Setting career goals as a sessional GP

In the career review workbook I use as mandatory preparation for all career discussions, one page is all about goal-setting.

Yet I don't call it 'the goal-setting page'. Sneaky huh? Why have it there at all, and why not call it what it really is?

Latter question first... why do I avoid calling it anything to do with goal-setting? The reason is that people can be a bit 'funny' about goal-setting. Some think it is just not nice, or that doing so must mean you are selfish in some way. Some have had an upbringing where setting goals just wasn't part of the way their key caregivers operated, so it is a truly alien concept. Conversely, some have had their goals suppressed but with alternatives set up by their parents, thus promulgating little involvement of the individual... a good reason to have developed an anti-goal-setting attitude if ever there was one.

Others think it's hogwash to set goals. Indeed, there are books written about how not to set goals, and some quarters who will say goal-setting is positively harmful. I particularly like the take on not setting goals from Zen Habits

Others get scared when asked to write goals - even surreptitiously disguised goal-setting, often because they don't know what they want - making it all a very uncomfortable or challenging exercise.

My own opinion, having studied goal-setting extensively, is that it is not the mechanism or practice of goal-setting that is damaging, but the underlying ethics or culture in which it is done. With the right context, right training and the right methodology for that individual (and there are a number of methods), goal-setting becomes an extremely valuable career and life skill.

In the wrong setting, it can feel frightening, and one can easily get put off ever doing it again.

If you are encouraged to set goals, either by you yourself or by someone else, in order to perform better or 'succeed' at something, this all supposes that you

  • want to, or can, perform better in what you are doing, and
  • that you know your own definition of success (I feel another article topic coming on here), and many are surprisingly unclear on this (NB it is really no good at all to have anyone else's definition!).

So, truly effective goal-setting for an individual ideally needs to be in context of overall life and career planning, and done with a fair dollop of mindful self awareness. Most work appraisals do not approximate to this; they are more geared towards setting goals for the 'organisation': safety, knowledge, skills for work - that sort of thing. Don’t get me wrong, there is of course a place for appraisals, and when done well they are useful (if a bit of a chore to prepare for), but they do not generally deal with deeper goal-setting for you.

A particularly talented appraiser might extend the boundaries and remit into things that truly excite and motivate, but from speaking to GPs that would appear to be rare.

Why do I put a goal-setting exercise in the workbook at all?

I feel I need to gain a grasp on the reaction to being asked to set some goals, but without mentioning it is a goal for the aforementioned reasons, so that bias or negativity to the challenge is hopefully lessened, and I see the raw goal-setting skill.

If I can see that someone is clearly rather good at setting goals, yet is not happy in their career, then it directs us to looking at other career management skills such as self care, negotiating or assertiveness.

If there is a real dearth of goal-setting skills, then at times addressing this as a first step can really help the career planning gain leverage, momentum and effectiveness.
My experience over 27 years of using this workbook - a tool I designed myself, so I may be very slightly biased here - is that few GPs have a really comprehensive goal-setting approach, and in some it is even embryonic or vestigial, but always responds well to learning on the topic.

Despite impressive academic and professional achievements, which paradoxically has required many years of setting goals, there are many medics who are still not reaching their full potential. It is my view that learning better goal-setting skills is one of several key elements required to reverse any feelings of lack of confidence, self-esteem and/or fulfilment (top two layers of Maslow's hierarchy of needs).

As one client recently exclaimed, almost resentfully, during our goal-setting discussion: "Why haven't I been told this before… I've gone through school and higher education, and this is the first time anyone has put goal-setting into its rightful place”!

This is all too common, and a sad indictment of our education systems. The good news is that goal-setting is not rocket science, and it's never too late to learn it and thus benefit from it. The one proviso I would raise is that if a person is depressed or in burnout, goal-setting, and indeed any form of career planning, is pretty much impossible and inappropriate. Thus dealing with these conditions first, despite the horrible Catch 22 situation, is mandatory. But for everyone else, goal-setting on ramming speed!

Next edition: Goal-setting part 2.

Sonia Hutton-Taylor

Dr Sonia Hutton-Taylor is the founder of Medical Forum Career Management and the author of an ebook Easy career change - good career choice.

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