Professional development is the process of setting goals, continuing education and undertaking additional education to further one’s career and professional prospects. When done right, this process can be used throughout one’s career — a proverbial, perpetual sharpening of the sword — and it all starts with a plan.
A professional development (PD) plan is a roadmap. It’s essentially a goal or a list of goals and the steps required to achieve them. Professionals around the world use PD plans to become better employees as well as better candidates for advancement opportunities. Those who have achieved lateral and promotional career moves can attest to the importance of professional development and professional development plans.
What are the major elements of PD plans and how do you create one for yourself? You’ll need to set the right goals and adopt a strong strategy.
Every effective professional development plan is made up of multiple elements, the most important of which include:
- Vision and goals: Goals are at the heart of a successful PD plan. Professional development, at its core, consists of looking at your current position, envisioning where you want to go, and figuring out how to get there. Your vision should extend beyond the short-term, and your goals will likely consist of larger, overarching goals; supported by smaller goals along the way.
- Training and resources: When developing a PD plan, you’ll want to identify the types of training and resources required to help you reach your goals at each stage. You can do this by assessing your strengths and weaknesses by identifying your current skills and knowledge base. From here you can figure out the areas you’re lacking and may need support in, which you can bolster through training and resources.
- Timetable and outline: Each stage of your professional development should be clearly defined and outlined, and a timetable can help you keep you accountable for completing your goals at each stage. Setting a goal without a timeline and/or an outline is akin to wishful thinking — creating a timeframe in which you’ll hold yourself accountable to actionable steps can help motivate you throughout the process and ensure that your PD plan doesn’t become stagnant.
- Measurement and analysis: It’s important to measure your progress and failures, and to analyze what went right and what you could have done better. Without measurement and analysis, it’s easy to miss a goal and give up altogether. Implementing an analysis stage allows you to track your accomplishments and development, pivot and take a dynamic approach to your PD plan and set new goals or change old ones that aren’t working.
On their own, these individual elements can be helpful, but a holistic approach will include all of the above and yield exponential results in comparison.
As mentioned above, setting professional development goals is crucial to the creation and execution of a PD plan. Tips for setting effective PD goals might include:
- Setting an end goal: You can’t get anywhere if you don’t know where you’re going, and you’ll never hit a shot if you don’t know where to aim. Even if you ultimately don’t hit the bullseye on your first try, it can help you establish smaller goals that should act as mile markers in your PD plan.
- Reviewing recent performance evaluations: Performance reviews and evaluations give you a baseline for measurement and solid metrics for analysis. They provide an objective look at your strengths and weaknesses, and you can use them to inform smaller goals and development mile markers.
- Setting SMART goals: SMART stands for “specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound.” These are all standards you should uphold your goals to for accountability and achievement.
- Breaking down goals into actionable steps: Whether it’s your end goal or smaller SMART goals, actionable steps can specifically outline how you’ll accomplish these goals. They prevent procrastination so you’ll be less likely to abandon your goals altogether.
- Scheduling time to complete your goals: More than likely, you’ll experience obstacles that’ll stand in the way of your professional development — but schedules help mitigate these issues. You may have to sacrifice less important things to achieve your PD goals, such as going out one night a week as opposed to two, but in the end, you’ll thank yourself for sticking to the plan instead of indulging in temporary distractions.
- Regularly reviewing and assessing progress: Like reading a map, this is how you’ll know whether you’re on track or off-course. Take a good hard look at your progress at multiple touchpoints throughout your PD plan, and if you aren’t meeting your goals or progressing at a satisfactory rate, you need to figure out why and adjust.
The above tips will help you set goals you’re able to achieve — and remember, there is no such thing as failure in PD as long as you adapt and get back on the horse. Learn from your mistakes, adjust your PD plan to give you the best chance of success moving forward, and keep moving.
Beyond setting goals and following a comprehensive PD plan, there are quite a few additional strategies that can benefit professional development. Some of these strategies might include:
- Furthering your education: Professional development is essentially a mix of learning new skills and techniques and then practicing them. This might mean your PD strategy involves something as extensive as enrolling in an MBA program, or it might mean something closer to shorter and self-paced online professional development courses.
- Taking on more professional responsibilities: Putting your new knowledge to the test means taking on more professional responsibilities. This indicates to your employers that you’re serious about your professional development, willing to step out of your comfort zone, and you’re capable of advanced industry tactics and techniques. Even if you make mistakes, you can learn from them and integrate that knowledge into your PD plan.
- Utilizing your professional network: These are the people that make up the industry you’re trying to move up in and, collectively, they probably know more about it than you. Expand this network whenever possible by attending industry events and interacting with industry professionals online.
- Embracing mentorship: Mentorship allows you to dive deep and explore your industry with a seasoned veteran by your side. Finding somebody willing to share their experiences and guide you through yours can be invaluable
These strategies can help you achieve your goals and can be integrated into your PD plan itself, or simply used to supplement it. When it comes to career preparation, every little bit helps.
Let’s say you’re currently employed on the ground floor at a digital marketing agency that tends to promote from within. You’ve decided you want to make a career out of it and begin seriously looking into professional development for digital marketers. What would the next steps for somebody in your position look like?
The first thing to do is to set an end goal and to be specific, measurable, actionable, realistic, and timely about it. Let’s use the example goal of becoming a Social Media Marketing Manager.
After reviewing your strengths and weaknesses in the field and looking at what training and resources you’re going to tap into, you might decide it’s a good idea to attend an upcoming industry event for networking. You could also enroll in online professional development courses for social media marketing to further your education and take your skills to the next level.
From here, you might then take on more responsibility at work to specifically deal with social media and put your new skills to the test. After working a while with these new responsibilities, knowledge, and experiences, you’ll want to re-evaluate and reassess whether you’re most effectively reaching your goals.
You may realize that there are more steps to becoming a manager than you originally thought, and decide you should position yourself to become a Social Media Marketing Assistant — this is perhaps a lateral move, but you’re now directly on a career path to Social Media Marketing Manager.
The only time the professional development process is finished is when you’ve decided it’s time to retire or that you’d rather stagnate in your position than keep up with ever-changing industries in an ever-changing world. Keep your PD plan updated and your PD goals handy, and you’ll consistently find yourself evolving, developing, and becoming a better “you.”