Modern Work

A Stress-Free Guide to Creating a Professional Development Plan

Overall, you feel pretty happy at work. You have a good handle on your responsibilities and crank through your tasks with a high degree of confidence. You enjoy the people you work with. You understand how your work fits into the bigger picture.

But even with all of those important elements in place, there’s one question that keeps you tossing and turning at night: What’s next?

No matter how much you love your job, you understandably don’t want to stay stuck in the same spot forever. You’re goal-oriented, and you want to be working toward something larger so that you can avoid the dreadful feeling that you’re stuck on a hamster wheel that just keeps spinning.

Unfortunately, way too many of us fall into the trap of clocking in and out each day in the interest of earning a paycheck. 50% of respondents in a CareerBuilder survey indicated that they feel like they have just a job, rather than an actual career. 

A separate research project from the Middlesex University for Work Based Learning found that 74% of respondents weren’t achieving their full potential at work, due to a lack of development opportunities. 

Here’s the good news: This is where a professional development plan can be your not-so-secret sauce. This documented plan is a way to zoom out from your daily to-do list and get a grasp on the larger things you want to accomplish in your career—as well as what steps you’ll take to get there.

Ready for a renewed sense of purpose and motivation at work? Let’s cover the basics of professional development plans. 

What is a professional development plan?

There’s not a lot of mystery here, because the definition is all right there in the name. A professional development plan is a documented strategy that shares how a person will grow and advance within their chosen career.

If you’re hungry for more learning and development and willing to put yourself in the driver’s seat, you can certainly create a development plan on your own to hold yourself accountable to your own goals. If you go this route, nobody else ever even has to see your self-directed plan.

However, professional development plans are typically most effective when managers and employees create them together. This collaborative activity ensures that the employee is being realistic with their future goals based on the resources available to them, and that their company is in the loop on the direction they want to head in (and can best support them in making that happen). 

What these plans look like can run the gamut from simple one-pagers to lengthy and complex booklets. But in their most basic form, they should touch on:

  • Career goals and targets
  • Actions for making those goals happen
  • Timelines for achieving the goal
  • What resources are needed to achieve the goal

Hashing out all of those details upfront sets everybody up for success in actually following through on development plans—rather than letting them collect digital cobwebs. 

What are the benefits of a professional development plan? 

Think that a professional development plan sounds like a stiff and rigid formality? We promise, it’s not. Taking the time to document your career goals and the steps you’ll take to achieve them offers a lot of advantages, both for the employee and the company as a whole. 

Employees will benefit from…

  • Increased transparency: The act of pulling together this plan will require employees to have honest conversations about what they want to achieve, and what their company can make available to them. That leads to clearer visibility and far more open lines of communication than they’d typically have (especially when a reported 78% of employees feel uncomfortable talking about career development and salary).
  • Better support: Workers can’t expect their employers to be mind readers. A documented plan gets team members and their management on the same page about their desires, and leads to far better company support in making those career goals a reality.
  • Greater sense of purpose: Keeping an eye on the prize (in this case, an overarching career goal) can reignite a sense of motivation and purpose at work. Plus, as an added bonus, documenting your goals is an effective way to make them happen. One study showed that writing down our goals makes us up to 42% more likely to achieve them.

Employers will benefit from…

  • Boosted recruitment and retention: Today’s talent really does care about growth and development. In a report from Gallup, 59% of millennial respondents stated that opportunities to learn and grow are extremely important to them when applying for a job. A separate study from the staffing firm Addison Group found that 76% of employees will seek other job opportunities if they’re passed over for a promotion at work. Creating professional development plans with employees shows that you’re committed to their advancement, which is a major selling point to current and prospective talent.
  • Increased motivation: Only about half of employees strongly agree that they know what is expected of them at work. So, how can you expect your employees to be ready and raring to tackle their obligations, if they aren’t even clear on their responsibilities and targets? Related to the increased transparency we discussed above, employers who support their team’s development with a formal plan can expect to see a major uptick in motivation—simply because people feel empowered with information about their expectations. 
  • Improved engagement: One surefire way to boost employee happiness and, as a result, engagement levels, is to prove that you actually care about them. There’s no better way to do that than being in their corner, pushing them toward the goals they really want to accomplish.

The lowdown on creating a professional development plan: 7 steps to follow

As the old saying goes, “There’s more than one way to skin a cat.” And, that certainly applies to professional development plans—no two strategies will look the same, and they can vary a lot from person to person or company to company.

But, if this activity is totally new to you and you’re just looking for some tips to get something down on paper, we’re here to help. Below, we’re digging into seven steps you can follow to pull together your first professional development plan (along with examples!).

Whether you’re doing this for your own benefit or you’re a manager who wants to walk through this process with your team members, these steps will get you started on the right track. 

1. Start with an honest self assessment

The bulk of a professional development plan will be focused on where you want to go with your career. But, before you can sink your teeth into that, you first need to understand where you’re starting.

That’s why you need to lay the groundwork by completing an honest self-assessment about your current skill level, any obvious gaps you’ve noticed, and what career goals have been looming in your brain.

If your company already has an assessment in place that you use for regular self reviews, then that should suffice in giving you the starting information you need. If not, jot down your answers to some thought-provoking questions like:

  • What do I think I do really well in my current role?
  • What are some areas or projects where I find myself getting stuck or frustrated?
  • What tasks and projects make me feel really fulfilled and satisfied? 
  • What skills have I been told I need to work on in past performance reviews? 
  • When I picture my career in five years, what do I see? 

As you work through your answers to those prompts, you’ll start to uncover some common themes and some areas where you have plenty of room for improvement. 

