Strategic career mapping can lead to professional fulfillment

Start with a destination in mind and determine steps to take you there.
By Teri Saylor

Life never follows a straight path, and neither will your career.

Whether your goal is to advance from your cubicle into the corner office, strike out on your own, or move into a different profession altogether, it pays to map out a strategy for how to get there.

That strategy paid off for Joshua Lance, CPA, CGMA. He spent the first seven years of his career as an audit manager at Crowe Horwath LLP, a top 10 U.S. accounting firm based in Chicago that is now known as Crowe, and found his work required nearly constant travel. Lance longed to spend more time at home with his family, so he left Crowe and worked as a controller for ultra-high-net-worth family offices. After three years in that role, he was restless and wanted to chart his own course, so in 2015, he started Lance CPA Group, a boutique accounting firm that specializes in working with craft breweries and entrepreneurs.

Before launching the firm, Lance determined the type of business he wanted to create: a virtual CPA firm that operates outside the traditional brick-and-mortar office setting and helps small businesses succeed by offering advisory services on top of doing their taxes and accounting.

"When I first started the firm, it was a shock to my system," Lance admitted. But after four years of hard work, he is on his way to a successful career as an entrepreneurial CPA. He has 10 employees and has branched out into speaking, business coaching, and teaching at Northwestern University.

According to Dorie Clark, an author, business consultant, and adjunct professor of business administration at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business in Durham, N.C., it is not unusual for professionals to scrutinize their long-term professional goals several years into their careers.

"I find that people examine their career choices because they have plateaued in their learning and in their enjoyment and they want to move toward something more fulfilling," she said.

Mining from personal experiences and knowledge, Lance, Clark, and others offer advice on how to set long-term career goals that are both personally and professionally satisfying:

Examine what is most important. Are you motivated by money, power, a flexible schedule, status, or something else? Lance wanted a career that would keep him close to home and allow him to spend quality time with those who mean the most to him. He also wanted to have more control over his work and his life and believed managing his own business would be the best way to accomplish these goals.

"I saw a new path in taking a risk and starting my business, and I wanted to run toward those new challenges," he said.

Lance's method of self-examination helped him determine a distinct pathway, but for other professionals, the future may not be as clear.

Clark suggested creating a list of 10 types of jobs that seem interesting and exploring them by scheduling informational interviews with professionals in those jobs, reading books and articles about them, and researching online trends.

"As you learn more about these careers, you will find that the most desirable paths will rise to the top, and the others will drop off your list," she said.

Identify your favorite tasks. Whether you aspire to make partner, move into a different practice area, or try something completely different, It helps to explore the types of day-to-day tasks you like and look for ways to make a living doing them, said Sean Stein Smith, CPA, CGMA, DBA, who followed his accounting dreams into academia.

After working as a corporate CPA for 10 years, Stein Smith was ready to make a change. He had taught accounting as an adjunct professor and enjoyed it enough to consider teaching at a university full time. He is now an assistant professor in the business and economics department at Lehman College, part of the City University of New York system.

When Stein Smith mapped out the second chapter of his career, he identified the tasks he enjoys and listed the positive and negative aspects of each. This exercise helped him prioritize his favorites. Then he analyzed the professions that would incorporate those tasks and determined the steps he would have to take and the education he would need to qualify for the career he wanted.

"Everything takes longer than you want it to, but don't rush the process, stay positive, and learn from each stage," he said.

Consider your long-term financial needs. If you have 20 or 25 years before you plan to retire or if you are financially secure, you will have more flexibility in choosing your career path, according to Clark.

"Consider any ironclad financial commitments such as a mortgage, student loans, children in college, long-term elder care, or other obligations when deciding on how to move forward in your career," she said.

For example, if you are still paying for your children's college education or paying off your own student loans, your financial needs may limit your options for taking that next step. But if you are not encumbered by debt and have some financial liquidity, you may be able to take some risks to explore your passion.

If there are financial obligations, you may find that climbing the career ladder at your firm would be a better choice than going to work for a nonprofit or starting your own firm.

Seek advice. Reach out to others who have been at the same crossroads and seek guidance. Clark recommended identifying a mentor, a long-term friend, a former superior, or a trusted colleague who can help pinpoint your strengths and weaknesses to help you find a job in which you will excel. Brainstorm with friends and colleagues and ask them to identify professions for you based on how they perceive you as a person and as a professional.

Local, state, and national business and professional organizations may also provide mentorship programs and career coaches who can give you an objective assessment of your abilities and ideas for career paths that would be a good fit.

"All of these people — friends, colleagues, and coaches — can help you think through what you want to do and where you want to go," Clark said.

Build your network. When Lance was deciding how to start his business, he sought out other professionals, focusing on those who had started their own businesses. They connected on Skype and met in coffee shops to exchange ideas and help each other.

"They described how they got started, what their challenges were, and what worked and what did not," he said. Lance also located other entrepreneurial CPAs and met with them one-on-one. They helped him sketch out what he wanted his firm to look like and how to manage it.

Lance also joined Thriveal, an online CPA network that builds community within the accounting profession. Such groups offer information exchanges and advice on best practices, and they provide a forum in which entrepreneurs can bounce around ideas. The support helped Lance determine the type of firm that would help him accomplish his goals and helped him build the confidence to move forward.

"These are huge hubs of people willing to share their experiences and learn from each other," Lance said.

Involve your family. Lance made sure his wife, Leesa, was comfortable with his new career path before embarking on it, and he involved her in the planning process. They talked through what he needed to do to get started, such as saving money and designing a home office. They also discussed what success would look like for their family and brainstormed about the likely stumbling blocks they might encounter along the way.

Lance also considered his family's lifestyle and expectations, because he knew his career change would affect them too.

"My wife is not a risk-taker, but she was supportive," he said. "I would not have started my business if she had not been on board."

Explore the possibilities. There are ways to try a new path before you commit. Stein Smith knew that pursuing his new career as a college professor would require a doctoral degree and a major investment of time and money, so he proceeded cautiously and worked part-time as an adjunct professor before fully diving into academia.

He's happy with his choice. "I wanted to see if teaching was for me, and working as an adjunct professor gave me a good picture of what academia might be like," he said.

For those who want to explore their career ideas without committing to a part-time job or going back to school, Clark suggested exploring interests while developing your resume through volunteering.

"You can serve on boards of organizations in the areas you are interested in, or simply volunteer while you build your network, grow your skill sets, and try new things," she said.

Teri Saylor is a freelance writer in North Carolina. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, JofA associate director, at

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