We don’t blame you if you’re rolling your eyes a bit at the prospect of writing a career development plan. After all, the last time you probably wrote one of those was likely in high school. Maybe you met with a counselor to discuss college options and where you saw yourself professionally “in five years”—and then laid out the necessary steps to get on track for that career.
It’s possible that was helpful. It’s also possible that you had no idea what lay ahead five years in the future, and that experience felt a bit like a frustrating exercise in guesswork.
Today, though, a career development plan can be a legitimately useful tool for anyone—no matter your career stage. At the heart of these plans is one question: What kind of career do you want to pursue? And, how can you make sure you’re making consistent, measurable progress toward that goal?
At the heart of these plans is one question: What kind of career do you want to pursue?
We know that careers inevitably take twists and turns. No plan is ever foolproof. But, crafting a career plan opens the door for crucial, ongoing conversations with gatekeepers who can help you progress. Writing a career plan takes time, self-reflection and a lot of dialogue with your supervisor, colleagues and network. Executing a career plan requires plenty of work, check-ins, and timely readjustments.
To get the concept right (given all the work involved!), we spoke with Merryn Roberts-Huntley, a career coach with more than 17 years of business experience and the owner of Made To Hire. Roberts-Huntley suggest breaking up your career plan into five “buckets” of smaller tasks you can work on over time. The first two buckets require some introspection and “pre-work,” while the other three focus on major “action” items.
So, if you want to take a stab at writing a (useful) career plan of your own, here’s where you start.
The first step is to do some self-reflection and gather feedback from your colleagues, Roberts-Huntley says. This process can be as self-directed or formalized as you want. Sit and think about your strengths and weaknesses, she advises. What do you excel in? What kind of work energizes you? For your weaknesses, think about where you’ve struggled in the past. Are there gaps in your knowledge or skill set?
You can get started by asking your supervisor for feedback on your performance at work or asking for a 360 evaluation, Roberts-Huntley suggests. Set up meetings with colleagues to hear things from their perspectives. And try to get some external feedback, too.
Next, think about what’s standing between you and your definition of success. Are you interested in moving into a more managerial role but stuck writing press releases? Do you want to move into project management but have no exposure to those teams? Identifying these barriers and connections will help you formulate your next steps.
So, you’ve gotten some feedback. You’ve reflected on your skills. You’ve identified the key barriers to progress. Next comes the goal-setting part. Roberts-Huntley suggests breaking out your goals into short (one to two years), medium (three to five years), and long-term goals (five years or more). This portion can be as simple as a half-pager of content, or as detailed a tome as your heart desires.
Next, write one or two more goals for each of those time periods. These could be could be actual job goals, pay goals, skills you want to master, or projects you want to take on. Then, write down the challenges facing each of these, Roberts-Huntley says. What roadblocks do you expect on the way to fulfilling those goals? Once you know that, write down one action item that might help overcome those challenges.
Finally, know that this is a process that requires community and support. So, figure out who’s going to be key to your success. There are the people who can guide, train, or supervise your progress, Roberts-Huntley says. Progress doesn’t happen in a silo, after all.
Some of this information might have surfaced in the feedback portion, so look back on your notes to start. But this is your opportunity to focus on skill development. Importantly, this is where you want to include your boss as much as possible. Think, Roberts-Huntley says, about how you can best approach your boss in a way that makes them feel needed and like they have expertise that you’re really keen to learn from.
Ask them questions about how they think you can master a new skill set. Maybe they can make an introduction to another team, or suggest you take on the lead in a new project. Maybe it entails taking on coursework outside of the company, like a public speaking class or a workshop at the local community college. The key here is to have your supervisor as an ally who can sign-off on any additional work you’re willing to take on.
Once you’ve been working on your skill set for two months or more, you’re likely ready to take on a stretch assignment, Roberts-Huntley says. This is the “hands-on” portion of the plan, when you approach another role within the company that more closely resembles where you want to be down the line. This can mean you’re formally job shadowing someone else or taking the lead elsewhere on a project.
The goal is to have experiences that get you closer to the job you really want. “Usually after two years [in the same job], you’re not being challenged that much,” Roberts-Huntley says. So start to look ahead and think about how you can keep being challenged by new projects and responsibilities around you.
The last “bucket” of tasks here is one you can partake in throughout the process but it’s most crucial toward the end. Once you’ve mastered new skills, taken on new projects and proven you’re excellent in another field, you want to make sure others know about it. So, think about how your network will play into your career plan. Talk again with your boss and anyone else who could support you in your plan to move up or into a new field altogether, Roberts-Huntley advises.
New roles inevitably open up at a company and when that happens, you want to be on a hiring manager’s mind. “Ideally, you get to the point where you’re the ideal candidate,” Roberts-Huntley says. After all, you’ve been strategically burning the midnight oil, proving exactly that, haven’t you?