What makes über-successful business people so successful? Are these folks smarter? Or just plain lucky?  

There is no simple answer. Even research scientists who have dedicated themselves to studying behavior cannot come to one conclusion. Some say this kind of success requires smarts. Others say it is good fortune. I would argue neither.

The difference between how successful people and aspirers navigate their careers is not brainpower or circumstance. (Although it helps to have both.) The major difference is planning.

Successful people take a methodical approach to setting career goals. It starts with defining what "success" means to them, then building a career roadmap to achieve that vision. It takes patience and perseverance, but it pays off.

People often ask me about career planning. Perhaps that is because I am the CEO and co-founder of Aha! -- roadmapping software used by more than 150,000 company and product builders to link strategy to their teams' work and build visual roadmaps. Our team also developed and pioneered The Responsive Method, which provides a radical new approach to building personal and company value. And it starts with planning. When asked for advice on setting career goals, I usually say the same thing -- that you must first know where you want to go.

I suggest that you come up with a career sentence -- the overarching vision for your professional life. Your sentence could be specific, such as "Help build software that changes the way people interact with their doctors." Or it could be more wide-sweeping, like "Create positive, lasting education opportunities for disadvantaged youths." Once you have set your destination, you can focus on the goals that will get you there.

When it comes to career goals the equation is simple: Planning + Persistence = Success. The equation is simple, but it requires hard work.

Here is how to approach setting your career goals:

Get real -- Making measurable career goals and setting success metrics will go a long way towards ensuring that your career roadmap is realistic. Once you have those benchmarks in place, you can track your progress in a meaningful way.  

But not too real -- Your career roadmap should be a challenge, not a cakewalk. If your goals do not make you at least a little bit uncomfortable, set your sights higher. Push yourself in your overall vision and in the tasks that will carry you there. You might just be surprised with what you can achieve.

Write it down -- Research shows that people who write down their goals are significantly more likely to achieve those goals. There are several benefits. One is that it forces you to think through what you want to achieve in a concrete way -- if you have a hard time finding the words to explain your goal in a sentence or two, you probably have not thought it through.

Share the plan -- Another benefit of writing your goals down is that it makes it easier to share them. It might be a dirty trick to play on yourself, but once you have told your friends and colleagues about your goals, you will feel a sense of disappointment if you do not follow through. That is some good motivation!

Visualize success -- A common practice of high achievers is visualizing success. Sports psychologists teach elite athletes to picture themselves connecting with the fastball, kicking the field goal, sinking the putt. You can do the same with your long-term career goals and all the efforts that will get you there. Use positive visualization to motivate yourself to work harder.

Setting your goals is, of course, just the first step. After that, it is all about commitment. Monitoring your progress toward your goals will make you more likely to achieve them, research shows. Dedicate time to working on your career plan every day.

And remember -- there is no magic for long-term success. Just planning and persistence.

What is one effort you will make today towards your career goals?

Published on: Oct 25, 2017