like to accomplish in the next six months. Or maybe an interviewer prompts you to consider where you’d like to be in the next 5 to 10 years.
When you take the time to consider what you really want out of your career and how you’ll get there, it’ll ultimately be easier to carve out a path for yourself.
Professional goals (or work goals) are objectives you set for yourself in order to grow over the course of your career. You might set short-term professional goals like finding a mentor, networking with leaders in your industry, or acquiring a certification in your field. And those will often help you get closer to your long-term goals, which might look like landing a senior leadership position, becoming a thought leader in your industry, or starting your own business.
And keep in mind that it’s not one and done! You’ll continue to set and reset your work goals regularly as you and your career evolve.
Sometimes, work can feel like busy work — you’re just going through the motions. But when you set achievable goals for yourself, you’ll actually be working toward a specific outcome, which makes what you’re doing feel more worthwhile and will motivate you to keep at it. But by establishing work goals, you can reinvigorate your professional life and your sense of purpose, feel like you’re more able to accomplish things, and progress in your career.
Framing smaller goals in the context of larger ones can also boost your motivation. For example, an online graphic design course can help you earn a graphic design certificate and bolster your portfolio, which may very well help you stand out amongst applicants in the job search, and ultimately land you a job at your dream design agency.
The very process of establishing goals will help you analyze where you are now and where you need to improve and grow. When you consider longer-term objectives, you should think about the specific and concrete steps you can take in the short term to get to that point, and check in with yourself regularly to reflect on your progress and set additional incremental goals.
At the end of the day, we all want to feel like what we do has meaning. Setting clear goals can help you discover what you really want out of your career and your life in the first place. And working toward those goals will help you feel more agency and satisfaction with your career trajectory. In other words, you’ll be defining success for yourself — and going after it.
Recruiters and hiring managers often want to know why you applied for a particular position and how the role ties back to your career goals, in part to gauge how motivated you’d be to do the job. They might ask questions like, “What are your career aspirations?” or “How do you plan to achieve your goals?” to help them understand where your ambitions lie and how you take steps to achieve a desired outcome — something you’ll need to do in any job to help your team succeed. So defining and working toward professional goals will allow you to talk about them genuinely in your job search.
The best goals are concrete, actionable, and achievable. Try the SMART method, which stands for:
Specific: Make your goals clear and concise.
Measurable: Ensure that your goals can be easily tracked. How will you know if you’ve succeeded? What metric or indication will you look at?
Achievable: Make certain that your goals can be realistically achieved by taking actionable steps that are within your control.
Relevant: Your goals should be meaningful to you and/or your company and tie into the bigger picture of your career.
Time-bound: Set a date to achieve your goals by to help increase focus and motivation.
Remember your goals and make them “real” by writing them down, rather than keeping them in your head. You might also benefit from using project management tools, such as a Trello board, to track your progress toward your goals visually.
Accountability is so important in achieving your goals — and telling others can help you stay on track. Letting a trusted colleague or friend down is harder than letting your secret goal fade away without anyone else knowing about it. Think like Janine Teagues announcing to the entirety of Abbott Elementary that she would teach her second graders how to do the egg drop along with the eighth-grade science class (misguided as that particular goal may have been) — though perhaps you don’t have to make such a public declaration.
Telling others can also be a great way to get motivation, inspiration, and encouragement as you work toward your goals. Sharing in a community like Fairygodboss will give you support — and a group to celebrate with when the hard work pays off.
Figure out how each of your goals fits into your overarching career path. To motivate you to tackle each goal, it should make an impact on your career journey — and your life as a whole.
Today, networking is a pivotal part of furthering your career. Connecting and building professional relationships can lead to immediate and long-term opportunities, such as landing a coveted position, being promoted in your current job, learning new skills, learning more about your industry, making a career change, and much more. If you’re struggling to get started with networking, begin with those you already know — like connecting with your former TAs on LinkedIn or reaching out to senior leaders at your company.
