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What To Do When You Don’t Have a Career Plan

April 13, 2016, 6:00 PM UTC
Photograph via Getty Images

MPW Insider is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for: How important is it to know where you want to be in five years? is written by Leighanne Levensaler, SVP of products at Workday.

More often than not, when you ask someone what their five year plan is, they hesitate, unsure of how to respond. Ever wonder why? I certainly didn’t have a five-year plan when I first started as a consultant, and only now do I know why. It wasn’t a lack of imagination or drive it was a lack of knowledge. In other words, it’s hard to accurately plot your own future because usually, you have very little real information about the forces and people that will shape that future.

People tend to naturally think that “all I know is all there is.” So, many of us imagine the future based on what the present looks like. Luckily, we’re living in a time when we’re becoming increasingly aware of how much information there is and how to use it to our advantage. But if people want to start visualizing their five-year plan, we need to change the way employees and companies think about internal mobility. In my experience, there are four keys to helping people find the right fit: purpose, transparency, experimentation, and most importantly, opportunity. When these are put into practice, people are able to engage at their highest potential.

Make it easier for people to think bigger and to pursue their career with more gusto. You want to empower employees to pursue their passions by opening up the realm of possibilities for them. Communicating information about other job openings at the company is just one way to do this. In some cases, employees can connect with people inside their companies who have a career path they’d like to emulate or skills they desire. This inspires employees to purposefully seek out new experiences and growth opportunities.

See also: How To Choose a Really Good Mentor

Creating a culture where opportunity is a core value helps people visualize their future within the organization. At Workday, we don’t have hard and fast rules about career paths and we’re transparent about opportunities that exist across the company, giving people the tools and information they need to pursue new roles. This kind of thinking helps employees better understand what their next career move could be, and how to get there. We’re also starting to use new tools that give employees a personalized view of positions that are a good fit for them based on the movement and success of other employees who have held similar positions. This valuable information takes away a lot of the guesswork associated with starting a new career path, and it’s especially useful for those who have an idea of where they’d like to be in five years but don’t know how to get there.

Transparency wasn’t always evident in the workplace. Important company data was usually limited to a select few leaders, and gaining access to it was a difficult process. This is why clear communication, and tools that give employees real-time insight into internal growth opportunities and their own performance, are a central part of making employees feel engaged and excited about their contributions and career. It’s also important to share your company priorities and expectations in order to create a sense of purpose for everyone. Within smaller organizations, this can be a quick office huddle, while in larger companies, you can create short videos that update staff on major initiatives. If employees feel tied to the overall mission they’re more likely to invest energy to build their career at the company.

Too often, we get stuck in our day-to-day and forget to check in with ourselves to see what we’re really passionate about or what we really want to explore. Making time for this allows us to evaluate our jobs now and where we want to be in the future. It’s also up to companies to provide the kind of flexibility that empowers employees to move across the organization – e.g. from marketing to sales or finance to operations. I’ve seen these transitions happen successfully with a number of employees who completely changed roles, gained new capabilities and flourished. You never know – you may just end up finding your purpose in an area you least expected.

Of course, the future will always have surprises for us. But, with more information and the right supporting technology, we can make smarter choices now. And, as it happens, I’ve learned (sometimes the hard way) that smart choices now tend to lead to happier surprises later, and not-so-smart choices tend to lead to less-than-ideal situations. Some people say that fortune favors the bold. I’d amend that slightly to: The future favors the well-informed.