July 18, 2022

Why Setting Career Goals is Essential (And How to Set Them)

Lauren Kemp

What are career goals?

A career goal is a defined statement explaining the profession that someone plans to pursue throughout their career. Everyone should set and define a career goal that is SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely). 

This process is relatively simple; however, setting unrealistic goals can lead to disappointment. It is essential to recognize that achieving career goals involves celebrating small wins and creating resolutions, as the process is lengthy. 

You should celebrate small wins and create resolutions by establishing short-term goals to achieve your career goals eventually. For example, a college student studying finance who wants to become a CFO must first graduate, begin a career in the industry, and work to move up the ranks to achieve the CFO title. 

SMART career goals

S - The first step in setting a career goal is defining one's perception of success. Specifying this early on helps to create realistic goals. You should identify:

  • Those involved in the goal
  • What you want to achieve
  • Where the goal will be accomplished
  • When you want to achieve the goal
  • Why you want to achieve the goal

M - Creating measurable goals is essential. These could appear in the form of setting a timeframe or establishing KPIs (key performance indicators) to measure achievements along the way. You should identify:

  • How much or how many
  • How you will know the goal has been achieved
  • Indications of your progression toward the end goal

A - An achievable goal will allow you to conceptualize your desires and make a plan to work toward them. Goals should stretch and challenge you but should be within reach. You should identify:

  • What resources you will need
  • What capabilities you will need

R - It is crucial that your goals are realistic and you can achieve them given proper time and resources. You should identify:

  • The relationship between this goal and your values
  • This goal and your career aspirations

T - Setting goals that have a start and finish date is crucial. A lack of time centricity creates a deficit of urgency, leading to demotivation. You should identify: 

  • A start date 
  • An end date

Why is it important to set career goals? 

Setting career goals helps you focus on your personal and professional development. Having aspirations sends a positive message to employers, as goals are a common discussion topic as early as the interviewing process. 

Setting career goals have the following positive outcomes: 

  • Motivation: Having something attainable to work towards can be highly motivating, as its clarity helps inspire you to work harder and more productively. Celebrating small wins (the identified stepping stones along the way to your end goal) is crucial to motivate yourself to achieve long-term goals. 
  • Focus: Setting career goals can also be a productive way to stay centered on what is important to you. Having clarity on your goals makes distraction less of a threat, and effort toward your achievement maximized. 
  • A positive message to employers: Your employer's perception of you must be positive. They will likely ask you about your career goals early on and consistently throughout your employment. Expressing your goals clearly can keep you in a good light with employers and will likely provide an avenue of support in achieving your result. 
  • Alignment: Setting career goals involves thinking well into your professional future. Long-term goals can cause you to analyze your daily habits and activities to help you achieve your aspirations. When you are presented with a new job opportunity or project, you can use your goal to help make the best decision for yourself in alignment with your vision.

Why are career goals important in accounting and finance? 

In the accounting and finance industries, there are various directions in which you can move professionally. Establishing goals in these fields can help you pinpoint where you would like to advance your career and set you apart in terms of direction and motivation from your counterparts. 

As there are various positions available in these industries, taking action on advancing your education and identifying tasks to keep you on track will prove beneficial in achieving higher roles and greater responsibilities. 

How to set career goals (with examples)

  1. Identify your goal: The initial step in setting a career goal is identifying the direction you want to head in your career. Goals are generality categorized into four sections: productivity, efficiency, education, and personal development.  
  2. Outline small wins: Outlining the small successes needed to meet a long-term goal (such as a career goal) is integral to achieving the desired outcome. When identifying the steps necessary to complete your goal, select activities that build momentum that you can imagine performing regularly. The transition to implementing these steps can disrupt your routine, so employing small, incremental steps initially will help you stay on track.
  3. Use the SMART method: As outlined above, you should consider the SMART process each time you achieve a goal or small win. This tool is essential to keep you on track and to remain productive in your efforts. 
  4. Career coaching: Career coaching is a valuable tool that can help you find employment, effectively transition to a new job, find greater happiness in your current role, and craft your future career goals. Sessions with a career coach can help provide you with tasks to help you achieve your career goals. Career coaches are available for in-person sessions, and many offer phone or email communication.
  5. Learning effective communication: You may have good leadership skills, but if your communication is not developed, you may hit the ceiling in terms of progressing toward your goals. Being able to listen and comprehend is essential for helping you reach your career goals. Effectively communicating your career goals can bring helpful mentorship, advice, and networking that can direct you on the right path. 

