The Wisdom Of The Two Steps Forward, One Step Back Career Plan

Your career begins as soon as you accept your first job and continues with each of the subsequent decisions you make. And sometimes, the best long-term decision may require what seems to be a backward move.

The Wisdom Of The Two Steps Forward, One Step Back Career Plan

Are you living your career? People often think of their career as something different and distinct from what they are doing in their present job. For these people, career discussions are something to address in the future. The reality is that your career begins as soon as you accept your first job and continues with each of the subsequent decisions you make along your career path.


Successful people understand this and take accountability. They think about the implications their present actions may have on their future. They realize that a career doesn’t always move in a consistently upward trajectory. Especially in today’s environment, a career can often move horizontally, or even in circles. And sometimes, the best long-term decision may require what seems, at first glance, to be a backward move.

We recently hired a woman who exemplifies this phenomenon. She left a position as a top salesperson to take a somewhat riskier sales position with a new startup we’ve launched. During the interview process, we asked her why she was willing to step away from a proven high compensation position when she knew that it would be at least two years before we would be able to match her current salary.

She told us that she and her husband always look at career decisions within the context of a 10-year implication. They weigh the current as well as future impact of their decision. In this case, she and her husband believed that this new position and the opportunity to get in on the ground floor would move her closer to her ultimate career goals.

Backward Planning

How are you doing at balancing the needs of your present and future? Taking time to reflect on what you really want out of your career and creating a plan is important. One of the exercises we use when helping executives with career planning is what we call backward planning. We have them envision where they would like to be in 10 years. Then they move backward from that point to identify where they would need to be in nine years, eight years, etc., to ultimately reach that 10-year goal. Creating a backward plan can help identify the moves you need to make right now that will get you one step closer to where you want to be.

Of course, you can never know with certainty where you’ll end up–and many people do end up in unexpected places. Most likely, though, having a career plan will help you reach more of your intended objectives and achieve higher goals than if you had just left it to chance. The biggest tragedy we see is when people spend 15 or 20 years climbing the corporate ladder only to learn that it was leaning against the wrong building.


Do you have a plan?

Leadership expert and colleague Warren Bennis once said the best leaders are the ones who balance action and reflection. This requires pedaling hard at times–but don’t be afraid to occasionally get off your bike, stretch your legs, and look around. Simply taking some time to reflect will often make your next action step clearer.

If you are ready for a career development reflection, here’s a four-step resource checklist that can help you as you develop your “PLAN.”

P stands for People and Praise. Find people you can discuss your career with. Reach out and surround yourself with people who will give you support, honest feedback, and encouragement along the way. Who can you add to your career development team?

L stands for Learning. Open your world and identify resources that will keep you growing. Look inside your work world by exploring online courses and other training and development opportunities. Look outside work for special experiences that can broaden your horizons. What’s a new experience you can add to your resume?

A stands for Assessment. Assess your current strengths, weaknesses, and value in relation to your career possibilities. Are there gaps in your current skills or experience that need to be addressed?


N stands for getting past No. Design strategies for dealing with negative situations such as rejection, obstacles, or failures. Few careers proceed exactly as planned. Failure isn’t fatal and setbacks will occur. How can you build resiliency into your plan to help you learn from negative experiences and move forward?

Take some time to evaluate where you are right now. The most successful people maintain a focus on the present and on the future. Experience the joy and value in doing a good job on a daily basis, but remember that most people will work for several different organizations over the course of their careers. Make sure the actions you take today are helping you move in the direction you eventually want to go.

Scott Blanchard is the cofounder of Blanchard Certified, a new cloud-based leadership development resource and experience. Ken Blanchard is the best-selling co-author of The One Minute Manager and 50 other books on leadership. You can follow Ken Blanchard on Twitter @KenBlanchard or @LeaderChat and also via the HowWeLead and LeaderChat blogs.

[Image: Flickr user Matt Niemi]

About the author

Scott Blanchard is the Executive Vice President of Client Solutions for The Ken Blanchard Companies®. Ken Blanchard is the best-selling co-author of The One Minute Manager® and 50 other books on leadership.