The start of the new year is a great time to reflect on new opportunities and new directions in every aspect of your life—including your career. But don’t let yourself be swept away by the excitement of New Year’s Resolutions. More than 80% of them fail by February, according to some estimates.
To find out how to set work goals you’ll really be able to meet, set aside time to examine your career from two angles: what you want to achieve, and what you’ll potentially lose out on by failing to take the appropriate career-building actions.
The State of Your Career
Most professionals are guilty of putting their careers on autopilot from time to time, but this pitfall is particularly common among EAs. When your role centers on taking care of somebody else—your executive, in this case—it’s easy to justify putting your own career aspirations on hold to meet their more immediate needs.
EA educator Julie Perrine shares her own story of career complacency in Executive Secretary magazine. “I have worked in the administrative profession for more than 20 years, and I’ve held every position from receptionist to executive assistant to the company’s president. Early in my career, I progressed up the ladder without too much trouble. But my career was happening to me instead of me guiding it where I wanted it to go. At the time, I had no clue about the opportunities in the admin career field mainly because I hadn’t bothered to explore them.”
Unless you make an effort to refocus on your priorities from time to time, you risk missing out on promotions, professional development opportunities or other avenues of growth. To determine whether or not the state of your career is on the right track, spend an hour or two thinking through the following questions:
- Am I happy in my current role?
- Do I feel like my executive and I are a good match?
- Do I have any skills that are being underutilized in my current role?
- Do I feel more energized or stagnant in my current role?
Setting Career Goals
Once you’ve established how you feel in your current role, it’s time to think about what you want to achieve. We can use the “pleasure principle” to look at this fundamental career question from two directions.
In Freudian psychoanalysis, the pleasure principle refers to “the instinctive seeking of pleasure and avoiding of pain in order to satisfy biological and psychological needs.” While it’s far from the only psychological principle driving behavior, it does provide an important insight into how we humans think and act: often, we’re driven by our innate desires to either seek pleasure or avoid pain.
In the context of career-building, “pleasure” comes from identifying, working towards and, ultimately, achieving work goals. This might mean:
- Getting a raise
- Winning a promotion
- Moving to a new position
- Taking on a new responsibility
- Earning a certification
The key is that, for career planning from this angle to be effective, the goals you set out for yourself have to generate pleasure in a way that’s personally meaningful. Winning a promotion, for example, might mean more money, but it might also mean adding to your workload or transferring to support a different executive you don’t click with as well.
Pleasure doesn’t mean euphoria either; nor does it necessarily require an immediate payoff. Improving your business travel management skills—for example, by checking out Savoya’s “Power Assistant’s Guide to Executive Travel Management”—might not feel like an exciting goal. But if doing so enables you to become a more strategic partner for your executive, which results in a pleasure-generating raise or promotion, it’s still a goal worth setting.
Career Planning from a Pain Perspective
Now, reverse the conversation. Where are you experiencing pain in your work, and how can you resolve it by setting and achieving career goals?
Sometimes, the source of career pain is obvious. An executive you don’t get along with. A position where you’re underutilized. A toxic work environment. Setting goals that help you get away from painful circumstances have an obvious payoff and should be prioritized in your goal setting process.
In an article for Executive Secretary magazine, contributor Melba Duncan spells out the price EAs pay in these situations. “People in power sometimes do as they choose to do, and continue to do so, even if there are well-chronicled deficiencies. Some behaviors are overt, and some methods are more subtle and perhaps less destructive; yet, we should recognize these actions for what they intend. Executive Assistants who are subject to the whims of Executives behaving in unpredictable ways pay a huge price.”
But in other cases, the sources of career pain are vague. Maybe your career “pain” feels more like a general malaise than an acute frustration. Find the source of unidentified career pain by asking yourself indirect questions that will help you zero in on what isn’t working with your current role.
If I could change one thing about my current role, what would it be?
- When do I feel most engaged at work?
