Like many of us, I heeded the well-known advice to define my personal values early in my adulthood. After thinking deeply about which values resonated most to me, I ranked them in order of importance, landing on Purpose, Health, Integrity, Loyalty, Positivity, Abundance, and Learning.

These values even formed an easy-to-remember acronym--PHILPAL--that has helped me make the most important decisions of my life. But when it came to my professional life, something didn't translate. While I was trying to decide if I should make the leap from successful individual contributor to new leader, for instance, PHILPAL didn't shed much light on the situation. Yes, purpose, health, integrity, loyalty, positivity, abundance, and learning mattered to me...but what did they have to do with this specific career opportunity?

It wasn't until I made a conscientious effort to define my professional values that I discovered what I was missing.

Our personal values guide our lives, but our professional values should drive our career decision-making. By defining and acting on these values, we can be more deliberate in planning our professional paths. We can confidently turn down opportunities that are enticing but not aligned to our core values and pursue the opportunities that will take us in the right direction.

How to identify your professional values

Start by articulating what is most important in your career among many competing--and often mutually exclusive--factors, such as income, stability, excitement, travel, advancement, the opportunity to live abroad, creativity, growth, mentorship, purpose, commute, flexibility in schedule and location, title and stature, recognition, entrepreneurship, leadership, work-life balance, contribution to your community, engagement, collaboration, team culture, competition, and more.

I knew early on that two of my most important values were maximizing my income and working for brands I admired --doing work I could be proud to talk about. But I learned I also highly value working with people I like and within a corporate culture that values me and knows how to show it.

These are the professional values I prioritized as I've navigated my career. That's meant turning down lucrative positions at organizations that didn't inspire me, carefully building a team I enjoy working with, and showing loyalty to an organization that recognizes and rewards my contribution.

Once you've identified a half dozen values that resonate most with you, prioritize them, so you can make easier decisions when two values are in conflict. Start by asking yourself questions like these:

  •  Is making money more important to me than working for a company that aligns with my personal beliefs?
  • Am I willing to make less money to work for an organization I'm proud of or for the opportunity to do a specific type of work?
  •   Is it important for me to work for a household name?
  •  Is a title more important to me than the actual work duties and responsibilities? Am I looking for upward mobility, or do I crave flexibility?

Be honest with yourself

In pursuing my most important professional value--growing my income--I've moved four times to new cities and countries where I had no friends or family. And I wouldn't have it any other way.

But many people think maximizing their income is their top professional value, when their actions tell a different story.

If you're not willing to move for a raise, if regular travel is out of the question, if being on-call for emergencies is something that drives you crazy, maybe money isn't your priority. Better work/life balance, complete autonomy, or scheduling flexibility may be more important to you, and that's okay.

Don't judge your list of values based on what they should be. It's far more important to be honest about what matters most to you. It's your career, and you have to live with it.

Recognize when your values conflict with your goals

Oftentimes when people are frustrated in their careers, something about their work is out of line with their professional values. Or their professional values have changed over time.

I once coached a talented colleague who thought he wanted a VP title more than anything else. Turns out he was wrong. He wasn't willing to switch companies for a title or move to a new city to obtain the experience a VP title required in his organization. His top--though unarticulated--value was to be near his extended family, a value that was in direct conflict with the moves, long hours, and extensive travel required for the VP job he thought he wanted.

By bringing his true values to the surface--that he prioritized staying near his family more than achieving a high-level title--he could release the guilt and frustration he'd been harboring. 

Defining our professional values allows us to build careers that are most meaningful to each of us. Otherwise, we're just bouncing around in search of something we can't quite articulate.