I did have a career plan. It just didn't turn out that way. And that's a good thing.

Ellen T. Cook
Senior Vice President
MB Financial Bank

Ellen Cook was a woman with a plan.  Raised with three siblings by a blue-collar, single father, she was the first in her family to go to college.  A scholarship covered her first year, and summer internships paid enough to squeak by the next three years.  Ever mindful of the trail she was blazing for her siblings (and herself), she became a role model without having any role models.  She watched and learned as much as she could about this new world of possibilities, and developed a plan.  She laughs as she recounts, “I had it all planned out.  I knew exactly how it was gonna go.”  She planned to graduate in accounting, earn a CPA, secure a job at a public accounting firm, get married, have kids before she was 30, work part-time while her kids were little, then jump back in full time once they were grown.  It was a great plan, as plans go, but it all fell apart a year into her job when she realized she hated public accounting!

Ellen admits it was pretty scary feeling her whole foundation crumble beneath her.  The plan had given her a clear sense of purpose and now it was gone.  But she had lived her whole life knowing you can’t let fear freeze you into immobility.  “You have to do something, right?” she asks.

Her something was to temporarily set aside her desire for a detailed plan and see what would happen.  She found another job and, in her new found freedom, was exposed to opportunities she never would have noticed before.  More importantly, she began to understand what she truly enjoyed.  She discovered she was driven by building and learning.  She explains, “Once I figured out what excited me at work, I could look at opportunities and quickly decide what fit.”  She thought she had thrown her career path out the window but came to realize she in fact had a strong framework with which to make decisions and evaluate opportunities.  This drove her to a variety of rewarding situations that only years later would come together and reveal themselves as a rich and deep experience base, ultimately preparing her for ever more satisfying roles.

In our research, we’ve learned the ubiquitous “What’s your five year career plan?” interview question has mistakenly led many people to believe they must plot their career moves in detail if they want to succeed.  Like Ellen, we now know a career plan is most useful when it offers a general sense of direction, provides clear decision criteria based on personal priorities, and is flexible enough to allow for unexpected detours and opportunities.  Our interviews revealed that many successful careers look masterfully planned through the lens of hindsight when in fact they’re strongly shaped by taking advantage of chance events.

What does your career plan look like?  It’s important to look ahead and understand what is needed to reach your goals but if you try to choreograph every move, you may lock yourself into a path that no longer fits and miss out on some of those unexpected opportunities that shape the careers of so many happy and successful people.  Challenge yourself to be flexible enough to recognize and take advantage of the detours that may lead you to where you really want to be.

Ellen T. Cook is a Senior Vice President and Director of ABL Underwriting for MB Business Capital.  She oversees the team of underwriters, which is responsible for structuring, credit due diligence and legal documentation on all new transactions nationwide.  Ellen continues to follow her passions of building and learning.  Her most recent  challenge is working on the transition team merging Cole Taylor Bank into MB Financial Bank, in what was reported as the largest ever merger of two Chicago-based banks.