Is this job all there is?

What are your career goals? That’s the first question I ask my prospective coaching clients — and one very few people can answer. It’s ironic that most of us spend too much time working toward goals we cannot specify.

When we are just starting out in our career, things are pretty easy. Most everyone is glad to have a job, and most any assignment is challenging and instructive. Employees interpret the tangible signs of progress (for instance, moving from a cubicle to an office, changing titles) as signals that they are on the right track. Promotions happen frequently. People don’t know their ultimate destination, but it really doesn’t matter — they have more energy than wisdom, they have no one waiting at home, and they are moving in the right direction on a long trip with plenty of chances to change course along the way.

As we get a little older, the realization sets in: This is why they call it work. Promotions become less frequent, relationships (and their ugly brother, politics) increase in importance, pressure and expectations escalate both at work and at home, and wisdom overtakes energy. All those forces cause us to ruminate on the age-old question, Is this all there is?

That’s often the point at which people call me for some executive coaching. They are concerned about their future. Sometimes something about their job doesn’t feel right, and they can’t exactly pinpoint what it is.

Our first task together is to discover their career destination. Once people understand their career goals, they can make sense out of the working world around them. They can move to determining how their current position and employer can help them build the skills they need for the future. Instead of focusing on external signs of progress such as title, status and money, I help clients focus internally — on targeting, assessing and acquiring the skills they need to get to their career destination.

The Why of a Career Destination…

If you are interested in helping yourself or others through this discovery process, let’s review some important principles. First, the career destination is a five-year guess about your future job — a hypothesis, if you will. It’s the best you can do with current information. As you start making specific moves toward this goal, you will gain more insights about yourself, which might even lead you to change your career destination. For example, a help desk manager wanted to become a CIO and knew that he needed to develop his business analysis skills. He was given the opportunity to work in business planning, only to discover that the assignment did not play to his strengths. He moved back into IT and revised his career destination.

Second, your career destination should reflect all of your dreams — personal as well as professional. One of my clients married an older man who was within five years of retirement. She needed a position with a flexible calendar so that they could share his golden years.

Third, the career destination you discern might not fit within the boundaries of your existing company. There is probably plenty of skill-building that can occur where you are now, however.

For example, one client told me that his long-term interest was to start up and run a koi pond business. To be sure, it was a stretch from his position as IT director. Together we quickly identified the business planning, marketing and operations skills he needed to acquire, and then we pinpointed the development opportunities available at his current company.

…And the How

Now let’s review the process of discovering a career destination. It’s a good idea to select someone to help you through it — someone who asks good questions and can help you think clearly. This person may not agree with your career choice, but that’s OK — the facilitator’s job is to make sure you examine the realities of your destination (in terms of the skills required, degree of difficulty and level of risk), not to edit or approve your thinking.

I find that the coaching process takes five meetings of an hour and a half each, on average, during a four-week period. At the first meeting, I outline the career destination discovery process. I ask clients for their r