hether you are looking for a job for the first time or seeking to make a move in the middle of your career, having a plan is the surest way to find fulfillment and happiness in your professional life. It is better to forge a path than let yourself get too comfortable and complacent where you are, according to career coach Tracy Timm and recruitment trends expert Tony Lee. That can be a “recipe for disaster,” says Miss Timm. 

“If you and I want to bake a cake, we wouldn’t just haphazardly throw ingredients into a pan and put it all in the oven,” says Miss Timm. “We would look up a recipe and then we would follow the recipe to a tee to get to the outcome that we want.”

1. Identify your core values and skills.

Do some self-discovery. Identifying your nonnegotiable core values is one of three categories Miss Timm recommends evaluating as people start to build their career paths. Perhaps family commitments would make it difficult to work on weekends. Or if you love where you live, you may not be willing to relocate. If you are a caregiver, working from home with flexible hours might be a good fit.

Write down answers to these questions before you start:

  • What are your values? Identify what is most important to your lifestyle, such as income, faith, the ability to go on vacation or meeting new people.
  • What are your attributes? Think about the personality traits, professionally and personally, that have stayed constant throughout your life. Are you a team player? Do you prefer to work alone? Are you a fast learner? 
  • What are your skills? This section is a list of what you have “learned and earned,” says Miss Timm. Write down what expertise you have developed over the course of your academic and professional life. These could range from using specific software to interpersonal skills.

Starting by identifying your core values is a foundational step, but people tend to skip it.

“I think we’re afraid to question where we are at any given time because we don’t want to be wrong,” says Miss Timm. “That is why we get into situations where maybe your work pays you really well and it has great status and you have great health care and dental for your children and your family, but you never see your children and your family.”

2. Look to the people you admire.

It can be difficult to be objective about our own situations, which is why it can be helpful to get external opinions. “As one of my mentors says, it’s such as asking a surgeon to do her own surgery,” says Miss Timm. “We’re just too close to the problem.” Talk to a boss, mentor, professor or friend you trust and have good rapport with. This person should understand your professional and personal strengths. Ask them for introductions, guidance and recommendations based on their expertise.

Three things you should ask: 

  • How did you get where you are today? What you learn may surprise you. A successful person may have changed roles many times or stayed at one company for 30 years. They may have several degrees or might have skipped college altogether. Asking other people what their career paths were can help you form your own.
  • Can you recommend programs or training? Big companies might offer internal mentoring programs, formal career-development training, rotational programs and even tuition reimbursement. If you are unemployed, working gig jobs or a student, consider applying for fellowships and grants that align with the kind of training you are looking for. 
  • How can I better contribute? Some employers may not have the budget for training programs, but there could be other opportunities. A small company may offer a more direct path to senior management, for example. Ask for a meeting with a senior manager and let them know you are ready to take on more challenges and responsibilities.

If you are concerned about discussing your career path with a manager or HR representative, remember that you have more power than you think. If you have been in a role for some time, it is unlikely your boss will view it as a betrayal that you are interested in exploring opportunities. Having a clear idea of your career goals demonstrates ambition. If you are a good worker, your employer will probably want to keep you around. The cost of hiring and training a new employee to replace you greatly outweighs the cost of keeping an existing one.

HR professionals are measured on their ability to keep the turnover rate low, says Mr. Lee, who is vice president of editorial for the Society for Human Resource Management. “If you have high turnover, you have problems—probably culture problems,” says Mr. Lee. “A lot of employers would do pretty much anything they needed to do to keep a good employee from jumping ship.”

3. Identify your transferable skills.

The ability to identify and articulate your skills and knowledge may help you to take the next step in your career. You might be surprised to learn that a skill you acquired in one industry can be applied in another. Learning to frame your experience as an asset to potential employers can help you to map out your options.

For example, employers value flexibility and adaptability, while Miss Timm says being a hard worker or being kind and generous to your colleagues will serve you in any role.  

“Until you get a good sense of your strengths and weaknesses and how they play in an environment, you’re operating in a deficit,” says Mr. Lee.

If you aren’t sure where to start:

Try sending a message to five people in your life asking: “What are my three biggest strengths?” It helps if your five recipients know you from different parts of your life, for example, a roommate, a romantic partner, a former boss, a current colleague and a family member. Often, says Miss Timm, the overlap in the responses can help narrow down your universal skills.


  • The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator: This psychometric questionnaire, sometimes known as MBTI, has been used since the 1940s to match personality preferences with jobs.
  • The career development office at your college or university: These often offer resources for current students and alumni.
  • Assessment tools: CliftonStrengths and EQ-i are among those that can help you identify your strengths or emotional quotient.