What Do You Want to be When You Grow Up?

by Christian D. Malesic, MBA, CAE, CMP, IOM

By now, it has been asked of you hundreds of times. You’ve probably even asked it yourself of many kids when you have made their acquaintance. It is a simple question. Straight-forward. Clear. Concise… What do you want to be when you grow up? As an adult, a smile would probably come to your face if you were asked this ‘kid’s question’. But… do you know? Can you answer it?

Share in the Experience
As an Air Force Officer for almost six years and then a CEO for more than twenty, I have asked this question of hundreds of subordinates. Granted, I may use more ‘adult’ language, such as: where do you see yourself in 10 years? What is your ultimate job goal? Tell me about your professional plans. Or, what is your career trajectory? No matter how it’s phrased, the question remains the same: what do you want to be when you grow up?

 You will probably be surprised at the answer I most readily receive – “I don’t know”.

 So, I have sharpened my quill, learned from my past, and developed a new full-proof method to get to the bottom of this ever-important question. Once a new employee is on the job for about a month, enough time to “know the lay of the land” and to begin feeling comfortable in their desk chair, I approach them in their environment. The conversation is usually brief; but friendly, non-confrontational, and unofficial-feeling. After asking about their day or their family, I by-the-way them with “I’d like to schedule a sit-down with you to talk about your career goals and how I can help you reach them. How’s your schedule look?”

A week later, when the employee joins me in my office, I recite the script from my head that I have delivered many times over. I try to personalize it. To make it sound original. For, though it is an oft-watched replay for me, it is usually a ‘first’ for them. So, I carefully explain that I see my top duty, as chief executive, as helping them to reach their goals. I provide examples of the type of side-projects, special tasks, or large responsibilities that I can assign to give them the experience necessary to take a step closer to their goal. I outline education, training, certifications, degrees, or licensing, that will make them ‘look’ more professional and build their resume of the future. After laying it all out, methodically, I sit back, relaxed, deep into my chair and use these specific words: So…what do you want to be when you grow up?

The answer doesn’t come quickly; but, it does come… usually, in most cases, a majority of the time, the overwhelming answer is… after a week to prepare and think it over, the employee presents their findings to THE boss: “I don’t know.”

Expecting this result; yet, undeterred from my mission to always get the best from each employee, I softly tell them to “sit there and think about it.  Let’s work this through together.” A long silence permeates the air. For me, it becomes uncomfortable. Have you ever watched the face of another human-being as they ponder their inner soul? The deepest recesses of who they are and whom they want to be? I know this is a crucial moment to which I must provide my full attention; but, though I may have the bigger title in the room, I am just window-dressing. They are somewhere else, deep in thought. It’s hard to provide my full attention as I do not have anything on the subject to contemplate.  So, I fake it until they are ready to bring me back in to their thoughts. I usually try to put on my best poker-face to hide that I am really thinking about other things on my To-Do List… all of this so I do not break first.

This is their moment. They must speak first. They must provide themselves with a meaningful decision that will guide them into the future. I am just a sounding board. And, later, a catalyst to help them reach their goal.

Make it Personal. Make it Yours.
An interesting story? Maybe. But, what does this mean to you? Do you condemn this article to the pile of others on rockstar weddings & Hollywood rehabs? Or, do you take this as a two by four upside the head? I would humbly recommend the latter.

You are not getting any younger. The time to decide, plan, and act is now. As the old saying goes, “if you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.” So, will life take you on a meandering ride that ebbs this way and flows that way with you as merely a pacifistic spectator? Or, will you grab life by the throat, put him against the wall, and make it crystal clear: you have career goals – life better not get in the way of you reaching them? Again, I would humbly recommend the latter.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to first decide. Decide what you want to be when you grow up. Dream big. But, likewise, keep your objectives grounded. If you are well past your prime, or in it now, a professional sports career might have already passed you by. Similarly, determine what you are willing to endure and how long you are prepared to wait. How many steps are you willing to take along the way. For example, if a cardiac surgeon is your heart’s desire, are you willing to finish your bachelor’s degree with top honors, apply to numerous medicals schools, relocate, give up your entire life to study, do an internship, residency, and fellowship – about a 10-year prospect or more? If not, then what would bring you a similar amount of pleasure or self-satisfaction? The first step is the hardest. Decide. Find a quiet room or scenic overlook to spend some time with the hardest thing on this planet that you will ever try to figure out – YOU!

The decision is the hardest part, but surely not the longest. In fact, it is the shortest. Once you have a goal, develop a plan to reach it. Wanting to be a marketing director is not good enough. Do you have a degree in marketing? If not, get one. Have you worked in marketing? Start. How does your portfolio of past marketing campaigns look? Have none? Build it.

It really matters not what your career choice, each has training, experiences, awards, milestones, and resume builders. Decide which will look best on your resume and begin accumulating them. If I may, allow me ask you, one final time: what do you want to be when you grow up? Plus, its sister question: are you willing to do what it takes to get you there?

Christian D. Malesic, MBA, CAE, CMP, IOM provides insight on nonprofit management, executive decision-making, business operations, personal finance, marketing, construction issues, and occasionally, on political philosophy / history. To see more by Christian, visit or to receive notice of the newest articles written by Christian, follow him on Parler @CDMalesic or on Twitter @CDMalesic.

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