Career mapping for administrative professionals: a trip to the Grand Canyon?

Barbara Feinberg, JF&CS, Atlanta, GA

Imagine this. You are relaxing on a Sunday afternoon with good friends and they show you magnificent pictures from their recent trip to the Grand Canyon. In awe, you flip through page after page of mind-boggling vistas, skies that seem too blue to be real, and clouds that hang like ripe fruit, just waiting to be picked. You can smell the fresh scent of pine and hear the donkeys braying as they make the climb down the steep slope of the canyon. You can sense both the fear and excitement of the travelers. You realize that you need to experience this miracle for yourself.

So how do you get there? Do you go home, fill a backpack with some basic items, cash your check, fill your car with gas and go? Not likely. Given the strong organizational and planning traits that typically attract professionals to the field of administration, you would likely invest some time planning how to move forward. That might include gathering information about the right time of year to travel, bargains on airfare and hotels, and determining a good route to get where you want to go.

Once you identify a goal, the easiest, most reliable way to get there is to use a map. We regularly use them in our work and in our personal lives. There are few administrators who have not used an Internet mapping program such as MapQuest or Yahoo!Maps to route an itinerary for themselves or for someone in their organization. And if it is an itinerary that spans several days, do we not draw it out from Point A to B to C to D?

Why not apply the same concept to our professional careers? Administrators have the benefit of unique access to critical corporate information, the ability to network with various areas of the organization, and the skills needed to map a career plan that meets both personal and professional goals.

You can create a career map in 7 easy steps:

Step 1: Know where you are. Every map requires a starting point. To evaluate where you are, you need information about your skills, abilities, interests, values, strengths, weaknesses, work experience, and the opportunities in your current organization. In strategic planning, a common method to evaluate your current position is a SWOT analysis (the identification of Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats). In the career world, there are professional career coaches and career "fitness tests" that can help you achieve similar results.

Barbara Collins, an Account Executive for Drake Beam Morin, Inc., found herself downsized out of her job in the insurance industry. She says that, "It gave me a chance to sit and self-analyze. To be a success, it's essential to understand your needs and preferences. If people can really have a true sense of themselves, I think that, more than anything, will help them gauge what's going to work for them as they go into corporate America."

Step 2: Decide where you want to go. A vision is an extremely important part of the process. Encourage yourself to dream. For example, a friend in Atlanta has a passion for art and her vision is to own a gallery. Her map includes stepping stones that will give her the experience she needs to reach her goal. The stepping stones to owning an art gallery include acquiring strong business and people skills, and building a strong network. Her career choices have included executive administrative assistant, compensation positions in the Human Resource departments of both small and large businesses, and, most recently, a counseling position with an outplacement firm.

Step 3: Determine the next logical step. Sometimes it is easier to work backwards with this step. If the goal is a high-level position at an advertising firm, your chances will be best if you have some form of experience in advertising or in a similar industry. Look for other account-driven industries and jobs where you have some marketing or public relations responsibilities. In addition, if it is feasible, consider relocating to a city that has a strong advertising sector so that you can begin networking with the contacts you will need to help you reach your goal.

Step 4: Picking a path. There are probably several possibilities that have surfaced by this point in the mapping process. When there are several "routes", draw them all until you find the one that seems to be the most appealing and to make the most sense. Then have fun with it. Start heading for Point B. If you get distracted, enjoy the distraction. In other words, there is no one "right" path so simply pick one and start moving.

It is perfectly natural to adjust the map as you identify new interests and opportunities. Mapping is similar to putting a jigsaw puzzle together. Just determine the skills, networks and experience you need and start putting the pieces in place.

Step 5: Review the map with a mentor. A mentor can be your best asset. There are many philosophies on selecting mentors but, keep in mind there is no rule that says that you can only have one. Ask people to brainstorm with you about your map. You will be amazed how receptive (and flattered) most individuals are that you seek their council. Particularly, consult with professionals who have achieved what you want. Our friend, the future art gallery owner, has several mentors in both the business and the arts community. Mentors can expand your network and help position you for future opportunities.

Step 6: Consult the map periodically. On the way to the Grand Canyon, there are many great stopovers. Perhaps you stop over in Las Vegas. It is easy to get distracted and lose sight of the larger goal. Or the goal may change and that is perfectly normal. As you head for the next place on the map, you may spot additional needs or interests. Just keep heading for the next point on the map, adjusting the plan as you go. The rule of the road is essentially this: enjoy the trip and keep moving toward your dream, as you define it today.

Step 7: Pass it on. Stephen Covey, in the "Seven Habits of Highly Effective People," challenged his listeners to teach everything they learned to others. It reinforces learning and helps identify new strategies. Mentor a less experienced administrative professional. Or someone who desires an administrative position. Help them achieve it and your own results will multiply.

Career mapping will help you stay focused. It also has helped many individuals to avoid feeling trapped. Red lights and stopovers can seem like a delay but can actually become an opportunity to check your direction and to adjust your course. Look for ways to improve your current job. Find ways to be more productive so that when it is time to move to the next position, you can clearly articulate your value. Volunteer for projects that move you closer to the next point on your map. Become known as the source for new ideas.

Finally, if mapping seems like too much work, consider the person who does not take time to consult a map. The result is frequently frustration, embarrassment, and added stress. Taking the time to create a career map is a worthwhile investment in your career and will pay off with dividends.