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5 ways to seriously create a career development plan

At a glance

  • A career development plan outlines actionable steps you can take to reach your professional goals.
  • Mentorship and professional guidance work hand in hand with strategic goal-setting to help you achieve the professional success you envision.
  • Additional steps to create a career development plan include developing an Education, Certification and Experience (ECE) framework; investing in education to enhance and diversify your skill set; and telling your career life story on your resumé.
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Dr. Patrick Horton

When it comes to finances and retirement, people are generally eager to plan. They meet with advisors, budget their income and learn about things like 529 plans and Roth IRAs.

When it comes to how you make the money necessary for both your lifestyle and retirement, however, a lot of people sing a different tune. Instead of planning for their careers the way they would their investment portfolios, people tend to look ahead only by days or months with no mid-to long-term strategies regarding what they want to achieve.

Let’s change that narrative.

Creating a career development plan forces us to take a big-picture view of what we can and want to achieve over a 20-year period, just as we do with our retirement plans. Knowledge acquisition is a compounding asset!

The ABCs of a career development plan

So, how do you create a career development plan? Depending on who you ask, you may get a different answer. A colleague or fellow student may give you their best advice based on their knowledge and personal experience, while a parent or friend may speak to your strengths and career goals without a firm grasp of your particular industry or skill set.

The best way to gain that X-ray vision we all desire (and which allows us to develop the most comprehensive career development plan) is to take a structured approach and ask someone in front of you on your career path. That might be a mentor, a coach, a professor, an executive or anyone who has climbed the career ladder to get to where you want to go.

The idea is to strategically obtain knowledge, wisdom and skills that provide the greatest return on investment. In this way, you can improve your performance as a professional and with regard to achieving your personal goals.

Quote in a box that reads: The idea is to strategically obtain knowledge, wisdom and skills that provide the greatest return on investment.

5 steps for creating your personalized career plan

Once you have identified your mentor(s), it’s time to start planning ahead. Here are five steps for creating a career development plan that works.

1. Create an Education, Certification and Experience Framework

As in life, you need to know where you’ve been in your career before you know where you’re going. In this way, you can chart a five-year plan or road map for career development and where you want to go.

The most effective way to create this plan is to develop what I call an Education, Certification and Experience (ECE) Framework, which ultimately offers that big-picture view.

Follow the example using a spreadsheet with the years in the left column. Moving right from there, you’ll have a column for education, one for any certifications you earn and a third column titled “experience,” to record the milestones you hit. (Think salary increases or title changes.)

After logging your accomplishments to date, add five additional rows for the next five years of progress and leave them blank.

Take a step back. Now that you can see your career in its entirety, what do you see? Where have you succeeded? Where can you grow?

Creating an ECE framework will assist you in visualizing your success. It will guide you in logging, tracking and forecasting your progress through your career development plan, which helps you maintain momentum.

Having a way to visually track your progress will keep you accountable too. If you can see what you’re doing, you can immediately understand what you’re lacking, where the gaps are and what improvements you can make. This framework can also help you realize what you’re doing right and encourage you to maintain good habits.

2. Set goals to give you career path structure

There’s so much talk about goals these days that people often tune it out like white noise. For this article, I need you to actually hear me and commit to setting goals that will help you fill out your ECE framework and chart a successful career path.

You want to set and accomplish one major goal per year. A regular goal is to wake up an hour earlier or eat one salad per day. When we say “major goals,” we mean something like earning a degree, completing a certification or getting a promotion at work.

It’s not enough to write it down. You also have to ensure you’re setting SMART goals: These are goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and timely.

A good example is this: Let’s say you are an IT manager and, in Year 1, you want to earn project management certification. In Year 2, you want to switch jobs to become a project manager. In Year 3, you want to finish your bachelor’s or master’s degree.

Now, imagine if you completed these types of SMART goals every year for a 20-year career. How much momentum and structure would your career development plan have? What type of strategic advantage would you have over your peers in the workplace? Map these goals out on your ECE framework for your five-year career development plan.

