It's 1:1 time, someone is sitting across from you asking for career advice, and you're stuck. They don't know what they want to do and it's hard for you to find an anchor. You don't want to do a cliche "where do you see yourself in 5 years" because to be honest, that's precisely what they're asking your help for.
If this sounds like a familiar scenario, I'd like to equip you with a very useful tool that I like to call 'Career Identity Planning'. Career Identity Planning is a framework built on the hypothesis that your identity drives your values, decisions, and ultimately your fulfillment. The hypothesis and framework have been tested numerous times, with tens of mentees and significant positive feedback. As with all frameworks and hypothesis, take everything with a growth mindset of experimentation and iteration.
The premise is somewhat simple: instead of focusing on the what or the why, focus on the how and the who aspects of the career. Your goal is to distill a direction that comes from somewhere deeper and more introspective than title, technology, or goal.
Since we can't completely avoid the cliche, we begin with a future, it could be a couple, five, or even ten years out, but we begin by asking "In the future, if we were to ask one of your peers to describe you, what would you want them to say?".
It's a complex question that asks someone to consider a number of things that aren't usually top of mind. It also has a few subtle tricks to shift the perspective of the conversation. Implicitly, we're asking someone to define their most desirable perceived public identity. It's deeply introspective and creates a foundation that is decoupled from societal expectations or pressure. Since we explicitly avoid discussing benchmarks or performance and instead focus on the underlying pieces of our working persona, it reduces the competition and bravado of standard career planning.
You may be wondering where the planning or career aspect is discussed. So far, we have simply helped an individual to create an ideal personification of themselves but have failed to address the professional or career implications of it. That is true, and actually part of the point of this process. By decoupling the first conversation from career and focusing on identity, you're able to have a no pressure, enagaging, and insightful conversation.
As the mentor here, your goal is not to debate, question, or deride the identity, but rather use whatever traits and persona youre given as talking points. Whatever their answers, you should constantly be asking yourself: Why is this important to them? Do they feel like they are embodying those values today? Do they have the space and projects to reinforce those skills?
As the conversation progresses, you might be able to find rough edges: places that they could reflect their identity more, places where the identity can obstruct their performance, places where the identity is confused or hidden. As you tease out these points, you'll be helping to create meaningful room for development and refining and directing their growth.
Alas, again we have not talked about career. So what if we've helped someone to create an identity? To map the identity against their character today? So what if we've even helped create room for growth? What does this have to do with a career? Well surprisingly, quite a lot! The identity that you have mapped and the growth you both plotted out will have a significant impact on the direction of their career.
At this point, a keen mentor may note that a person's identity can start to be bucketed within some key areas. While there are too many to note and this list will never be inclusive, I've carved out at least two of the most clear identities for reference below, which should help to provide at least some insight into the process of refining an identity into a career pathway and future career decisions.
People Management A future manager of people will knit an identity woven around aspects of empathy, care, or others. Some of the more telling values would reflect growing peers and coworkers, being a confidant and support figure, or always putting team needs above their own. A strong people leader will have an identity that reinforces others and shows fulfillment and pride in the output of the team and not themselves. A future people manager should be nurtured through opportunities to coach, mentor, plan, and execute, while balancing team and corporate health.
The Performer A future performer (in terms of performance, not arts or theatre) will build an identity atop a slew of specific skills or technologies. A performer most wants to be known for their talents, their work, or their craftmanship. A future performer should be pushed to see if they are a multiplier (working for the greater team output) or a silo, and should be coached accordingly.
Having a strong career identity can also create a framework for evaluating career decisions and can reduce the dissonance of missed opportunities and career unhappiness. Being able to clearly define the values you hold most important and ultimately weighing decisions and career moves on the fulfillment and alignment to said identity provides clarity and principle to making decisions. Making decisions through principle can reduce the fear of committing, the crafting 'what if' scenarios, and the questioning or doubting of oneself. It can help to more confidently evaluate career progression without direct comparison to others, to weave a consistent and centered story of career, and to hopefully help you find more fulfillment and happiness in your role.