Career Scenario Planning : A Tool for thinking about your Career

From about 2006-2011 my main career activity was as a senior headhunter, as a result of which I met very many high achieving people who were grappling with their career choices.  This post is about one of the key things I learned and used then, and which I’ve developed alongside my own career thinking.  I’ve been meaning to share it for some time.

It always struck me as interesting that (generalising a bit) people who were very experienced strategists, marketers, project managers and so on, often didn’t tend to apply their professional skills to the task of job hunting, and to thinking about their careers.  There’s such an emotional load when it comes to life decisions like these that it’s hard dispassionately to apply even quite familiar methods and expertise.  But they are clearly relevant.

As someone who has done quite a bit of strategic thinking in various guises over the years, I have often used scenario planning, and so it has been natural to use it as a tool to help me think about career options and choices.  In discussions with people when I was in headhunting and coaching mode, it seems that other people might find it helpful too.  So the purpose of this blog post is to offer the thinking behind career scenario planning.  I’m not doing formal career coaching any more, but often find discussions with people I know turn informally in this direction, so I thought I would write this as something I could refer them to.  If you find it useful, or can think of an improvement, do let me know. 

(I’m sharing this freely under a Creative Commons licence which means that you are free to use this or adapt it, even commercially, provided you also freely share your version. )

Why Scenario Planning?

Fortune favours the prepared mind – L Pasteur

Scenario Planning, as you probably know, is a strategic tool for handling long-term uncertainty.  By envisaging some possible futures – usually quite far from the present day – and spending time considering them in some depth, leaders of organisations can understand which futures are more desirable than others, can make choices in the present time which have a marginal impact right now but which they can see are steering them towards one future rather than another, and if a team have done this work together they all quickly understand why some choices are better than others.  It helps you to understand which strategic choices are closing down options, and which might be robust under a number of future scenarios.  Scenario Planning’s “Greatest Hit” famously occurred at the Shell company where senior execs had spent quite some time considering how they would react to a completely infeasible rise in the oil price.  When a real shock in the oil price occurred, Shell was able quickly to take appropriate action, whereas panicked competitors were laying people off and making very bad decisions.

So applying scenario planning to a serious bit of career reflection helps you to free yourself from thinking about the next job, to taking a much wider-angle perspective, which then becomes extremely useful in deciding where to put your effort in personal and career development, which areas to research, and which roles to apply for, with a very strong narrative on why the role is relevant for you.

Applying Scenario Planning to Career Thinking

If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up where you’re headed – Anon

Start by identifying a suitable long timescale that probably extends beyond your next role.  I suggest 10 years, but you may want to flex that to suit you.  If you are relatively early on in your career you may want to make that bit longer; if you are very actively job hunting then making it 5 years may make sense – to be the job you will do after the one you are currently seeking.  You’ll get the idea as you go.

The next thing to think about then is roles that you might be doing after that timescale.  A really important point here is that this isn’t intended as a set of specific options to choose amongst – life might turn out like that, but it’s unlikely.  The value of including any given role in here is to help your thinking.  And the more specific you can make them the better this will be.  For example if, like many people I used to talk with, you’d like to be a local authority chief executive then for the purposes of this exercise pick a particular local authority.  Chief Executive of Coventry, say.  

You should also think of some other roles that you might be doing in 10 years time – not because you are definitely interested in doing them but because they will aid your thinking.  Sometimes doing this helps you to rule some roles out.  And if it helps you realise that just following the easy path takes you somewhere you don’t want to end up, then it’s especially helpful.  In all of the roles be specific.  Include some things that are consciously outside your current track.  Principal of Oaklands FE College.  HR Director for the Oakman Group pub chain.  Lecturer in Project Management at the University of Hertfordshire. Chief Operating Officer for Sport England.  These examples may not resonate with you but that’s fine, pick ones that do.  Pick at least 5.  

The reason for being specific is that it allows you to do the next stage much more powerfully, because what you are going to do is to make a table (an example template is here) which has one row for each of the roles you have identified.

The columns of that table are then things that matter to you, which could be things like:

  • How many hours am I working?
  • How available am I for my family?
  • How much am I earning?
  • What am I learning?
  • What am I enjoying – what’s giving me energy in a day?
  • What’s less good, what’s taking my energy?
  • How many nights am I away from home?
  • What are my next career options after this?

And one that you should always include which is “What did I do in the previous 10 years that made me a candidate for this role?”

This is where being really specific matters.  For example, let’s suppose you want to consider being an academic in 10 years’ time.  If you simply put “I want to be an academic” then you won’t be able to answer many of these questions – what you will earn will depend on your seniority, what you are enjoying may depend on the nature of the university you are at, and the balance of research and teaching.  You may already have a PhD but if not you may find that you need to have one to stand a chance at a research-intensive university, whereas if your motivation is actually to teach then you may find that more practical experience will be valued more highly.  

