Why you DON’T always need to have a five year career plan

Focusing on the nearer term and on building relationships can be better for your career

I have no big career plan. It is better for me that way.”

Imelda May
Irish singer Imelda May

I’m sure everyone at some point in their career has been asked the question: “what is your five year career plan?”. For many, especially those starting out in their careers, I’m sure this is a question which prompts an easy answer. It’s a stock question, one that we all have heard and all have been guided to have an answer for. For me however, whenever I hear this question, I can’t help but wonder just how many people have actually ended up where they said they would, in five years’ time?

My career in financial services began in 2011 where, fresh out of university, I joined a graduate programme at an International Bank in London. Over the last nine years my career has spanned different banks, different departments and different geographies, most recently culminating in promotion to Vice President. 

While I fully advocate the importance of having ambitions and goals, I’ve become a believer that having a five year plan is not always the best option, and in some cases might actually be detrimental to your career trajectory. 

My Five Year Career Plan

1. Missing out on unforeseen opportunities

Having a too detailed or prescriptive five year plan might mean that you are too narrow minded or miss out on opportunities that might come your way that you would never have envisaged. As an example – in 2015 I was approached for a role in New York. I had never really considered moving to New York City to work, and this certainly wasn’t in my plan at the time. However, the role was a really great opportunity for me – it was interesting, challenging, and ended up being one of the best stepping stones in my career. While there is value in taking the time to think about the kind of career you want, or the life goals you might have, keep an open mind – you never know what might come up. 

2. Long timeframe – be focussed

In the context of our careers, five years is a really long time. I don’t know many people who would have thought they would be where they are now, if you asked them three years ago, let alone five. I find greater value in thinking just one year ahead, or maybe just planning what the next immediate career move is. Thinking over the shorter term can help you focus on the areas that you can actually take action on now. 

3. Unpredictable world

In 2020, we live in a world that is unpredictable, constantly changing and evolving. In these settings of high uncertainty, traditional five year career plans may leave you unprepared to take opportunities that may arise. Instead, I suggest thinking of the overall life goals you may have. Ask yourself: what matters to you? Instead of focusing on your dream role, think about what type of industry you want to work in, what do you want from your career, and what motivates you.

4. Focus on relationships

“I want to get promoted in three years, and then … ”


“I want to build lasting relationships built on trust and dependability with my stakeholders, team, and colleagues”

Which sounds more thought out, more valuable? Rather than state the obvious, the outcome (promotion) – think about the mechanism that gets you there. That to me is a more valuable stated goal to achieve, and something that listeners will take note of.

I’ve found that putting in the effort on the job at hand, and doing it really well, has led to meaningful, long-lasting, relationships with my employers or colleagues. It has even led to unforeseen job opportunities and advancement, even in times when I wasn’t expecting it. If the people you work with end up trusting your value-add, and know that beyond reproach that they can depend on you, it will likely lead to further opportunities down the road. For certain, careers are long roads, and industries are actually small worlds. Focus on building what can be essentially lifetime career connections, and try not to be too overly concerned with meeting a set time-based milestone.

So, if you are someone that does not find the exercise of creating five year plans to be a helpful one, I want to reassure you that this is not necessarily a negative thing. In fact, I think it can come with its own benefits! As long as you are passionate about what you do, and you are get good at it, you will have a long and successful career ahead of you. 

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