Career Advice: What to do when the Mentee has No Clear Career Goals?

The “sweet spot” on career advice

When it comes to career advice, it makes mentoring a lot easier, when the mentee knows exactly where they want to go in their career. The trouble is, many mentees – particularly those in the early stages of their careers – have only a general sense of direction (if that). They may see many different possibilities and may or may not yet be ready to choose between them. The mentor’s role is not to push them towards making choices. Rather, it is to help them clarify how they will identify, how they will ensure opportunities come their way and how they will evaluate choices as they arise.

What’s more, having a very clear sense of your next career steps isn’t necessarily a good thing, because it blinkers you to other opportunities. People with too narrow a career vision often progress more slowly than people, who have no career vision at all. The “sweet spot” is somewhere in between – having clarity about general direction and what you want from a job in terms of how it builds on your strengths, how it allows you to grow and how it aligns with your own values and sense of life purpose.

One of the outcomes of great mentoring is that the mentee gains a deeper understanding of their identity and values. This may also have an impact on career choices – another good reason for holding back on “fixing” career goals.

Helping the mentee create opportunities for experimenting and broadening their career horizons.

We all tend to see our strengths within the context of roles and structures we are familiar with. Yet, they can often be applied in many other situations. Widening horizons requires imagination, but can also be helped by having conversations with people from different worlds of work. The mentor can help the mentee create wider networks of people, who can provide unexpected insights and perspectives.

Clarifying contribution.

Once they get beyond the basics of income and using existing strengths and skills, the mentee will benefit from considering what they want to give. Most people have a strong altruistic side, which is part of how they create meaning for their lives. Contribution has two core components: near-term and long-term. Long-term is about the difference you want to make to the world, or to a cause you feel passionate about. Near-term is about the unique contribution you want to make in your current or next role.

Learning from previous career

Career pathing is a simple technique to support this. Starting with early career decision points, mentor and mentee explore:

  • Was the route taken the result of considered choice, or did it just happen to them?
  • What consideration did the mentee give to alternatives? (Did they consciously generate alternatives?)
  • Did it open up lots of future opportunities, or was it a dead end?
  • What learning opportunities did it provide?
  • Whose advice did they seek? In retrospect, was that advice good or poor? Did they follow or ignore it?
  • What could they do differently in preparing for the next career transition point?

Redefining progress.

The traditional model of continuous upward progress, while not dead, is clearly morbid. Hierarchical titles are increasingly less important than roles and reputation. Experience in highly developmental roles, particularly in high profile project teams, is critical in building a reputation as a talent to watch. Often these roles are in addition to the person’s formal, title-bearing role. A systemic perspective on career progress has two dimensions: reputational and integral. Reputational is about how others see you; integral is about how you measure you own progress. Among the most common measures mentees generate are:

  • Income (of course)
  • Pace of learning
  • Scope of projects they are given to manage
  • How they progress through the stages of the leadership pipeline[1]
  • Job satisfaction

The key is that the mentee defines their own measures of progress, which meet their own aspirations. This in turn helps to free them from the curse of social comparison. People often dragoon themselves into unsuitable job moves to try to maintain parity with perceived peers. Having a personalised concept of career progression allows us to step back from such comparisons.

It also allows us to see the potential in horizontal progression. In a study of career self-management more than 20 years ago[2], we learned that many successful careers involved moving backwards and forwards between generalist, specialist and consultancy (internal or external) roles. In terms of learning and reputation building, vertical moves within a silo are not always the most effective.

  • Reviewing progress. Having defined what progress looks like, mentor and mentee can review regularly whether things are moving in the right direction and fast enough. A great mentoring question is: “What did you achieve today (or this week, or this month) that took you towards your career direction?”
  • Reviewing what value the mentee can still extract from their current role. It’s not necessarily that people move on from one job role to another too soon, more that they don’t recognise or plan for the learning opportunities within it.
  • Building a ladder of legacies. What do they want to leave behind in their current role, when they move on? Planning an orderly withdrawal demonstrates both responsibility and competence. Doing this in successive roles builds a reputation for reliability.

The analogy for modern careers is not a train on the tracks to a terminus, but a sailing boat setting out on a voyage of discovery. We are all at whim of the winds and tides, tacking and adjusting the sails continuously to take the greatest advantage of them. The role of the mentor in relation to career advice is to raise the mentee’s awareness and help them make better choices.

If you are a mentee seeking career advice, visit the Australian HR Institute to find out more about their mentoring program or try your industry association.

Looking for training to become a better mentor? Our online training program offers expert-designed resources and demonstrational video content to guide you into becoming a masterful mentor.

© David Clutterbuck, 2018

[1] Managing self, managing others, managing managers, managing functions and so on

[2] Clutterbuck, D & Dearlove, D (1995) Routes to the Top, Kinsley Lord, London

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