But the other thing about being specific is that you can do some networking and research. And you do have to be quite disciplined and work at this.

Let me pose a situation to you.  Suppose you get an email from someone saying “Hi, you don’t know me, I’m 29 and I’m currently working as an area manager managing 600 engineers for British Gas.  I’ve been thinking carefully about my career options and I think that in the next 5-10 years I’d like to be doing a role like yours because I’d like to take my public service and general management experience further.  I’d really like to find out more about what’s involved and the journey I’d need to make.  Can I buy you a coffee sometime over the next couple of months, and pick your brains?”

What would you say?  Most people, when I offer up an example relevant to them, say they’d feel a bit flattered and would be happy to help, subject to diaries!

So if you are able to construct something similar, establishing your credibility, clearly positioning your interest as being in the medium term so that it’s not ridiculous, and with a bit of a rationale, you’ll probably find people offering to discuss the role with you.  And if you can find people who followed a similar path to you, eg people who went from private sector into public, or senior management into academia, say, then the odds will be even better.  And if they say no you’ll never see them again anyway, so what’s the loss? 

Personal anecdote #1: When I was leaving financial services as a highly trained “general manager” and wanting to do something different I thought I would take my strong interest in the arts – especially theatre – into Arts Management.  It was the “obvious” thing to do.  So I arranged a couple of chats with people in the kinds of roles I thought I might like, to understand what the role involved.  And it became incredibly clear to me, quickly, that it just wasn’t for me.  Even what we think of as very large arts organisations are actually quite small organisations, and I rapidly realised I like the complexity of large organisations.  Moreover, chatting with the chief executive of a quite famous theatre company helped me realise that her role was really far removed from the art itself, and actually involved an awful lot of schmoozing rich people.  And of course the pay was rubbish – that much I knew but I thought other things would compensate.  If I hadn’t had these conversations I would probably have done something like self-funding a Masters in Arts Administration and starting down a path I wouldn’t have enjoyed.

By looking at specific roles you can find out the salary, you can probably find an advert or job description online, you may be able to find “day in the life of” profiles of these roles online.  Really spend some time imagining life in these roles.

That process will be useful in its own right and may help you consciously close off some options.  As you come to your next or current job search you will find that you are automatically thinking in terms of what those roles may be able to do, and which will take you into interesting directions and which won’t.

A really important scenario to include is your current role and employer, or how you might expect your role to develop if you don’t do very much.  It’s critically important as a benchmark, and if you go through the process you may see that there’s a really good role adjacent to yours, or one that you can help create, if you’re prepared to wait and work for it.  Getting a new job is hard work, putting the same effort into reshaping your current one may be a better, lower risk, option.  Finances may well be a constraint (especially as I write this, during the 2022 cost of living crisis); often a sector shift means a dip in salary, at least for a while, but if you have a sense of eventual possibilities then that can help you influence your current incremental career, and perhaps the direction of your study or other activity – such as school governorship or charity trusteeship – in the meantime.

Another role option that I often suggest people include is a scenario of going freelance, or interim management, or having a portfolio of roles.

Personal anecdote #2:  I knew from quite early on in my career that I wanted, one day, possibly even after retirement, to have a portfolio of roles.  As a result of this I made sure that from quite an early stage of my career that I was accumulating non-executive experience, with organisations I really liked.  I started with arts charities and then became a director of a research institute and governor and committee chair of an FE college, all of which was very rounding to my experience, and confirmed to me that I like making a non-executive contribution: even though it is far from “the action”, I enjoy the leverage.  Whenever I did this exercise, at each of my career moments of truth, I always had “portfolio” on there, but didn’t implement because of a high personal risk aversion when it comes to financial security.  However, it did mean that when I quite suddenly had an opportunity to “go portfolio”, with an important anchor client, I was able to seize the moment instantly.

It’s important to realise that although it looks a bit like a list of options and pros and cons, this exercise isn’t intended to try to decide which specific role to aim for in 10 years time.  That would be wildly unrealistic.  The aim is to do it to help you think, to guide your approach towards interesting directions, to see opportunities that crop up that take you on your journey,  and occasionally, find good fortune, because of your prepared mind.

To Summarise

The Strategic Tool of Scenario Planning seems to work well in the high uncertainty and complex situation of career thinking.  Take a long view and consider a range of interesting, specific possibilities.  Research and spend some time envisioning life in those roles.  Use that to guide your attention, approach and personal development in the short-term.

(And if you found this interesting you may also like this post)

This post has been updated following helpful social media comments on the day it was issued.

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