Set employees up for success with professional development plans

When it comes to employee satisfaction and retention, research shows time and time again that intrinsic motivators rather than external perks are key to keeping your employees happy and productive. One way to unlock these intrinsic values is to work one-on-one with your employees to create professional development plans.

Development plans help employees voice their career goals, set forth actionable steps, and identify additional resources that may be necessary. Companies with a strong focus on talent acquisition, retention, and performance will benefit from creating more training and development programs that align with individual professional development goals.

Focus on the why and not the how

As any successful entrepreneur knows, a solid business plan focuses not only on the how, but on the why. Knowing why you’re doing something creates a stronger sense of purpose that provides motivation in and of itself. It also creates a story that tells you what success looks like. This doesn’t mean simply handing down your organization’s “whys” to individual employees is enough. You also have to inspire them to create their own based on their needs and motivations. One way to do this is through professional development plans.

Empowerment through motivation

Motivation is our desire to do things and effective performance management requires understanding how to motivate workers to achieve their goals. Companies that focus on intrinsic motivators (inherent satisfaction, fun, or challenge), rather than extrinsic motivations (financial reward, promotions), have been found to have higher levels of performance. This means that the key to motivating workers is helping them find intrinsic motivations for their work.

In his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel Pink presents decades of research about motivation and shows that our desires for purpose, autonomy and mastery are powerful intrinsic motivators that can elevate performance. Additional research by Kenneth Thomas has shown that seeing progress toward a goal can be a strong intrinsic motivator as well.

The benefits of professional development plans

Individual employees as well as their managers and organizations all see benefits from creating professional development plans. Here are some research-backed reasons for implementing professional development plans:

Higher job satisfaction and motivation

According to a Work Institute Report, one in four workers would leave their jobs in 2018 and one-third of the turnover resulted from unsupportive management and a lack of development opportunities. Professional development plans establish a road map for getting your employees motivated by purpose, possibility, and long-term potential.

Alignment with purpose and skills

A manager who knows an employee’s professional development goals can take an active role in fostering motivation and achievement. This might mean assigning employees to projects that align with their goals, shifting responsibilities so that an employee is exposed to new colleagues and skill sets, or even redefining roles so that an employee is able to move closer towards their own professional ideals. Working on projects that align with professional development creates a stronger sense of purpose that will help them succeed.

Relevant feedback from managers

Employees want to hear what they can do better to meet their own professional goals, not just what they need to do for external validation. Managers can only give this kind of feedback, though, if they know where their reports want to go with their careers. With development plans in hand, managers can give employees feedback that feels more relevant.

Accountability and collaboration

Making individual development plans public can help your employees get relevant feedback from peers as well as foster collaboration and accountability. Creating a public forum for employees to share professional goals is also a way to build community, show that the company invests in individual success, and create shared initiatives.

Performance and progress reviews

Having a baseline for performance and advancement gives you direction when sitting down with employees for their 1:1s. With a professional development plan also in place, you’ll always have an end goal to track progress toward and achievement milestones to celebrate.

What should a professional development plan include?

Creating a development plan is an exercise in reflection, which doesn’t come naturally to a lot of folks. So don’t be surprised if team members (especially those in junior roles) need some coaching and discussion to create their plans. Generally, they should reflect on and articulate their answers to the following questions:

  • What are your career goals?
  • When would you like to achieve these goals?
  • What do you need to learn or master to make these goals achievable?
  • What specific actions can be taken in the next 12 months to make significant progress?

Once employees have identified their professional goals and when they’d like to achieve them, managers can help them come up with ideas for learning opportunities. While employees tend to think of training courses first when it comes to learning and development, it’s important to remember that they can learn just as much (or maybe even more) from taking on new projects or getting exposure to areas of interest. So it can be helpful to organize action plans by exposure, experience, and education initiatives to ensure that employees consider all of these options.

Small Improvements has a professional development plan template for inspiration. Feel free to create a copy of it and customize it for your team.

How managers can use professional development plans

Of course, creating the plan is only the first step. Managers should discuss these plans with their reports, using their experience to provide feedback and recommendations. They should also regularly check in on goals during 1:1 meetings to make sure they stay top of mind for both parties. Managers can also support employees in achieving their career goals by keeping professional development plans in mind when assigning projects, setting team goals, and growing their teams.

Creating individual development plans requires time out for deep reflection and planning, and sometimes it can feel difficult to take that time. But in return, you’ll see increased employee engagement and stronger relationships between employees and managers. The tradeoff is worth it.