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Forward focus: trying new things at the start of your career can boost your future employability © Alamy

Planning ahead in search of the perfect role is tempting, but could precisely mapping out the course of your career ultimately hold you back?

“We have this inherent fear of failure and the desire, to overcome that, is to create a watertight plan,” says Liz Ward, who worked in marketing for 10 years before becoming a career coach. This is especially true for women, she says, who are “naturally perfectionist” — and can suffer burnout if these plans fall through.

Ms Ward experienced this first-hand in what had seemed like her dream job, working on projects such as rebranding the Millennium Dome and the London 2012 Olympics, but the long hours and a hectic lifestyle forced her to change tack. She now owns a career-coaching business, Slick Pivot, which helps others facing similar quandaries.

Rather than creating a fixed career plan, Ms Ward suggests keeping things flexible early in your career. Remember that you are not planning for your “forever job”, she says. “Go for what looks interesting and what you enjoy at the moment.” The skills and experience you gain will boost your future employability — what she calls “career equity”.

Non-linear careers, in which you move between different roles and industries instead of following one fixed path, are increasingly common. A survey of 5,000 UK graduates by graduate recruitment platform Bright Network in 2019 found that only 8 per cent expected to stay with their first employer longer than five years.

“It is unrealistic to think you’re going to find a dream job that ticks every single box — so don’t beat yourself up if you don’t find that,” says Stefanie Sword-Williams, founder of F*ck Being Humble, a mentoring platform championing self-promotion. Experimentation is one way to go. “The way you avoid feeling like you’re about to hit an early-life crisis is by trying lots of different things,” she says.

According to a LinkedIn survey in 2017, 75 per cent of 25 to 33-year-olds have experienced an “early-life crisis”, in which they find themselves at a crossroads, unsure what to do next. Ms Sword-Williams suggests exploring options, for example by trialling a business idea as a side hustle, moving to a new company or trying to adapt a current role.

“Do things that you are interested in that are not just your job. It doesn’t have to work out, but the best possible situation is that you start to get noticed for something you did yourself alongside your professional achievements,” she says.

However, if you realise early on that you are in the wrong job, actively planning your next steps can help you switch careers.

Emilie Korchia accepted a graduate job in finance at Disney, although she really wanted to work in marketing and strategy. “I managed to find my own path and having a plan helped me grow within the organisation,” she says. Fortunately her colleagues were understanding: “Even when I worked in the finance department, they knew I liked to speak to people and negotiate stuff. So, every time there was an opportunity to do so, they were happy to let me do it.”

After 10 years, Ms Korchia wanted a new challenge, but she did not know exactly what. Taking an executive masters in marketing course at HEC Paris business school was an opportunity to re-evaluate her plan. After speaking to her peers, she decided to start her own business. She is the co-founder of MyJobGlasses, a networking platform for students and one of the biggest start-ups at Paris’s Station F, the largest business incubator in the world. She now has a new five-year plan to expand the company’s presence to European markets beyond France.


Percentage of UK graduates that expect to stay with their first employer longer than five years

Ms Sword-Williams suggests attending networking events, finding a mentor and working with your employer to shape a plan to help build confidence and overcome the barriers that prevent women seizing opportunities.

“One of the things when I moved to London that sparked so much inspiration for me was going to talks and meeting new people. It’s really important at the early stages of your career to do that,” she says. You learn “what you like, what you don’t like and what you care about in the world”.

To do this, you need to be comfortable with self-promotion, she adds. It is important to have an up-to-date and professional online presence: “You can’t be found by your dream company if you are nowhere to be found.”

Women appear to find self-promotion harder than men. An often-cited internal review years ago by Hewlett-Packard found that men applied for jobs when they thought they met 60 per cent of the listed qualifications, but women only when they thought they met all of them.

Bright Network’s 2019 graduate survey found that men expected a starting salary 15 per cent higher than women, says James Uffindell, founder and chief executive. “But we do have more women [in our network], which kind of suggests that women are more conscientious and perhaps more engaged when it comes to their careers.”

One reason that some women do want to plan ahead in their career is deciding when to have a family. According to a US study in 2017, 83 per cent of women over 25 who want to have children postpone doing so to focus on their careers.

Liz Ward says that at this stage planning helped her create a flexible, family-friendly career. She started Slick Pivot before having children because she knew running her own business could fit better around her family life.

If a woman wants a family, Ms Ward suggests they work out how to build flexibility into their career. “Start to think, how long would I like to take off? How much time would I like to spend with my children? How would I like my family life to go?”

Ms Ward nonetheless advises against devising too rigid and long-term a plan. But asking what you want from your life as a whole is important, she says, so that you find a job that works with that vision.

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