- When do I feel most frustrated?
- If this was the last role I worked in, how would I feel about my career overall?
- What would need to change for me to feel happy coming into work?
The goal here isn’t to eliminate all work stress. As all EAs know, supporting high-level executives means their stress is your stress—it’s simply part of the job. But there’s a difference between good stress (called “eustress”) that keeps you on your toes and performing at your best, and bad stress (“distress”) that takes a physical, mental and emotional toll.
If the amount of distress you experience outweighs the eustress in your current role, use your new year career planning session to set the goals needed to make a change.
Goal Setting Best Practices
Chances are you’ve heard about goal setting systems like “SMART” goals, “DUMB” goals or “BHAGs.” But while easily-digestible frameworks like these are appealing, real goal setting success requires more than just a few cute acronyms.
Here’s what researchers, psychologists and personal development authors have to say about what’s really necessary to set and achieve goals:
Specificity matters when it comes to goal setting. To some degree, this is intuitive. If your goal is “I want my executive to trust me more,” it’s going to be harder to define how you’ll achieve that—let alone how you’ll measure success—than if you have a clear vision of the outcome you want to bring about and specific steps for getting there.
According to James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, “Research has shown that you are 2x to 3x more likely to stick to your goals if you make a specific plan for when, where, and how you will perform the behavior. For example, in one study scientists asked people to fill out this sentence: “During the next week, I will partake in at least 20 minutes of vigorous exercise on [DAY] at [TIME OF DAY] at/in [PLACE].”
The result? Participants who completed the sentence were 2-3 times more likely to actually work out.
Use a framework like this if education or personal development is a part of your 2019 career plan. Rather than committing to completing a program, write out commitments to yourself using the structure above to detail exactly how and when you’ll study.
Break It Down
Keep an eye on the size of your specific goal as well. By breaking down huge career goals into smaller, more easily achievable chunks, you take advantage of your brain’s dopamine channels, which reward you with a dose of feel-good chemicals in response to perceived successes.
Monica Mehta, author of The Entrepreneurial Instinct: How Everyone Has the Innate Ability to Start a Successful Business, shares that, “Collecting wins, no matter how small, can chemically wire you to move mountains by causing a repeated release of dopamine. But to get going you have to land those first few successes. The key to creating your own cycle of productivity is to set a grand vision and work your way there with a few, achievable goals that increase your likelihood of experiencing a positive outcome.
As an example, if you know you want to find a position with a new company, you might break the process down into a series of smaller goals, including:
- Cataloging your successes in your current role
- Updating your resume
- Reaching out to your network for potential leads
- Finding job listings and researching the companies posting them
- Submitting applications
You can’t control the outcome of your efforts, so don’t make actually landing a new job your goal. Instead, treat every step along the way as a separate goal, give it your best effort and celebrate the success of passing each milestone you’ve identified.
Learn to Love the Process
Personal development writer Steve Pavlina makes an interesting point in a web article on goal setting: that although goals are intended to improve your future state, you can’t actually take action in the future. You can only do that in the present.
Because of this, he argues, you need to find a way to derive satisfaction from the goal achievement process in a way that improves your current reality—rather than waiting on a future outcome to make you happy.
“Many people set goals and then assume the path to reach the goal will require suffering and sacrifice—a recipe for failure,” he describes. “A better idea is to set a goal and pay attention to the effect it has on your present reality. Set goals that yield a positive effect on your life whenever you think about them, long before the final outcome is actually achieved. Treat goal-setting as a way to enhance your present reality, not as a way to control the future.”
If your 2019 career goal revolves around building trust with your executive, there won’t be a day when everything clicks and you’re 100% in sync. Instead, try to find satisfaction in every action you take to improve your relationship with your executive. Doing so will payoff in the present and in the future.
What goals are you working towards in 2019? What steps are you taking to ensure you’ll achieve them? Leave us a note below with your thoughts.