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Career pathing: five steps to building a clear career plan

Jehad Affoneh
Jehad Affoneh
4 min read
Career pathing: five steps to building a clear career plan

One of the most frequent and rewarding conversations I have with designers across the industry is around career growth. Design is at a unique crossroads today. Companies are quickly realizing the value design can bring to the table. That realization is causing explosive growth in the demand for designers and design leaders. That realization is also empowering designers to grow within their companies.

That growth, however, is putting designers at a crossroad themselves as they think about growing their careers. From understanding how they can help advocate for the value of design to getting a sense of the career path they want to take as individual contributors or managers.

In every career conversation I have with a designer on my team, I remind them that although I care deeply about them and their career, nobody cares about their career as much as they do. Growth comes from different places but the most important impetus for growth is your focus on growing yourself and your career. Here are four steps I’ve learned along the way.

Step #1: Own your career path

Many designers outsource or delegate their careers to their managers. Many are even surprised when they don’t get the promotion they believe they’ve earned even though they haven’t had a single conversation with their manager about it. Leaving aside the difference between good and great managers, the most important part of your career growth is understanding that you own your career.

Your manager is there to facilitate your growth. They’re there to keep you honest, provide you the feedback and coaching you need to grow, and provide you with the right opportunities to make that growth possible. Your manager, however, does not own your career. You do!

Well, now that you own your career, let’s figure out how to draw the plan for it and get you there.

Step #2: Dig deeper to understand what type of growth are you looking for

Throughout your career, you’ll want different things at different times. Growth doesn’t mean the same thing to all people at the same career level.

Dig deeper to understand what type of growth you are looking for at this stage in your career. Generally, you’re either focused on growing your skills, income, scope, or title/level. All of these are valid and in reality, you likely want a combination of these growth areas. Spend some time with yourself thinking through which of these areas matter more to you and why.

The more you divide your focus, the more time it’ll get there. Like everything else in life, ruthlessly prioritize your growth areas so you can focus.

Step #3: Evaluate your strengths and weaknesses

One of the most valuable conversations you can have with a manager or a mentor is a conversation about what you do well and where you need to grow. To make that conversation even more powerful, think through it yourself first. Get a sense of the areas you believe you do well at vs. those where you can improve.

I’d suggest evaluating yourself in three key areas:

  1. Craft: whatever you do, think of the areas of the craft that you do well. This area matters most if you’re a junior designer getting the experience you need as you hone in your craft.
  2. Driving for outcome: this speaks to how you drive results. From communication to collaboration and organizational skills, these are the areas that make you an effective member of the team.
  3. Leadership: if you’re on a team and working with others, you’ll need to lead in one way or another. Leadership is a choice, not a role. How do you choose to lead and what areas do you do well as a leader and others where you can help grow your ability to drive influence and results.

To properly evaluate yourself, look through your company’s career framework, work with your manager to better understand overall expectations, and reach out to your peers and cross-functional teams for feedback. You have to put yourself out there to truly get the feedback you’re looking for.

Step #4: Collaborate with your manager to build a plan

Now that you know what you’re looking for and you’ve done the work to evaluate your skills and areas of growth, put a plan together. This plan needs to clearly outline:

  1. Where do you want to go? Is it growing your skills? A promotion? The next level of your career? Growing scope?
  2. How are you going to get there? Although this seems quite obvious, it’s one of the most often missed parts of the plan. Things don’t just happen. Growing your skills in a certain craft area or becoming a better leader might require shifting projects, taking a leadership role on delivering an end-to-end experience, or even taking the necessary training required to get you there.
  3. Who is going to help you get there? You own your career but you don’t have to go through the journey alone. Once you’ve figured out the destination and a rough path to it, figure out who can help you get there. Your manager is one but who’s going to mentor you on these skills? Is there someone on your team that you look up to when it comes to the skills you want to grow in?
  4. What does success look like? What are you going to do to achieve that plan?

Bonus Step: Keeping iterating on the plan

As you go through the plan, keep iterating on it with your manager. Plans change and as you work through your growth, your understanding of the plan might change too. That’s okay! As long as you have the right level of checkpoints with your manager, you’ll be good.

Go get 'em! Good luck!