having a personal, long-range strategic plan

This is my last night in Memphis, where the 2012 SIGUCCS Conference concluded earlier today.  It’s been a really fascinating conference, and an especially satisfying experience since I am this year’s treasurer.  It’s been 18 months of planning and the work of a lot of people that led to a great and productive event.

One theme came up repeatedly.  More than simply sharing knowledge, a great number of the line staff – directly interacting with students, faculty and staff – and first tier managers demonstrated what I can only describe as an “intense thirst” for professional development guidance.  The emphasis has always been on networking and sharing information.  It has always been about building a community facing similar challenges and coming together to find meaningful solutions.  But there was a twist this year, and it was distinct and pronounced.

One session in particular, by Lucas Friedrichsen from Oregon State and Mo Nishiyama (@synthcat) from Oregon Health and Science University, sparked a number of thoughts.  Lucas and Mo, fundamentally, were discussing the challenges of remaining productive at one’s work, maintaining a healthy work/life balance, yet still obtaining and making use of the professional development opportunities needed to keep advancing in one’s career.  At the core was, I think, the same topic I’d been seeing elsewhere – these are professionals that have done good work, have built up their portfolios/resumes/skills, and are wanting new challenges (whether that means a new job or a new set of responsibilities is different from person to person, but it’s still about growth).  During the discussion and through the twitter backchannel the idea of a “personal strategic plan” occurred to me.

Most likely, there is a strategic plan for your institution.  Usually, the “official,” public one is something along the lines of “we strive to be awesome, using many of the awesome traits we possess, and will also care about the environment.”  In other words, fairly generic.  At Menlo College, where we are drafting our next strategic plan, we have begun with an internal document that is much more specific.  The section for the Office of Information Technology is broken into 7 sections, each of which has at least 10 specific goals, and every goal has a timeline.  This is the kind of document that is actually useful and that translates into tactics.  Every time we consider a technology or other solution, it must fit in with this plan.  If it does conflict, then we will ask why and whether we should redesign our goals (because sometimes something out of band can in fact be a good idea and we should keep an  open mind).

Why shouldn’t one have a personal one, as well?  A strategic plan about how to get to various points in one’s career on a certain timeline.  This would give us a sense of timing, a context for decision-making, and, most importantly, a path that one can keep an eye on and stay relatively close to over time.  This path would then give us milestones for achieving specific goals.

In this case, I think it best to work backwards from some set date.  The adage of “where do you see yourself in X number of years” is actually quite appropriate.  Determine that answer, then identify what you must accomplish to get to that point.  This involves both accomplishing concrete items as well as acquiring some skills such as high-level communications and mastering organizational politics.  Logically, some of those will require additional intermediate steps that are, themselves, easily assigned to your timeline.  Continue building this plan back to your present day and role.  Hopefully it maps out linearly.  If not, then consider why, and whether you should move your target date further out or, ideally, identify lag points that you can speed up through extra attention.

I feel that 5 years is the minimum required to 1) build your skills and affect your environment enough to actually accomplish meaningful tasks and 2) get enough of those tasks done and on your resume to be a viable candidate for your next stop along your strategic plan.  It’s unlikely that you’ll ever enter a situation already set to move forward right away.  There is always some rearranging and customizing to your (current) skill set.  7 years is the outer limit of this time requirement – more than that, I feel I will lose my sense of urgency or, much worse, have failed to accomplish my goals to move forward.  I will have gained a reputation for homeostasis at best and mediocrity at worst.  I would be losing credibility and equity needed to move forward.

This time requirement changes over time.  For the past 10 or so years of my professional career, 5-7 has been right.  But later in life, after I had (hopefully) gotten to a certain level, it would take longer to accomplish similarly ambitious goals but with much, much bigger scale.  But 5-7 made sense for now.

What achievements would you need by what milestones to get to the next point in your plan?  Are you managing staff now?  At what level?  Do you manage a budget?  All of your budget?  Do you think you need to have accomplished that in order to move onto the next level?  How much work at a strategic – rather than tactical – level have you done?  Have you been able to translate that into actions and results?  How many projects of that nature – strategically aligned, fully-executed – do you want on your resume before you’re comfortable saying “you should hire me, because I’ve proven that I can do a job like this?”

I’ve had a personal strategic plan since roughly 2007.  I would like to say that it was in 2006, before I got my job at Santa Clara University Law School as the Assistant Dean for Law Technology, that I had put a plan together.  That I realized I needed a management position before I could even think about what was next.  But it took that jolt – that move up to another position – that motivated me to think about what I would want to do next, on what schedule, and to what eventual level.

To an extent, I have been very fortunate.  I’ve moved up to two separate positions on my strategic plan ahead of schedule.  I haven’t had to move and have therefore maintained the local connections I worked hard to form over the years.  But I also believe that one makes one’s own luck.  These positions would have opened up whether I was ready or not.  I had to make sure I had the right skill set, built the right relationships and, overall, accomplished a noteworthy portfolio of projects so that when a position was posted, I was a legitimate applicant.

Some say it’s better to be lucky than good.  This is true, to an extent.  But if you’re lucky and you’re not ready, if you haven’t followed that strategic plan and built up your set of skills, then that next step will be that much longer to achieve.  So I guess I’d like to think that I’m lucky and good.  Time will tell.  But I also had a plan, and that kept me on track or, at the least, pointed in the right direction from year to year.  We’ll see what this plan looks like as I move forward from here.