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Writing the perfect career plan

How to write them, revise them and why you need them at all: Peter Bartram brings you the lowdown on career plans.

In 2009 Jake Wombwell-Povey was on a scuba-diving holiday. He was about to leave university and was concerned about the prospects of launching his accountancy career in the depths of a recession. A fellow holiday maker noticed he was downcast and offered some advice: when times are tough, find a wave and ride it upwards.

“My friend had learned that lesson from personal experience when he’d been sacked from a job,” recalls Wombwell-Povey. “He’d been depressed but then he’d pulled himself together and started his own company.”

It’s a reminder that career planning is not just about CVs, salary scales and qualifications. It’s about pinning down what your dream is exactly, then chasing it.

Wombwell-Povey took the advice. He found his own wave as an accountant with Grant Thornton, advising financial services clients. Now as a qualified ICAEW Chartered Accountant, he has benefited from London’s financial services business returning to some prosperity. Soon he hopes to get a secondment to Grant Thornton’s offices in Singapore or New York to add international experience to his CV.

These days you have to be pragmatic about how you climb the career ladder, advises Rona O’Brien, dean of business and accountancy at GSM London  (formerly the Greenwich School of Management). For a start, it pays to keep a plan flexible, she argues. “How can someone in their 20s decide what they want to be doing when they’re 65? There is plenty of time to make up your mind, so don’t rush it.”

How can someone in their 20s decide what they want to be doing when they’re 65? There is plenty of time to make up your mind, so don’t rush it

Even so, a formal career plan is useful because it helps to define the gap between where you are and where you want to be, says Elise Walsh, a business manager at Hays Senior Finance, who has advised dozens of young accountants on their futures. Walsh says: “A career plan can help you focus on those areas where you need to gain experience in order to move up. For example, sometimes a sideways move can provide wider experience.”

Phil Bull, a senior consultant at recruitment consultancy Morgan McKinley, agrees. He says that a career plan helps to keep young accountants motivated and engaged: “My tip would be to make sure the plan is not too rigid from  the start as this could hinder your progress by missing out on situational opportunities as they arise.”

True, a career plan doesn’t need to be carved into tablets of stone, but it does need some fundamentals. “It should look at matching skills, interests and personality to the job and role in an organisation,” says Walsh. “If you break down your long-term aspirations into short- and medium-term goals, that tends to make it more manageable.”

The key, in the early years, is to focus more on the experience you want to gain and less on salary, advises Bull. “Be very specific in your goals, revisit them twice a year and write them all over again,” he advises.

But when drawing up a career plan, it does no harm to chase that big dream. James Nwabuisi has his sights set on a CFO’s chair. He’s recently graduated from University with a degree in accounting and finance. At university he joined ICAEW’s University Student Scheme and found the benefits, including the free advanced Excel training, very useful. Now he is looking for an ACA training agreement. “I will work towards getting more and more qualifications,” he says.

The key to finding a niche that suits seems to be trying a lot of different things. Daniel Hart, a corporate finance executive at accountancy practice Smith & Williamson, found his while doing  his ACA training. “I discovered that a key topic which kept coming up was access to capital,” he says. “I saw this as an area where I could add value and became interested in helping entrepreneurs raise finance. My choice also coincided with the increasing use of alternative routes to raising capital.”

Hart doesn’t have a long-term career plan but he takes career development seriously. “As long as I am still learning every day and I am still being challenged, then I’m happy.” And Wombwell-Povey has written down a career plan, but he’s clear it’s not something to file away and forget. “I make sure it’s something I constantly revisit,” he says.

Yet even the best career plans can be knocked off course by unexpected events. O’Brien, who now advises others on careers, found her own plan set back when she had a disabled child. “It knocked my career plan for six,” she says. “When something like that happens you have to rethink. Depending on the event, you must decide whether you will take longer to achieve your aim or whether you must scale back your ambitions.” But whatever happens, it is always worth chasing that dream.

This first appeared in Vital, January 2015

Peter Bartram

Published in Economia, January 2015