Granting yourself permission to work on your career, especially during times of stress and uncertainty, might seem counterintuitive or even a bit selfish. But feeling good about your career trajectory will help you maintain a forward-thinking mindset and an optimistic view of the future — something the people around you will see and appreciate.

If you feel that focusing on personal career issues and opportunities while managing a staff disrupted by the pandemic is mistimed, here’s another view: While actively managing your career path, you’ll project clarity, confidence and control. You’ll find yourself better equipped to make decisions and handle the needs and aspirations of others. It’s a win for you, your staff and your colleagues.

We still face countless pandemic-related unknowns. Yet now is a great time to begin this work, because working from home has created the optimal conditions for starting conversations about your career aspirations. Senior leaders are hyper-focused on keeping people connected; over the past weeks, virtual check-ins, town halls and happy hours have quickly become routine practices for maintaining productivity and morale. Most managers have learned a lot about the lives of their staff and colleagues. Take advantage of this more open, conversational environment to connect with colleagues and discuss your career goals.

Here is a five-step plan for keeping your career in focus when everything around you is changing.

1. Look for Feedback That Matters

Asking for and receiving feedback can be stressful, but it’s critical for knowing where you stand with senior management, how colleagues view your performance and communication style, and where you can improve. Put on your emotional body armor, and start asking trusted colleagues for feedback. Most people will try to avoid giving you negative feedback, so frame the conversation around asking for advice and honest opinions. After all, just about everyone is happy to give advice. To receive an honest opinion, prepare clear questions, and be specific about your objectives. What you learn from these conversations are the foundational insights you’ll use for setting goals.

2. Set Goals

Begin goal-setting by focusing on the specific areas for improvement you learned in your feedback conversations. Categorize what you learned into two categories: what’s most important for career advancement and what’s most doable.

Then, map out a plan that addresses each goal on the list. Begin your action plan by accessing the professional development and training programs available through your company, and then look online. With most workshops now online, it’s easier than ever to improve your skills remotely.

With an improvement plan in place, set your longer-term objectives. They may include a promotion, more work flexibility or even a career change. To keep yourself accountable, include monthly benchmarks and quarterly achievement milestones in your action plans. Setting realistic expectations and timelines will help keep the momentum going.

3. Find a Mentor

Unlike the people you ask for feedback, mentors are with you for the long haul. A mentor is a sounding board helping you to understand and navigate workplace politics. He or she will help you create a timeline and stay accountable to the goals you have set. If finding a mentor within your organization is difficult, you can always look outside your company to someone you respect. Another alternative is to hire a career coach.

4. Stretch Yourself

Learning new professional skills, enrolling in a certificate program or taking up a new hobby are all activities that enhance your level of confidence. Whichever you choose to pursue, the goal is to push the boundaries of your comfort zone and create new opportunities, networks and experiences.

When operating outside your traditional comfort zone becomes a routine practice, you increase your mental and professional agility and become a more valuable employee and colleague.

5. Develop a Plan B

The future of business operations, office functionality and workforce composition are all open questions. Companies will continue to consolidate, restructure and reevaluate everything between now and the end of the year, which may affect your current position.

Preparing for future unknowns begins by asking and answering one question: “What do I want to be doing at the end of 2021?” The answer is the focal point for conversations with your professional and personal networks. Networking at any time in your career expands your reach and opens the door to new ideas and options. However, in the current environment, continuing to network and develop a Plan B is critical.

During this unprecedented time, you can choose to do your job and take each day as it comes — or you can choose to be proactive and future-focused. By more actively managing your career, you’ll be a better manager in the short term and better prepared and positioned to see and move toward future opportunities.

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