2. Identify career goals

Remember that not everything you uncover during that self assessment will be useful to you. Sure, maybe you could improve your data analytics skills—but, if it’s not something that’s interesting to you or that will serve you in your career, then there’s really no point in focusing your energy and attention on that objective.

Your next step is all about figuring out where you want to go, so you can create a tailored development plan that fully supports your end goal.

Perhaps you’ve discovered that you’d like to move into a leadership position that involves managing others. Or, maybe you want to improve your public speaking skills.

Don’t feel like you need to settle on just one objective. Your professional development plan can cover a lot, and it’s smart to identify some short-range, mid-range, and long-range goals that you can work toward.

3. Research available development opportunities

You probably have a ton of different career goals rattling around in your brain at this point, but keep in mind that not everything will be reasonable. If you expect your employer to support you in pursuing these endeavors, there are likely limited resources that you’ll need to work with.

It’s time to put on your detective hat and figure out what’s available and realistic within your current company. How much budget (if any) can they allocate to career development for employees? Do they have any existing programs or resources that could help you? What have they done for other employees?

Have the conversations—with your manager, with your people or HR team, and even with other colleagues who have explored development opportunities—to get a good handle on what’s reasonably accessible for you. For example, maybe your company can’t send you back to school for another degree, but they can pay for an online course on a specific skill.

The more information you get in your back pocket, the more equipped you’ll be to build a development plan that’s motivating rather than discouraging. 

4. Document your supporting activities

Now that you have a better idea of some of the things you can get your hands on, it’s time to identify the tangible steps and actionable activities that will help you work toward the broader objectives you’ve set for yourself.

Let’s say that you’ve identified a goal of moving into a leadership position. What actions do you need to take in order to make that happen? Perhaps you could:

  • Participate in your company’s annual program about leadership values
  • Raise your hand to spearhead a cross-functional project
  • Attend a leadership seminar

Those are all great ways to take steps toward your goals, and they should be documented within your professional development plan so that you can accurately track your progress on those activities. 

Here’s what this could start to look like within your own plan (again, keeping in mind that you have plenty of flexibility to land on a format that works for you):

Career ObjectiveGoal RangeActivities
1. Move into a leadership positionLong-rangeParticipate in leadership program

Spearhead a cross-functional project

Attend a leadership seminar

5. Sort out your timeline

Even your long-range goals don’t get to stretch out into eternity. If you really want to prioritize your development, then you need to have some end dates in mind.

Once you’ve identified what activities will support your goal, go through and assign a target end date to each of them. When should you have that specific step completed?

Yes, things happen and you can definitely leave yourself some wiggle room to adjust these timelines if snags come up. But, getting a rough schedule in place for these milestones will help you hold yourself accountable and ensure that you’re actually working toward the goals that you set. 

Once you’ve identified your end dates, note those in your plan so that it looks something like this:

Career ObjectiveGoal RangeActivitiesDeadlines


Participate in leadership programJanuary 2021
1. Move into a leadership positionLong-rangeSpearhead a cross-functional projectJuly 2020


Attend a leadership seminarSeptember 2021

6. Understand what resources you need

Particularly if you’re going to be working closely with your employer to make this professional development plan a reality, then you need to have a solid handle on what resources you’ll need from them.

That way, when you and your manager present your plan to the higher-ups within your organization, you have detailed documentation about what you’re hoping they’ll provide. That’s far more effective than approaching them with an open-ended request that says, “Here’s what I want—how will you help me make it happen?”

So, whether it’s extra budget, an introduction to someone, or approval to join a program or lead a project, jot down what you’ll need access to in order to take the steps you’ve outlined:

Career ObjectiveGoal RangeActivitiesDeadlinesResources


Participate in leadership programJanuary 2021Admittance to company leadership program
1. Move into a leadership positionLong-rangeSpearhead a cross-functional projectJuly 2020Approval to lead a presentation at our annual user summit


Attend a leadership seminarSeptember 2021$500 in development budget to cover seminar expenses

7. Keep tabs on progress

Your professional development plan doesn’t do you any good if you just create it—you need to follow through on all of the steps you’ve outlined.

If this is something that your company is leading or supporting you in, that might mean submitting your documented plan to your HR team to have it formally filed. You’ll also want to set regular (at least quarterly) meetings with your manager when you can connect on progress and roadblocks.

Have you pulled together a development plan totally on your own? While you might not have those accountability buddies nudging you in the right direction, keep yourself on the right track by setting a reminder in your calendar when you can regularly check in on your goals and make any necessary adjustments.

It’s smart to add a section to your development plan where you can log any progress notes or updates, so you have all of the information you need in one easy-to-reference spot:

Career ObjectiveGoal RangeActivitiesDeadlinesResourcesProgress Notes


Participate in leadership programJanuary 2021Admittance to company leadership programAccepted to leadership program, beginning June 2020
1. Move into a leadership positionLong-rangeSpearhead a cross-functional projectJuly 2020Approval to lead a presentation at our annual user summitNot yet started


Attend a leadership seminarSeptember 2021$500 in development budget to cover seminar expensesEnrolled in seminar and attending in August 2021

Want to grow in your career? Hash out your professional development plan

When it comes to your career, you don’t want to stay stuck in the same spot. However, growth and advancement don’t just happen because you close your eyes and click your heels together—you need to take some accountability for how you’ll chase down your goals.

A professional development plan is a great way to make that happen. Much more than just a formality, this plan will help you identify some actionable steps you can take (starting now!) and keep a close eye on your progress.

Suddenly, the space between where you are now and where you want to be doesn’t seem quite so wide and insurmountable. Now, go out there and go after it!

July 13, 2020