Career planning is not just something you do when you are starting out,
continual monitoring and development is necessary to make sure that you stay on
track. By Nic Paton
Former Conservative Deputy Prime Minister Michael Heseltine was famously
said to have scribbled down his career path, including his ambition to become
Prime Minister, on the back of an envelope while at university.
For most people, however, the development of their career is rarely that
clear cut, and advice or help can often be needed along the way to ensure a
professional career does not stagnate or head off into a backwater.
The key to successful career planning and development is remembering to step
back from time to time and ask, "is my job fitting my skills,
qualifications and aspirations?", says Sue Lamb, recruitment and
development manager at recruitment agency OH Recruitment.
"You have to ask, what does your organisation want out of you. Are you
fulfilled, are you meeting what your organisation wants, and if not, why
not?" she says.
People should look at the organisation they are working for, she suggests,
and see whether the areas in which they are working – perhaps a contentious
issue such as sickness absence – are adding value to the company.
"Have you achieved what you have been asked to achieve, and is it now
all within the realms of your knowledge? Are you ready to take on a new
challenge, have you ceased chomping at the bit?" she adds.
One of the hardest elements of career planning is identifying when people
have achieved their potential in an organisation, simply because it may be when
they are feeling most on top of the job. But if they’ve done everything they
want to within that company, then maybe it is time to move on, she asserts.
Also, it is worth taking a long, hard look at the company itself. To what
extent is it expanding and what changes are expected to be seen in the next 12
When someone has identified it is time to go, it is critical to sit down and
think what it is they enjoy in their work and what skills they have that they
may not be using already but wish to make use of in their next job.
Having a mentor to turn to for advice in this situation, or to help network
with contemporaries, can be a vital component of the next career move, argues Lamb.
"Mentors are very important because they enable you to network with
your peer group. In terms of career guidance, if you have gone through OH
training, you can often go back and ask your tutor for advice," she says.
People should make sure they keep up to date with all the relevant journals
to benchmark themselves against the work of similar departments elsewhere in
the country, adds Lamb.
"Maybe it is that you cannot do anything more. You have to make sure
you identify if you are treading water," she says.
"If you coast for too long you will find it very difficult to make that
move," she also warns.
A change of direction
One who has changed tack in her career is Dorothy Ferguson, who moved from
an OH role into academia to become MSc co-ordinator at Glasgow Caledonian
Her move into academia was as much to do with simply grasping an opportunity
presented to her at the right moment rather than a structured plan to move in
that direction at that particular point, she insists.
"It was not a conscious decision. It was just that the opportunity
arose at a time when I was looking for another challenge," she says.
Nevertheless, her background – including a masters degree combined with a
couple of community qualifications – ensured she was well placed to make the
move when it came.
Of course, for an occupational health professional looking to move into
academia, it would be vital to be able to show continuing academic ability and
interest, but acquiring, and maintaining the right sort of skills to take the
right path in the future is crucial for any successful career move.
This also includes making sure qualifications acquired along the way are the
right ones and not a waste of time, Ferguson stresses.
"People need to develop academically as much as they can. But they need
to be increasingly cautious about what courses they are doing. People are
spending a lot of money doing expensive courses that do not get them
Key questions to ask include, "what are my areas of interest, what are
my skills and what am I doing to develop them," she argues, followed by,
"what is the value of this course and who is it recognised by?"
Whether a person is simply undertaking continuing professional development
or taking the plunge and signing up for an MBA, the same questions apply.
The key, it seems, is to be able to demonstrate that an "add-on" –
be it a course, extra qualification, job move or even a sabbatical – has
actively added value to a person’s career.
But career progression, of course, does not have to mean moving onwards and
For many people, starting a family can lead to a reassessment of priorities,
or finances, and may mean an OH practitioner deciding the best career move is
actually to take a step back for a few years, argues Angela Arnold, recruitment
consultant at specialist occupational health recruitment agency Cheviot Artus.
An important element of career planning is thinking too what someone’s
priorities outside work are likely to be over the next few years – how much time
they want to spend with family, partner, friends and so forth. Would someone,
for instance, be prepared to move to another part of the country?
Whatever the reason for moving, or even thinking of moving, look around
carefully and do lots of research, including talking to recruitment agencies,
before taking the plunge, argues. Arnold.
"You need to research very closely what you want to do, taking at least
six months," she says.
People move for many different reasons, from money to the fact they have seen
an innovative company or service and want to play a part in developing it, she
Further training, whether it is for an MBA or simply to develop accounting
skills to help become an OH consultant (see box, above), can also act as a
Often simply the fact of signing up for some new training will help focus
someone’s mind on where it is they next want to go.
Some jobs, such as becoming Prime Minister, often come down to luck as much
as ability. But the more planning and thought people put into their career, it
seems, the more chance they have of making their own luck.
Going it alone
Setting yourself up as an OH consultant is not a decision to be taken
lightly, or in haste, argues Angela Arnold, recruitment consultant at
specialist occupational health recruitment agency Cheviot Artus.
For many OH professionals, the thought of becoming their own boss, having
autonomy over the way they work, the prospect of greater flexibility and
perhaps more money can all seem attractive career goals.
But there are pitfalls to striking out on your own, she argues.
"If you are going to charge people £500 or £600 a day you have to give
value for money. You have got to prove yourself," she says.
There is also the possibility of someone charging either too high or too low
for their services.
Consultants have to keep on top of the latest knowledge or guidance, as
giving wrong advice can lead to the consultant being sued by the client, a
situation that in turn reflects badly on the profession as a whole.
Then there is also the cost of starting up, including having to set up an
office, buying a fax, scanner or mobile phone, and employing someone to answer
queries and do the typing, she adds. On top of this there needs to be proper
accounting procedures in place.
It is certainly worth speaking to other OH consultants to see how it has
worked for them, and how they started off themselves, as well as making sure
you talk to recruitment agencies for careers advice, she suggests
Someone may find that, on reflection, they are better suited to a completely
different sort of role – one that is absolutely the right move they have been
– Step back and assess where your career is going: are you fulfilled, are
you meeting your organisation’s needs and is it meeting yours?
– Have you achieved all you want to achieve in your current role, if so
maybe it is time to move on?
– Identify what your strengths are, what you want to build on and discard;
identify a goal
– Turn to mentors for advice, perhaps a former college tutor
– Keep up to date with relevant journals, assess what colleagues or other
departments are doing, should you be doing the same?
– Speak to recruitment agencies for advice
– Career development can be downwards as well as up; sometimes starting a
family can mean voluntarily "downshifting" to a more flexible working
– Do plenty of research on what you want to do, not what others think you
– Look at the option of further study or training to give you new career
– Make sure any qualifications or training you undertake is well-recognised.
– Be able to demonstrate why what you have done has added value to your
– Think carefully before becoming an OH consultant.