Career goal examples

  1. Earn a professional degree/certificate: Becoming certified or earning a professional degree are great aspirations, specifically in finance and accounting. Achieving certification provides an avenue for promotion or a higher salary, and many careers have specifically recommended certificates to advance your skillset. This tip is handy for career goals for accountants, as securing a CPA certification (or similar recognition) can rapidly propel one's career. Earning a degree has similar benefits, as employees with higher education can expect to make larger salaries through securing higher positions. Setting your goal to earn a degree or become certified are both SMART goals that you can easily measure. 
  2. Start a business: Starting a business is a good career goal for those with an entrepreneurial mindset. Owning a business can satisfy being self-employed and creating goods/services that allow you to set your schedule. Beginning your own business requires exceptional planning, action, and research on the market and industry in general. Once again, implementing the SMART goal-setting method is integral to this goal. 
  3. Become a company CFO: This is a common career goal in the finance industry. A CEO or Chief Financial Officer typically leads the finance department of a company, which involves recommending plans of action and making decisions in the interest of the company's financial health. Becoming a CFO takes years to achieve, as these industry professionals generally have a long history of related experience. Setting a goal to achieve this title can help you establish the steps and small wins needed to achieve this title. 
  4. Become an expert consultant in your industry: Becoming an expert consultant in your industry can provide many opportunities, including an avenue to begin your own business, build your list of clients, or become an expert in your field. Professionals often seek the flexibility of becoming a consultant or business owner, as it is a unique opportunity to improve your work-life balance and the prospect of earning more money. Setting this as your career goal early on in your professional development will help you establish a plan to achieve the position. 

Benefits of setting career goals

Setting career goals can increase your intrinsic motivation to progress in your field and offer a realistic future viewpoint. The list of benefits surrounding setting career goals is lengthy. Some highlights of setting career goals involve providing you with fulfillment and inspiring confidence in your professional development. Since establishing small wins is a significant component in setting career goals, measuring milestones becomes an integral part of the process that helps you stay on track and increases the likelihood of long-term achievement. 

Accounting and finance career goals

Professionals can succeed more when they develop career goals and steps to reach them. Some examples of career goals in the finance and accounting industries include 

  • Higher education: Career goals should be set early on in one's career, meaning thinking about advancing your education may occur around the same time as the onset of career goal setting. If you already have a degree in finance, accounting, or a related field, you may desire to work toward a master's degree to help you qualify for even higher roles. This will boost your credentials and lead to other benefits such as increased salary and promotion opportunities. Attending training is another way to advance your knowledge in finance or accounting. Skills such as communication, accounting, or data analysis can all be helpful in these industries.
  • Certification: Obtaining certifications can be especially useful in the finance and accounting industries, as they can help specialize and advance your career. Some standard certifications in these industries include becoming a CFA, CPA, ChFC, FRM, and more. 
  • Management positions: Creating a step in your career goal of securing a management position is productive if you are interested in increasing opportunity, taking on more responsibility, and being a leader; becoming a manager may be a good goal for you. Managers oversee accountants, analysts, administrative assistants, and more. Certifications may be required for some management positions and are overall helpful to be a leader in either of these industries. 
  • Mentorship: Finding a mentor is an excellent way to advance one's education and develop more skills. Finding a mentor that holds a senior position in your industry or attending various networking events are both good avenues to pursue if mentorship is something you desire. 

Becoming a mentor after gaining experience in finance or accounting is an excellent way to expand your network and help others begin their careers. It is important to mentor those who hold the same or similar positions that you have experience in. 

  • Secure new clients: Attracting new customers to the company you work for can increase company revenue and can help you and the company achieve greater success. Regardless of your role in an organization, you may be able to acquire new customers through referrals or by recommending new marketing strategies to another target audience.

Setting career goals is helpful across many industries, particularly in sectors with many career options and avenues of achievement, such as accounting and finance. Ensuring the SMART method of setting goals is used when considering a route toward the achievement of one's career goals is important and will help you stay on track. 

Written by Lauren Kemp

Lauren Kemp, Communications and Marketing Specialist at J2T, earned a Bachelor of Science in Business Management with a minor in Latin American studies and a Master of Science in Innovation and Management from Montana State University. Lauren hails from Montana and enjoys reading about the history of her home state. Her bucket-list items include touring the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, and taking an immersion trip to Chile to experience Latin American culture first-hand.