How to Create a Career Plan for Millennials (or Anyone Else)

Dream jobs don’t just happen. If you want to take control of your career, you need to develop a plan to shape your thinking and activities.

A good career plan will provide you with a framework for determining whether a particular role is a step towards your ultimate goal, or a distraction.

This is especially true for Millennials, who are coming of age with more choice and possibility than any previous generation, but also more pressure and uncertainty. To be successful, you need to take ownership of your career.

Read on and you’ll discover a method for crafting a plan that is solid enough to guide your decisions, yet flexible enough to allow you to alter your path as you walk it.

Discover What You Need with The Box Technique

The Box Technique is a career planning strategy that is perfect for Millennials. I’ll get to why in a moment, but first let me walk you through the process:

1. Imagine Your Future(s)

Take a piece of paper and draw three to five boxes on it. In each box, write the name of a role you’d be excited to take on at some point in the future. These can be roles within your current company or external positions.

2. Reach Out to the Experts

Once you have three to five different roles to explore, find people either in those roles, or who might be responsible for placing people in them, and ask them what they look for in a strong candidate.

It's ok to show your passion here—you are already expressing it by showing up and asking this.

If you wish, ask them if you would be welcome to follow up with them in six months for future advice and feedback. Do not ask them for a job. This is a research mission. At this stage, you are thinking two jobs ahead of where you are now.

3. Decide How You Need to Improve

When you have useful feedback, write two or three bullet points beneath each box, distilling what you need to be a strong candidate for your chosen roles into a few sentences.

In most cases, these points will refer either to specific experience you need to gain, or to competencies you need to attain. Likely, you will start to see patterns that immediately help you to clarify the skills and experience you are looking to develop.

4. Set Short-Term Goals

Your next step is to create a bridge by repeating the exercise with a second set of boxes. This time, you’re seeking out roles that you can realistically aspire to within one or two years.

You can then begin making yourself a strong candidate. You can get needed experience from your job, a side project, or anywhere else, but the goal is to make sure you're using the time you have today to get the experience.

You can also ask your manager for feedback on activities which might help you get the experience you are looking for. You have to own your own career plan, but once you have it, others can help you fulfill it.

The key thing to remember is that the roles described in the second set of boxes should be places where you can develop the abilities you will need to attain the roles listed in the first set of boxes.

This is a step-by-step process.

What Are the Benefits of The Box Technique?

When you use this technique, you will gain a clear sense of the types of roles you would like to take on, the interim roles you'll need to hold before appearing as a strong candidate, and the gaps in your abilities and experience you'll need to address. 

Now, you can use this information to shape your current role and find ways of developing your skills. Alternatively, you may need to invest some of your free time in additional training.

Whatever the specifics of your situation, you have a clear sense of destination and the framework of a map that will take you there. Nonetheless, the map remains flexible enough for you to change course if your preferences evolve. 

Another benefit of this approach is that it gives you a sense of perspective when you’re having a bad day or week.

When you’re frustrated by your immediate circumstances or you don’t like your manager, it’s tempting to resign and look for another job. Millennials, in particular, are very willing to change jobs when they are dissatisfied.

Having a career plan helps you to see the bigger picture and recognize when temporary irritation is a price worth paying to develop the competencies necessary to open the doors to better opportunities.

Why Is The Box Technique Perfect for Millennials?

As a rule, Millennials tend to be very confident. They believe in their abilities and they want to take on, and change, the world. That’s a wonderful attitude.

On the other hand, even the strongest self-confidence will be challenged by the realities of working life. There are many strong candidates for the best jobs, and employers want to trust that the people they hire are capable of doing an excellent job.

While candidates tend to be bullish and determined, employers are usually cautious and conservative.

This technique helps to break down the barriers standing between you and your ideal roles. It gives you a reason to approach managers, and people already doing the jobs you aspire to, ask for their advice, and make a connection.

This is why you should always frame the conversation as a request for information, not as a pitch for a job. By placing yourself positively on the radar of people who may one day be responsible for hiring you, you create recognition. You also create trust. The employer doesn't view you as an impatient Millennial trying to cut in line. Rather, you’re a hard worker willing to do what it takes to earn your spot.

A Real World Example of The Box Technique

As part of my responsibilities at Microsoft, I am the executive sponsor of our recruitment and development program, MACH (Microsoft Academy of College Hires), in Greater China. I spend approximately 20% of my time on the program, and I work with a lot of Millennials and new employees who are entering the workforce for the first time.

Here’s an example of a young man who applied the Box Technique to attain the role he was aiming for:

A few years ago, he was living in Switzerland, and his job was to sell Windows PCs to retail stores. He was very keen to move to Asia, and he reached out to me to discuss his best path towards a role he desired.

Hong Kong was a good choice for him, because English is spoken widely in the country. A position in China or Japan might have represented a jump, whereas a role in Hong Kong could be considered a step.

He sought out opportunities to use his understanding of the Windows business, especially of best practices from Western Europe, and to leverage his knowledge of the consumer side of the organization.

He spoke to me and to another manager, asking us what qualities we looked for when assessing candidates for roles selling Windows to consumers and commercial clients.

By doing all this, he was able to position moving to another country as a step. Hong Kong allowed him to flourish using English, and the jobs he was interested in made use of his existing skills.

When a relevant role opened up, he applied successfully. He’s been in his new position for the past two years, and continues to excel.

You Need a Career Plan to Get What You Want

If you’re a Millennial, or anyone else, wanting to direct your career proactively, you can make use of the Box Technique to determine your own goals, chart a route towards roles you aspire to, and assess your strengths and weaknesses. Here’s a recap of the major points you need to keep in mind as you experiment with this tool.

- Distinguish between your higher objectives and the steps you need to take to reach them. When you begin this process, it’s not likely that you’re qualified to do the jobs you’re most interested in. Use it as a method of reflecting honestly on the gaps in your skillset and planning realistic steps towards gaining the experience and competencies you need.

- Connect with potential mentors. One of the most powerful aspects of the Box Technique is that it gives you a positive reason to form relationships with leaders in your organization. They will probably welcome your enthusiasm and curiosity, and you will learn what you need to do to succeed.

- Walk, don’t jump. If you try to leap from job to job, you will likely be unprepared and fail to make as much of an impact as you intend. Keep one foot on the ground in a role you know well, while still reaching out into new areas to gain experience.

Make good use of this strategy, and in five years you will look back and realize you are exactly where you wanted to be.