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Viewpoint: How to Plan Out Your HR Career

A woman wearing a hat walks down a path in the woods.

​In today's highly competitive and constantly changing employment landscape, it is critical that you have an action plan to move your career forward—whether you intend to work in HR throughout your career or use your current HR role as a steppingstone to lead you into new directions, new positions, new industries and new opportunities.

You are not going to be able to control everything that happens in your career. But a strategic and tactical plan will guide you in making career decisions that fulfill your personal needs and advance your professional goals.

No matter what you hope to achieve in the working world—and, frankly, no matter the stage of life that you're at—creating and following a career plan should be high on your list of priorities.

[SHRM members-only HR Q&A: What is a dual career ladder?]

What Is a Career Plan?

Your career plan is the strategy for how you want to move forward throughout your professional life. Maybe you aspire to reach the highest levels of HR leadership for a global consumer products company, or perhaps your plan is to segue your HR experience into operations and general management in a high-tech venture. You might even know the names of specific companies you'd like to work for or, at the very least, the industries that are of most interest to you.

Why Have a Career Plan?

A career plan gives you purpose, control and a path to follow throughout your working life. Of course things will change in your career and you will need to update your plan as you progress, but a plan gives you direction so that you're certain to make wise career decisions and accept the right opportunities. With the process outlined below, you can create your own unique career plan and adapt it as needed so that it always remains relevant.

When Should You Create a Career Plan?

Career Path Worksheet · Worksheet: Word Document (.docx)
· Worksheet: PDF Document (.pdf)
It's great to create your first career plan as you begin your professional career. However, it's critical to have a plan at all points of your career. Get started now by downloading and filling out this Career Path Worksheet to create a map from your current HR role to your pinnacle job.

When complete, your plan should reflect the step-by-step progress needed to get from where you are now to where you want to be. If you're just starting your HR career and professional working life, your path might include 7–10 next jobs. If you are already further along in your career, the number of next jobs may be fewer.

It's to be expected that you might have difficulty filling in some of the details for all of the positions you envision having. Go ahead and make the best projections that you can … and be prepared to make adjustments! Career planning is a dynamic process. You do not need to know the answers to everything now because events will happen that will change your plans. But having a defined path toward a clear objective is the first step to achieving any goal.

Reviewing and Revising Your Plan

So far, everything discussed above makes the process of career planning seem very direct. However, it's quite likely that your career journey will be filled with twists and turns and will not follow the straightforward path you've outlined. That's only to be expected in the ever-changing world of work.

Things might happen—and probably will happen—in your career that you never expected. There may be wonderful new opportunities (e.g., a series of fast-track promotions through a number of HR management positions with increasing levels of responsibility) or not-so-wonderful obstacles to the progress of your career (e.g., being laid off as a result of an acquisition, a company downsizing or the offshoring of personnel).

It's safe to say that just about everyone will be impacted at some point in their career by an unexpected detour, shift or transition. That's part of what makes your working life interesting—the unknown and the excitement of what might be. Your challenge is to balance those twists and turns with the plan you created to bring pleasure and fulfillment into your working life.

'Career Path Interrupters'

Consider how any one of the following "career path interrupters" might affect your career plan:

  • You accept an HR position with a different company. This is the time to re-examine your expectations about how your career might progress and the experience and educational credentials you might attain. Those were more well-known factors at your prior company—but now they may be different.
  • You accept a promotion or lateral transfer with your current employer. Maybe this puts you one step closer to your pinnacle job If so, great! Your career path is on target. But maybe the scope of the new job is not quite what you envisioned, and you now need to add another step. Or perhaps you can now leapfrog over one of the roles that you originally laid out in your career plan.
  • You are laid off, downsized or otherwise terminated from your employer. In a flash, your career path is blocked. Your expectations are upended. Circumstances might dictate that you take a different position than what you envisioned as your next career step. In my experience, a loss that seems quite devastating at the start in many cases turns out to be a career blessing in disguise. But you won't know that until you land your next opportunity and can reassess your situation.
  • You choose to leave the workforce for personal reasons. Perhaps the grind of working full time while raising children has become too much. Or a health situation, your own or that of a loved one, might require you to step away from your job. Or maybe you win the lottery and decide to travel around the world for a year! If you leave the workforce, you'll be faced with the challenge of re-entry if and when you choose to come back. How that plays out—your position, company and industry after re-entry—will have an impact on your career plan.
  • Circumstances force you to make a career move before you planned to do so. A merger reduces the scope and influence of your role. A difficult boss makes your work life untenable. A corporate relocation is prompting you to look for a new job that doesn't require you to move … or your spouse's job is dictating your own relocation. Suddenly, the career path you planned is taking an unexpected turn, so it's time to adapt!

When to Revisit and Revise Your Career Plan

When you are ready to move your career forward, whether you're returning from a career path interrupter or are simply taking the next step toward your pinnacle job, revisit your career plan and make any adjustments necessary.

And even if things are going just as you envisioned, it is beneficial to sit down at least once per year to review your plan and confirm that your pinnacle job and the path you defined to achieve it are still accurate and realistic.

Review what you wrote and ask yourself these questions:

  • Is the pinnacle job I described still my ultimate career goal? Is it accurate as written, or does it need adjustments?
  • Do I need to update my current position information?
  • Do the steps I've outlined to reach my pinnacle job still seem reasonable and realistic? Can I add any details to those steps? Can I cross off any of the needed experience or educational requirements that I previously listed?
  • Given what I know now that I didn't know then, do I need to revise the timeline I originally established? Do I need to add any new knowledge, education or other requirements to the qualifications I'll need to attain my pinnacle job?

Your annual (or more frequent) review might be just a quick check-in, if little has changed, or it might be a major rethinking of your career goals and path. People change, circumstances change, the work environment changes. You don't want to be blindly working toward a goal that is unrealistic or no longer meaningful for you.

Plus, keeping tabs on your progress is a great confidence-builder. When you have a plan and you know you are making progress toward a goal, it's easier to deal with the ups and downs of every job. You'll be able to make smart decisions when opportunities arise and react quickly when circumstances change.

If you devote time, effort, introspection and honesty to the task, your career plan will remain a living document compatible with your ultimate pinnacle job as well as your current career reality.

Wendy Enelow is a Master Resume Writer (MRW), Job & Career Transition Coach (JCTC), and Certified Professional Resume Writer (CPRW), working with professionals and executives worldwide for the past 30 years. She has written more than 20 books on resumes, cover letters, keywords and career management, including the recently released Modernize Your Resume: Get Noticed … Get Hired and Best Keywords for Resumes, Cover Letters and Interviews (

Enelow has been interviewed/quoted by major media, including The Wall Street Journal, Time magazine, "ABC News," Money magazine, the Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times, and scores of others, and is the Job Front columnist for The American Legion magazine. She is a skilled presenter and trainer before audiences nationwide. Reach her by e-mail at

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