How to set attainable career goals

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Setting achievable goals can be a great way to boost your career.

But what sort of goals should you set? And how do you cope if you miss any of them?

Don’t score an own goal

The idea behind setting goals for your career is to make yourself accountable. If you write down that you aim to undertake a programme of training by a certain date, then you are more likely to remember this and actually do it.

But the type of goals you set yourself is important. You need to find ones which are attainable otherwise it’s a pointless exercise.

Career coach Jenny Garrett of Jenny Garrett Global runs online career confidence coaching and is the author of Rocking Your Role: The How to Guide to success for Female Breadwinners says that setting goals can be a good way to get ahead.

She adds: “But you need to make them specific, small and attainable. They need to be realistic: saying your goal is to be CEO within a few years if you’re in a fairly junior role now is not a sensible goal. If you set too big goals, then it is demotivating.”

Be direct and honest with yourself

Vague goals are also pointless. If you just set yourself the goal to do well at work, then there’s no way of evaluating if you’ve achieved it. But if your aim is to become a team leader in five years, or to get a specific qualification (rather than just ‘study more’) then you will be able to tick off your steps towards this success.

Victoria Cooper FMAAT (MIP), of Red Shoes Accounting, knows all about setting goals. She started as an AAT Apprentice straight from school in 1989 and qualified with the AAT at 19. She then combined work and study with bringing up a family.

“I always wanted to get AAT qualified quickly once I left school” she says. “Having a young family means giving my career a break for a while but I did set myself a goal to take my first ACCA exam before my 30th birthday and it happened the day before!”

Keep goals small, simple, precise and attainable

Planning is everything

You need to plan on how you’ll reach your goals.

As French writer and explorer Antoine de Saint-Exupery said:

“A goal without a plan is just a wish’.

So decide what you want to achieve – and how you’ll get there.

For example, you might want a promotion to a more senior position. What do you need to get there? Would networking help? What about volunteering to take on a new project? Do you need more qualifications?

You can find lots of helpful information on how you can continue your education with AAT’s Continuing Professional Development (CPD) programme.

So let’s say your goal is to be financial controller of your company.

Ask yourself the following:

  • Why do you want to achieve this? Is it because you feel unchallenged in your current role, for example?
  • What do you need to get the job? More qualifications? Experience?
  • When do you want to achieve it? Be realistic!
  • Who can help you – do you need a mentor? A sponsor? Or do you need to network more?

You may want to set a number of steps to achieve your goal

  • Your first might be to approach your line manager and ask for more responsibility.
  • Your second – once you’ve managed the first, perhaps by completing a project – might be to find out about increasing your skills.
  • And it’s vital that you write down each step and make a note when you have reached it.

Garrett adds: “One vital thing with setting goals is that they should be small steps and you should reward yourself when you complete them. If you succeed in your first step, then give yourself a reward: it doesn’t need to be anything big, maybe just a special coffee you don’t often treat yourself to or a new notebook to write your goals in.”


You do need to regularly re-evaluate your plan to make sure you are on course. And it’s worth telling someone else your plans.

Garrett says, “Telling someone else your goals makes you accountable. It’s all too easy to let yourself down, but not others. So if you say to a colleague that you aim to complete a particular course of training by a particular date, if you don’t do it then they will remind you. And it’s a good idea to ask for help. Your firm might have an internal career coach, or you can find a mentor or sponsor.”

Don’t keep your plans to yourself – and treat yourself when you reach each step

What if I fail? Oh but darling what if you fly

If you plan carefully and your goal is achievable, then the chances are you will succeed. But it’s likely there will be setbacks on the way: you could be turned down for promotion, for example.

One thing is certain: if you give up on your plan when something goes wrong, then you’ll definitely fail.

As Robert F Kennedy said,

“Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.”

Becoming resilient

Build in some resilience into your plan.

Garrett says, “You do need to think about what you will do if you fail in your goals. This doesn’t mean planning to fail but considering what you will gain from the experience of going for something even if you don’t succeed. You also need to remember that the one way you will certainly fail is if you don’t go for things.

“Let me give you my personal experience. I went for a role and didn’t get it. But the fact that I put myself forwards meant that I was noticed and when another role came up soon after I was considered for that – and got it. Had I not even gone for the first job, then I wouldn’t have been thought of for the other.”

Finally, you do also need to be honest with yourself.

It’s all very well setting yourself the goal of getting a promotion. But are you actually doing your current job well and meeting those goals?

Before you can progress, make sure you’re doing your existing job well.

If you’d be interested in volunteering as a member you can find out more here (login required).

Charlotte Beugge spent more than 20 years as the deputy personal finance editor on The Daily Telegraph and then The Daily Mail. A freelancer since 2010, her work has appeared in national newspapers, magazines and websites.

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