1. Find your calling
“Some people are very money-motivated, but most are looking for career fulfillment, not just a big paycheck,” says Molisani. That’s especially true of the millennials: 65% of them said they took their first job because they saw an opportunity for personal development, a PricewaterhouseCoopers survey found. (Only 21% based their decision on salary.)
During the early stages of your career, one of your main professional goals should be finding what industry best suits your ambitions. “Now is the time to explore different career paths,” says Barbara Safani, owner of Career Solvers, a New York-based job-search consulting firm. “It’s more difficult to change industries later on in your career when you have a family to support and need a steady paycheck.”
2. Develop a broad skill set
Today, you’re hard-pressed to find a job that requires one skill and one skill only. “Employers want to hire people with a spectrum of talents,” says Molisani. Hence, instead of concentrating on what you want your job title to be in five years, focus on developing skills that will make you more marketable to future employers.
Start by honing your communication skills. Molisani recommends joining Toastmasters, an organization that helps people sharpen their public speaking. You may also want to take a writing class since nearly every industry will require you to write something, be it an email or an annual report.
3. Set a timeline for education
Depending on your chosen field, you may have to complete certain training, certification programs, or education to excel in your career. To avoid getting sidetracked, set a goal to acquire the skill or degree within a specific time period (e.g., “I will go to law school in two years”).
However, before enrolling—and potentially taking on student loan debt—think about why you want the degree and if it’s really going to make a difference in your future. “A lot of people go back to school for the wrong reasons,” says Safani, “and then they get frustrated because their education doesn’t lead to better career opportunities.”
If getting an MBA will increase your earning potential, it’s probably worth the investment; but if the degree isn’t relevant to your work, you might be better off going without.
4. Distinguish yourself in the field
To become a leader, you’ll need to raise your visibility at your current company and in your field. Show the boss you’ve got management potential by spearheading an initiative. Working on a group project? Be the one who presents the report to your manager. Join an industry group or association and regularly attend networking events.
“In-person networking is irreplaceable,” says Marcelle Yeager, president of Career Valet, a professional coaching firm based in Washington, D.C. Read: you’re more memorable when you meet someone face to face. You may even want to take on a leadership role (e.g., secretary) to further boost your public profile.
Also, develop a strong online presence that will help you demonstrate your expertise. That entails being active on social media—meaning you need to tweet on a regular basis, not simply have a Twitter account.
5. Align your life goals with your career goals
Think about where you want to be in five years in terms of your personal life, advises Molisani. Looking to start a family in your hometown? Build your career there. Want to buy a house or pay off your student loan debt?
Check Monster’s salary guide to see what the average salary is for someone in your industry with five years’ experience, and determine whether you need to make adjustments in order to stay on course.
Develop new goals
No matter how much preparation you do to work toward achieving your goals, know that nothing is set in stone—and that’s OK. Your goals may change with time, and it’s important to be flexible. If you notice your career path is moving in a new and unexpected direction, allow yourself to explore it rather than resist it. The workplace changes, industries change, and you yourself will change too.