Remember, networking looks different for everyone and finding the right style for you comes with time. Just remember to keep an open mind, actively listen, and be yourself.
Networking is a multi-step process. Not only do you need to learn the skills to connect with others at events, through social media and via other means, but once you’ve mastered this art, you must actually build your network. You can make it a concrete goal. For instance, perhaps you’ll send a certain number of LinkedIn messages every month or you’ll ask a certain number of people to get coffee (or meet on Zoom) within a given period of time.
Have you always wanted to learn how to code? Would you like to gain proficiency in a language other than English? How about mastering Photoshop?
There are so many skills that can help you grow professionally and personally. And even if a particular skill doesn’t seem precisely relevant to your current role, you never know what will help you in the future. So consider what skill you really want to learn — whether it’s specifically geared toward earning a promotion or you’re just hoping to explore something new. Then look for a course you can take online or at a local college (if it costs money, see if your company offers a professional development stipend or tuition reimbursement), or see if you can find a mentor to help you hone that skill.
Getting a formal certification can be an extremely helpful way of demonstrating that you’re serious about advancing — or pivoting — in your career. Perhaps you’re a marketing generalist but you’re realizing the area you’re most excited about is search engine optimization and search engine marketing. Pursuing certifications in those areas will help you learn and could help pave the way to a specialist role that focuses on those areas you love most.
Don’t think this qualifies as a goal? Think again. Many people struggle with asking for feedback because they’re afraid of hearing about what they might be doing wrong. But feedback is a valuable tool.
Make it a goal to ask for feedback from others, including your colleagues in addition to your managers, maybe once every two months. Be specific about what you really want to find out. For example, if you’re curious about how your communication is perceived by others, don’t ask a super broad question like, “How’s my communication?” Instead, ask a more targeted question like, “How would you compare my in-person communication to my virtual communication?” or, “Does my communication style impact our ability to collaborate together?”
Learning how to deliver feedback yourself can help others grow professionally, improve your relationship with your colleagues, allow you to gain important skills, and improve your professional reputation as you grow in your career.
To give good feedback, first make sure your feedback is welcome. Then, just as you do when seeking feedback from peers, it’s important to be specific in your communication. Try to give examples during your delivery to back up your points, and always suggest concrete solutions for how your colleague could improve.
Working well with others is another important part of your professional life. Collaboration will get you far in your career, making your colleagues and others in your industry trust you and your interest in furthering the company mission, not just your own goals.
If your team is involved in any cross-functional projects, ask your manager how you can get involved or raise your hand next time your department head asks for volunteers to work on a new initiative together.
Creating a website or portfolio can help you showcase your work and get your name out there, especially if you’re in a creative field, such as writing or design. Perhaps you’re passionate about photography and want to build up your roster of freelance clients. You can start a website with snippets of your work to gain visibility, pique others’ interest, and land new customers.
At one point or another, you’ll have to deliver a presentation or speak in a team or company meeting. This is intimidating for many of us, but if you make it a goal to hone your public speaking skills, create eye-catching visuals, and practice regularly, you can boost your confidence and learn how to connect with your audience.
Perhaps you decide that once a week, you’ll find a TED talk or keynote speech to watch or listen to and take detailed notes on the speaker’s delivery. Are they using their hands throughout the presentation? Do they vocally emphasize certain points to make them stand out? This exercise will help you identify things successful speakers do — and then you can adopt these techniques yourself.
More than likely, you probably won’t be in your specific role forever. In order to move up to more senior roles or explore potential pivots, you should learn as much as you can about the various departments that make up your company. How do they each contribute to the big picture and work together? What insights does each individual team have? Increasing your knowledge about the inner workings of your business will make you more vital to your organization and set you up for future opportunities.
The key to this is communicating and building a good rapport with your coworkers. Make it a goal to grab a coffee every couple of weeks with a colleague in another department. Getting to know your coworkers can help you learn about their role and team, and give you insight into how you could potentially work more closely together in the future.
