Deciding on a career can be a very difficult task. Many people know where they would like to be at the end of their career, but have no idea how to get there. Career progression is the key. Few people immediately exchange their college graduation gowns for a seat at the head of the boardroom table, a window office and the accompanying clout.

Instead, most recent graduates – especially those entering hierarchical fields such as banking, telecommunications, and outsourced CRM – will have to climb, crawl, clamor and claw their way to leadership positions. For those with lofty ambitions, the challenge lies in plotting a viable pathway to the summit and then setting realistic short-term and long-term goals.

After you have clearly identified your long-term career goal, the next step is to study how the people currently in that position got there. Of course, many paths lead to the same position, and your personal and professional circumstances will ultimately push you to carve out a unique route to success. However, cultivating a sense for how others have accomplished what you aim to do will help you focus and avoid mistakes.

For example, if you want to be a CEO in the large-scale telecom industry, find out the names of the executives at Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint who currently have the types of positions you want. Do some research, read biographies, newspaper articles and magazine profiles about those individuals, paying close attention to how they arrived at their current posts.

  • How did they gain entry into the industry?
  • What were their first jobs in the field?
  • What was the timeframe of their advancement through the ranks?
  • Did they get MBAs or other advanced degrees?
  • What skills did they pick up through either school or work on their way up?
  • Do they attribute their success to mentorship programs, networking or something else?
  • What patterns and similarities do you notice in all the backgrounds of the executives?

After you have gained a sense for how people generally arrive in your dream position, start translating that information into goals you have for yourself. Break your prospective career path down into a series or stack of building blocks, and think about what short-term goals you associate with each block. Dissecting the process of career ascension will force you to create smaller, less overwhelming goals, while keeping your vision in mind. This way, you will always be able to measure your progress.

As you define your building blocks, you may want to ask yourself:

  • Where do I want to be in three years? In six years? In ten years?
  • What skills will I eventually need to gain?
  • How can I gain those skills? Through an advanced degree? Through a specific job I’ll have in the future?
  • What experiences do I want to have on my way up?

Career counselors suggest keeping a journal. This helps aspiring executives to figure out and achieve their short-term and long-term goals. A journal also provides a constant forum for revising goals, creating lists of objectives and reasoning through surprise dilemmas or boons.

Larger vision and small goals are vital. However, it’s important that you never feel confined by your pre-made aspirations. Your goals, your time frame and your path to success might change. You might run into unexpected fortune or unforeseen roadblocks. You should never feel like you’re in a box, inextricably tied to the goals you created 10 years ago. The process of progress is a fluid one, a combination of ambition and flexibility.