Building a personal vision

Mar 09, 2020

Create a three-year vision thinking about what you need to achieve personally and professionally to be happy with your progress, and then work to reach your mountain.

Pete, a 35-year-old project manager for a 100-person architectural firm, lies in bed thinking about his career. He can’t remember the last time he felt like he was caught up and could breathe, when his to-do list was done, that stack of papers organized and off his desk, and no unanswered emails in his inbox. It weighs on him as he wrestles with the idea of getting up and facing it again. What new issue will there be? What new demands on his time?

He’s not a whiner by nature, instead he sucks it up. In fact, he’s been identified as one of the upcoming leaders, mainly because he doesn’t say no – ever. But now he’s questioning it all. Is this what life is all about? Grinding away the hours until you’re drained and getting up and doing it again? If there is a leadership path, what is it? Even if he knew the path, does he really want to be on it, if it just means more work and less of a life?

The first question I ask emerging leaders is: In three years from now, what has to happen personally and professionally for you to be happy with your progress? I use the metaphor of looking out into the horizon and envisioning a mountain, a destination of what your life might look like.

The metaphor of moving toward a mountain is useful in helping emerging leaders create a practical plan for their future. One year is too close, five years too far. A three-year vision is close enough to see but far enough it will take effort to reach.

How will you be spending your time? What’s your position at the firm? What are your responsibilities? What kind of projects will you work on? How do you want to be seen as a leader? What competencies or skills will you have mastered? Will you have your license? Do you want to mentor staff? Will you be married? Kids? First house? Vacation in New Zealand? Lose weight? Run a marathon?

The more specific you can be in describing your mountain, the more concrete it will seem. It will be easier to see you are making progress if you know where you want to go. Here’s an example of a client’s mountain:

Assistant Department Head; spend 35 percent of my time in business development and resource planning for future projects (compared to 10 percent now); actively mentor younger designers by knowing the needs of my team and finding opportunities for them to grow each day; build a strong alliance with other assistant department heads so we meet regularly and support each other; improve in financial management and be able to track profitability more consistently. Learn to let go of work and relax; regular practice of meditation; go to meditation retreat in Novia Scotia for a week.

It’s amazing how much more fulfilling your career path will be when you’ve taken the time to think about what you want. Leadership is hard work and the only way it’s worthwhile and sustainable is if you are getting your needs met. I work with a lot of emerging leaders who try to please everyone, all the time. They don’t want to be difficult. They don’t want to let people down. They don’t say no. They are slaves to being at service to what others want, including clients, colleagues, and firm management. Not a bad thing as a leader. But it needs to be balanced with meeting your personal needs to be sustainable. You need to define your own mountain first and then see how it aligns with what the firm needs.

Part of your journey as a leader is determining if your mountain and the firm’s mountain are aligned. Are they part of the same range or are you clearly moving toward another geography? The only way to navigate those decisions is to understand both mountains.

Your mountain is defined by your passion and skills: what you love to do and what you’re good at. The firm’s mountain is defined by what’s needed: project experience, management experience, connections in specific sectors, technical competencies. The sweet spot in this Venn diagram is where your passion and skills fit with what people are willing to pay for.

Fitting your mountain into the company mountain range can be a challenge. You may want to lead the sustainability initiatives at the firm, but someone else already has that position and your skills at managing small projects for demanding projects is really what’s needed. You may want to focus on civil engineering projects in another state, but leadership isn’t convinced starting another office is a great idea. It often takes compromise, patience, and persuasion to find enough alignment so your mountain and the firm’s mountains are close enough for it to work out. Sometimes, it doesn’t, but don’t be tempted to bail when the road is rough.

The truth is that every leadership path has its potholes and detours. It’s a test of your leadership to stick to the path. Sit down with your manager and share your mountain. If they value your contributions, they’ll try to find ways to help you. Find other allies who can mentor you, energize you, and advocate on your behalf. Dedicate small chunks of time, even 15 minutes, to focus on what you need to do to get to your mountain. Adjust your timeline to fit reality. But one thing is certain: You won’t find out sitting and thinking about it. It doesn’t matter how small of a step you make or how long it takes. What matters is continually making progress through action, even if it’s imperfect action – a misstep, a dead end, bruises along the way. Moving forward is the only way to get to your mountain.

Here’s a roadmap to help you get started on your mountain:

  1. Block out an hour when you’ll be uninterrupted to reflect. Suggestion: not at your desk with people around you and not when you’re drained at the end of a tough day.
  2. Ask yourself this question: Three years from now, what has to happen personally and professionally for me to be happy with my progress?
  3. When designing your mountain, be as specific and tangible as possible in describing your future life. Use action verbs to describe the action you need to take. List any specific accomplishments or outcomes, including any changes in mindset, behavior, attitude, or how you’re spending your time. Don’t get caught up in wondering if something is possible or not.
  4. Leave it alone and come back to it. It takes more than one sitting to fully compose a vision. Thoughts and ideas will come to you as questions start to arise. You’ll look at senior leaders differently. You’ll start to make note of what you don’t want to see.
  5. Share it with someone who knows you. Articulating your vision moves it from an idea in your head to something closer to real when you tell someone else. This can be particularly powerful if you share it with a partner, as it can bring you closer to sharing your dreams and working as a team to support each other.

Leo MacLeod is a leadership coach in Portland, Oregon. He can be reached at

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