Sure, don’t we all want to become more productive? Decide on a strategy you’ll adopt. Perhaps that means planning your days out, allocating a certain amount of time for each task on your calendar, and being as realistic as possible. You could also embrace time tracking tools or productivity strategies like the Pomodoro method, in which you complete tasks in sprints and take breaks. Your goal might even be to test two or three different techniques over the course of a few months and then use your learnings to implement a longer-term approach.
Written, verbal and auditory communication skills are a pivotal part of work. To thrive in your role, collaborate with others and generally be an efficient professional, you must be able to articulate, describe and convey information. Whether it’s writing a quick email, updating your colleagues on a project’s progress in a meeting or undergoing a performance review, proper communication is vital.
In order to improve your communication skills, seek out opportunities to practice. You might join a Toastmasters group to practice verbal communication skills or sign up for a class to hone your written communication skills. You can also find ways to incorporate this goal into your day-to-day role — for example, by asking your manager if you can be the one to draft a recurring report your team puts together.
Even if you’re in an entry-level job, you can begin working toward a leadership position today. Take initiative, volunteer to handle tasks and serve as the lead on projects. Remember that you don’t have to be in a managerial position to be a leader. You can be an informal leader by being that go-to person who knows everything about a particular tool your team relies on, for instance.
Everybody has strengths and weaknesses, but not everyone knows how to leverage them effectively. This often separates people who go far in their careers and those who don’t. Ask yourself, your colleagues, and manager(s) where you specifically excel at your particular position and where you fall short. Once you’ve identified your strengths and weaknesses, you can find ways to leverage your strengths and mitigate your weaknesses or search for roles where they won’t hold you back.
A mentor is a valuable means of support in helping you achieve your professional goals and guiding you throughout your career.
How do you find one? Perhaps your workplace has a formal mentorship program in which you can participate. Or maybe there’s a former supervisor or more senior colleague you trust. Or you can reach out to people you admire on LinkedIn. (Check out our tips for finding a mentor, too.)
Being a mentor is another hallmark of a successful career. Not only will you be helping someone else grow in their career, but you’ll also be improving your own professional skills and building working relationships. An effective mentor provides value to the mentee’s professional life and grows with the mentee. In order to become a mentor, make yourself available to younger professionals around you. Attend networking events and update your LinkedIn profile to make sure you aren’t missing out on a valuable mentorship opportunity.
Afraid of giving presentations? Shy away from networking? Intimidated by data reporting? Challenge yourself to try out one general (or specific) career challenge that makes you nervous. For example, you might ask your manager to delegate more data reporting tasks to you, allowing you to present them in team meetings, and get their feedback after each one to help you improve. Even if you’re still scared after the fact, you’ll have more experience under your belt — and maybe you’ll be a little less daunted the next time the opportunity comes around.
Go above and beyond. No matter what your job is, you can do this. You know your job and your manager, so only you can say what exceeding expectations looks like. Perhaps it involves helping someone else with a project, suggesting a new idea or implementing a new organizational system that helps your team work more efficiently. Whatever you do, it will show your manager that you care about the company and are willing to do something beyond what’s expected.
According to a study conducted by WP Engine and the Center for Generational Kinetics, almost two-thirds (62%) of Gen Z have indicated that they definitely or possibly want to start their own business, more than any other generation. Entrepreneurship, of course, involves a great deal of initiative (and gumption).
If you’re interested in going your own way, consider starting by writing your own personal mission statement. This mission statement should help you home in on your passions and align your core values while focusing on the big picture. From there, identify the skills and experiences you’ll need and start setting shorter-term goals that will help you get there.
This article reflects the views of the author and not necessarily those of Fairygodboss.
Laura Berlinsky-Schine is a freelance writer and editor based in Brooklyn with her demigod/lab mix Hercules. She specializes in education, technology and career development. She also writes satire and humor, which has appeared in Points in Case, Little Old Lady Comedy, Jane Austen’s Wastebasket and The Haven.
Team editors contributed writing, reporting, and/or advice to this article.