Early on in my sales career I had exactly three goals that I wanted to achieve before 30: earn six figures, get promoted and buy my first house. Although I had clearly defined “career goals”, I didn’t have a “career plan”. To be sure, defining and writing down my goals was a powerful step that helped me achieve all three of my goals. After achieving them, I was lost for awhile as I didn’t have longer range goals that inspired me (besides making more $$) and worse, I didn’t have a specific destination in mind. Without that destination, I wasn’t focused on which skills/strengths to develop and which path to follow. Having interviewed thousands of sales professionals and sales leaders, I’ve learned that my story is fairly typical. With the benefit of hindsight and the examples of sales professionals that acted with a career plan; I’d like to share 3 simple steps to help map out a successful sales career.

Find and Hone Your Strengths

Most sales professionals in their 20s are focused on hitting quota, earning more and moving up. Great goals to be sure. If you want to be elite, I believe an equally important objective is to discover and hone your strengths. By your late 20s, you should know exactly what you do well and what you’re not suited for. Be specific and write it down. Defining prospecting as a strength, as an example, is too vague. “I have superior large account ($100M+) penetration skills, especially at the VP level.” Also write down what you don’t excel at or dislike. “Heavily political selling environments (a weakness) where I have little opportunity to solve complex business problems (I dislike simple sales scenarios).”

This process will help you in innumerable ways. For one, you’ll quickly know if a new opportunity is the right platform to catapult your sales career or just another shiny object that might derail your career. If the opportunity is the right next step and you’re perfect for the role, you’ll be well positioned to articulate why. If you’re in your 30s or even 40s without a clear understanding of your strengths/weaknesses, start your career plan by discovering them. It can help get a stalled career back on track.

Think Long Term When Mapping Out Your Sales Career

Can you visualize the role you’d like to be in 10 or 20 years down the road? Sales Leadership? Global Accounts? Outside of sales altogether? If you’re unclear, take the time to map it out and write it all down. Before you do, explore why you’re drawn to that path and write that down too. The world is full of unhappy, highly paid sales professionals so I’m hoping that your list of reasons includes more than just income goals. For example, I’ve met lots of sales managers that showed no passion for the position. They moved into sales management in a quest to make more money after hitting a glass ceiling in sales with their employer. Without passion, they weren’t able to sustain excellence and they soon found their careers stalled. In many of these cases, a better path would have been to pursue a higher level sales position with another company.

With a destination in mind, reaching it becomes a matter of working backwards. What paths have others taken? What skills will you need to strengthen or acquire? Are there obstacles or pitfalls that could derail your plans? Do you want it bad enough to make the sacrifices required?

The answers to all of these questions will leave you with the framework of a solid career plan. You’ll know what you’re good at, the direction you’re headed and what to avoid. It will also spell out the strengths that you need to hone and/or acquire. As new opportunities comes your way, you’ll quickly know if they’re for you. On the topic of avoiding the wrong opportunities, I share 3 tips in Sales Career Mistakes.

My Own Story

It wasn’t until I got clear with where I wanted to be at 50 that my career started moving in the right direction. In my 30s, I thought of myself as a sales guy first and a business owner second. I wouldn’t have said that at the time but my actions demonstrated it. To boil it down, I enjoyed selling so much that I lacked the time or focus that it takes to build a great company. Once I was clear with my ultimate aim, the choices I made naturally changed. This “true north” helps me get back on the right path whenever I’m stuck or off course.

Here’s to you finding your way.