Skip to main content

Management for engineers, part III: Planning for success

Do you consider yourself successful? In today’s business environment, one definition of being successful might be just having a job. While that answer applies to millions of people, better times will return, and when they do, will your feelings about what you’ve accomplished change? Let’s examine some choices people make that help them define success.

If you ask 10 people what would make them feel successful, you’d get 10 different answers. Some would say they want more money. Some might ask for a bigger job, maybe a different home or location. There is no one best answer.

For many, being successful just means making more money. Okay, so what’s more? Would you be successful if you made $10,000 more per year than you now do? What if you earned an additional $100,000? Or, do you need to win the lottery to feel successful?

When everything isn’t enough

When asked what it would take to make him feel successful, one chief engineer said he’d need to be making $250,000. A small Web startup CEO said she’d feel successful if her company could issue an IPO so she could cash out and do volunteer work.

Both of these people are considered thriving professionals, yet their personal definitions about what would make them successful are quite different. Most importantly, both do not yet “feel” successful. What a shame to be in responsible positions and not feel as though you are successful.

People sometimes restrict themselves in reaching their version of success because they operate in a limiting mode. Think of this as working with a limiter turned on. No matter how hard you try, you let an external control hold you back. The work gets done, but without fanfare. Even worse, the person gets no buzz from the work. It’s like the governor on a car. The car looks okay. It starts and runs, but it does not operate at top performance.

Believing that lofty goals are unachievable or that one’s capabilities are insufficient can become a personal limiter. They hold the person back with a mind loop saying, “I can’t.”

I’ve watched friends who often used the phrase “I can’t.” “I can’t get promoted because I don’t have a college degree.” “I can’t run a 10K race because, I’m too fat.” These are actual responses I’ve heard, and they represent an emotional block to becoming more successful.

Never trying means never failing. But, it also guarantees you won’t succeed. The limiting mode causes people to freeze up at new challenges or the unknown. They become unable to act or make decisions, typically with an abundance of excuses. Abraham Maslow said, “If you deliberately plan on being less than you are capable of being, then I warn you that you'll be unhappy for the rest of your life.”

I once knew a CE, let’s call him John. John complained continually about his job, his boss and the workload. He griped about working too many hours and getting too little pay. John says he’s going to return to school, finish his MBA, get out of broadcasting and make some “real money.” The problem is that John talks a good game, but never takes any steps to reach those goals. He never enrolls in classes, after all, he’s tired after work. Then there’d be night classes and the homework. John would rather complain than reach his goal. He is in the limiting mode.

Consider the opportunities

Getting out of this failure mode isn’t easy, especially if you’ve spent years cultivating it. Step one is to convince yourself that you want to make a change. Then, you have to take steps to make that change happen.

Below are some questions worth considering when developing a career plan. Write out brief answers to each question. Then, carefully consider what they say about your own mindset.

• What is really important to me?

• What rewards do I want from life?

• What are my strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats (SWOT)?

• What don’t I like about what I am now doing?

• What do I really want to do?

The third step requires you to consider your career options. This should be a free-wheeling exercise. Don’t let today’s situation define the options. For instance, suppose you don’t have a college degree, but you want to be promoted to a management-level position. Let yourself believe you can get that degree and consider it merely a step toward the desired job.

Consider more than just job duties. What life activities do you enjoy? Can they be incorporated into your job selection? Suppose you like to fish. What jobs would allow you to work in such an environment? Don’t laugh; a professional fisherman (or woman) can make hundreds of thousands of dollars in endorsements and winnings every year.

The fourth step is to evaluate your strengths and weaknesses, sometimes called SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats). For instance, if you get lost going from your home to the station, perhaps becoming a navigator wouldn’t be a wise career choice. Suppose you have musical talents and want to use them in the entertainment sector. Maybe you’d like to be a sound technician or music mixer. Before you say there’s no money in these jobs, consider all of the high technology, live entertainment and virtual presence applications now being developed. You might become a groundbreaker by combining technology and skill.

I had a friend who had a good job and seemed happy. Yet, one day he confessed that he really wanted to teach electronics. He’d thought of moving to a larger city and getting a job at the local college. Unfortunately, the costs to his family were too great. After serious research, he discovered that the continuing education program at the local high school needed a part-time technical instructor. The job fulfilled his desire to teach and increased his feelings of success.

The choice is yours

Not everyone needs to complete this planning process. Perhaps you are like me and always knew what you wanted to be when you grew up. Even so, there was a point in my life when I decided I was tired of doing hands-on electronics and broadcast. I wanted to write and become an editor at a major trade magazine. However, I only validated that thinking by taking a night course on life and career planning at a local college. The final assignment was to develop and write out a set of life goals in five areas, one of which was career. It was that process that highlighted where I wanted to go.

For someone in their early 20s, life planning may seem unimportant. However, as those decades pass, knowing where and how you want to spend your time becomes ever more important. It would be a shame to reach the end thinking, “If I’d only …”

Without a plan, you’ll get there. The question then becomes, where?