3. Create a two- to three-year strategy for progressing your career

After you have your goals in place, the next thing you need is a career-path strategy. Early in your career, your goal should be to change functional responsibilities every two to three years. The knowledge you will need to accumulate to become an organizational executive, entrepreneur or professor, for example, heavily depends on the knowledge you have acquired over the course of your career. That, in short, means you need to invest in educating yourself.

For instance, what do you think would happen if you stayed at one company doing one job for 15 years? Though your position’s responsibilities might evolve, you would notice people coming from the outside to get the roles you wished you were getting. Your issue would be that you hadn’t diversified your skill set.

Dr. Patrick Horton sitting at a table writing in a notebook

In those same 15 years, however, what if you went from working at the help desk to working as a systems administrator, then as an information assurance engineer, then as a site manager, then a project manager and, finally, as a portfolio manager? You’d be pursuing new opportunities and you’d be diversifying your skill set. (Some could even argue you’d have access to these opportunities, at least in part, because you were diversifying your skill set!)

This strategy will allow you to work in different functional departments, experience different organizational structures and create a more extensive and diversified plan for career development than someone who stays in one position. So, while loyalty is great, you also want to display an eagerness to improve, achieve and ascend the organizational ladder.

4. Enlist mentorship and professional coaching

Of all the tools you have in your toolkit, mentorship and professional coaching  are the most important when it comes to career development. That means you should actively seek out good leadership and sound guidance. Mentors can teach you technical skills to perform your job while also providing wisdom and insight into your career development trajectory.

Mentorship and professional coaching will help you learn better management skills, improve your efficiency, increase your confidence and gain self-awareness. Mentors and professional coaching are not just there to co-sign everything you do but to provide corrective feedback as well. And learning from an executive leader who operates in your career functional path will not only impact your career progression, but also put you ahead of the competition.

5. Develop a resumé that tells your career life story

Your accomplishments and the skills you acquire majorly impact your career development plan and the career path you take. That’s why you need a strong, well-organized resumé that lists your qualifications, best attributes and on-the-job experience while also highlighting the accomplishments significant to your career.

Not surprisingly then, it can be argued your resumé is one of the most important documents you will carry with you throughout your career. So, how do you make it as impactful as possible? You turn it into your career life story.

For example, at the beginning of your resumé, instead of generically listing your objectives for the position you are applying for or jumping directly into your education and certifications, create a high-level “Qualifications” section. This introduces your career life story and should provide an overview of who you are as a candidate and what you bring to the table.

In this way, just by reading the first paragraph of your resumé, the reviewer now has intimate knowledge of who you are holistically as a candidate.

Another example might be to change up the formatting. After your Qualifications section, for instance, you might use bulleted lists in the subsequent sections for Education and Certifications, Professional Development (Training/Boot Camps), and Skills and Technologies. 

When you tell your career life story on your resumé, it allows mentors, professional coaches, hiring managers, human resources departments and executive management to envision the possibilities of your career development. With that vision, of course, comes the ability for such people to also offer you strong strategic guidance regarding your career development.

By creating a career life story on your resumé, you are essentially helping mentors help you. And by developing a career path for yourself via a comprehensive development plan, you are helping yourself.


Portrait of Dr. Patrick C. Horton smiling.

Dr. Patrick C. Horton, MBA, DM/IST, is the vice president of program management for Tampa Microwave, an adjunct college professor and a veteran U.S. Army sergeant. He earned his Bachelor of Science in Information Technology, his Master of Business Administration and his Doctor of Management with a specialization in Information Systems at University of Phoenix. He launched his business, Professional Career Transformations, in 2021 as a way to guide and encourage others to higher levels of professional success. He is a member of Vistage Executive Coaching Group and a recipient of the Purple Heart in Operation Iraqi Freedom, and he lives in sunny Florida. Learn more about Dr. Horton and his commitment to helping others achieve their highest level of success by visiting his website.

Reads: Professional career transformations: Your 6 figure career coach

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the advice of University of Phoenix.

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