01/02/2013 03:36 pm ET Updated Mar 04, 2013

9 Steps to Upgrade Your Career in 2013

Start of a new year -- and a great time to think about your career.

One of the most helpful things I've learned over 27 years of working, from the mail room to management consultant, senior exec and now executive coach: I do my best work and am happiest on the job when I design or choose exactly the jobs I want to do, and carefully pick the person for whom I work -- the boss.

Worst work I ever did and least happy were when "getting promoted" into, "rewarded" with or "chosen" for a job I wasn't seeking, and/or overlooking the pitfalls of a boss I didn't admire or respect. Awful.

Designing your job and choosing your boss address two of the three top reasons, according to studies, good people leave organizations. More about that in the "how to" steps below. (The third reason people leave is "failure to be coached," and I don't feel like I can write about that without sounding just a tad self-serving.)

Designing your job and choosing your boss may, to some readers, seem well and good, but not easy during these turbulent times. Yes, it's not always easy. YET, tough economic conditions and restructuring make every day even MORE important to do what you love for someone you respect. Also, in some ways, turbulence makes change more "permitted" by the work culture -- when things are in flux, there's a window of opportunity for savvy leaders / execs / people ready to transition to carve out a different situation than when things are status quo.

FIRST, though, decide: do you REALLY want to work for someone else? You may want to design your job and choose yourself as your boss, in which case, the remainder of this article isn't meant for you.

How to design your job:

One of the top three reasons great people leave an organization is because "my job isn't what I thought it'd be." When someone else has written the job description, and/or the scope of the actual role and responsibilities are different than what's stated, this becomes a problem. When you design your own, this guesswork is gone.

1. Do some reflection and research. Imagine what's right in the middle of a five-way intersection of a) what you love to do, b) what you do best, c) your economic needs, d) an organization you admire / respect, and e) what it REALLY needs. Think about the best work you've EVER done -- what was true in that situation? What made the goodness of that situation tick?

2. Once you've found those elements, write a job description that describes a role that could, if done well, deliver high value in terms of people, dollars, technology, innovation, and a greater, lasting good.

3. Make a headline about it, along with a three-sentence description, all of which answer the questions: why should this get the attention of a potential boss among over 100 other things clamoring for their attention today? What's exciting / making my heart race about it? What's it going to deliver to the organization?

4. Run it by friends/family/trusted adviser(s), and shut up and listen to what they say (don't defend it). Beat it up until it sings and dances.

5. Find the top three organizations (either within your company, or in another one) this job is MOST likely to do the MOST good for all involved, and which you admire and respect. Search and research everything about them. Talk to people who know them.

How to choose your boss:

Once you've designed your job and found the organizations, it's time to choose the boss. Another of the top three reasons good people leave an organization is because of the boss. YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH YOUR BOSS IS CRITICAL -- it affects every area of your life, and CLEARLY not just your life at work. If you haven't given this as much consideration as choosing, say, someone to date, then you've shortchanged yourself very seriously.

6. Find someone you admire and respect in the "target organization" from step five, above. Don't idealize them -- make sure you consider their downside as well -- warts and all.

7. Contact them by voice (either live or via voicemail) and let them know you'd like to make a proposal about (your headline from Step 3, above). Someone you'd want to work for would be open to this, even if it takes quite a while to set up on his or her calendar.

8. Meet with them, and make sure you do as much listening as talking. Does it feel easy to talk to them? Are you like "old friends?" Are you like-minded? If those things are true, then there may be a spark of great chemistry between you. If not, MOVE ON. If so, make sure to discuss the potential role you have in mind.

9. And if that high-chemistry boss doesn't live at this organization, be prepared to look at the other organizations you identified.

Don't expect all of the above to happen instantly. It may, but more likely will take plenty of time. Well worth the wait to set your standards high enough to give yourself a shot at doing your best, being your best, and working for a boss and organization you feel great about.