Career development plans: How to create one and more

Here’s how having a goal-oriented road map helps build a path to success

How to write a career development plan.
WeWork Gotham Center in Long Island City, NY.  Photograph by WeWork

You wouldn’t set off on a road trip without checking a map, so why would you approach your job each day without a clear sense of purpose and direction? Career development plans are all about the big picture. They provide the answer to the most common interview question of all time: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

But having a career development plan is about more than just taking a long-term view. Knowing where you want to end up in the future helps to focus your efforts in the present. Whether it’s your ambition to be promoted within your organization or to start your own enterprise, a solid career development plan helps you make informed decisions about your professional path and to understand where it might lead.

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What is a career development plan?

A career development plan is a document outlining the goals an employee hopes to achieve in their current role and beyond. It can be created solely by the employee, or with guidance and direction from a manager, and it sets out a road map to help guide them through the next stages of their professional journey.

Why create a career development plan?

You don’t have to be an employee of an organization to benefit from one. As with so many other aspects of life—whether you’re building a new business from scratch, managing your personal finances, or trying to live more healthily—simply having a vision for the future and an idea of how to get there is often the first step toward realizing those goals.

In business, a career development plan can motivate employees toward their next professional milestone. A career development plan sets out a series of achievable short-term objectives, leading to one or more long-term goals, and describes the experience, training, and actions needed to hit those targets and ultimately progress within the organization.

Benefits of having a career development plan

Career development plans have been shown to have a positive impact on employee motivation and professional outcomes. Those who use them tend to report greater success in their field, and a better relationship with their respective mentors.

There are benefits to having a well-mapped out career path, even if you don’t end up following it to the letter. Some of the stated benefits of having a career development plan include:

  • A sense of purpose and direction
  • Improved focus and motivation
  • Increased job satisfaction and commitment to tasks
  • Better visibility within the wider organization
  • More opportunities for career progression

How to write a career development plan step-by-step

The process of creating a career development plan will vary depending on the kind of work you do, as well as your individual circumstances, your goals, and your personal experiences. However, there are some basic steps you can take to help ensure your career plan is as effective as possible.

1. Define your goals

The first step in creating a career development plan is to define your goals. Use the SMART rules to make these clear and unambiguous. Your objectives should be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Timely. 

“Take on more managerial responsibilities” is too vague an aspiration to be useful in a career development plan. “Earn a promotion to senior department manager within two years” is a solid target to aim for.

2. Identify your skills

Once you’ve defined your goals, the next step is to outline the exact steps and skills needed to achieve them. This part of the process is all about preparation and planning, and requires an understanding of the hurdles you might face as you make progress toward your objectives.

For example, if your goal is to be promoted to senior department manager, you might need to complete a leadership and management training course first. If you’re aiming to launch your own business, you might need to raise a specific amount of cash.

3. Build a timeline

Once you’ve fleshed out the interim steps needed to reach your long-term goals, it’s time to fit your career development plan into a timeline. Without one, it’s too easy to become sidetracked by smaller challenges and lose sight of the finish line.

Start with any fixed deadlines and work around those. For instance, if your company offers promotions only every three years, your career development plan will naturally progress toward that point in time. Work backward from that point, and be realistic about what you can achieve in the timeframe you have.

4. Track your progress

Review your career development plan often and use it as a benchmark to track the progress you’ve made over months and years. 

Remember that your plan isn’t set in stone: Circumstances can change, priorities can shift, and goals can evolve, so it’s important to keep your plan up to date. A career development plan should be rigid enough to be useful, but flexible enough to adapt to new situations.

Career development plans for employees

Lots of companies already have basic career development plans in place for new hires, so if you’re an employee, your manager may be able to share one with you. If not, nothing is stopping you from creating your own career development plan and working toward specific objectives within the organization.

If you decide to create your own career development plan, start by seeking feedback and guidance from your employer. Find out what opportunities are available to you and what kind of training, mentorship, and development would be most beneficial for your career.

Career development plans for employers: The role of HR

If you’re an employer, you have a responsibility to help your employees develop their talents and advance in their careers. After all, it’s in your interest to have a workforce that’s motivated, loyal, skilled, and engaged.

Your HR department can create a template career development plan for new employees, who can then personalize and add to the plan once they’ve found their feet within the company. By working together, you can make certain that your workforce is equipped with the skills and knowledge they need to move forward in their careers while ensuring that your business meets its long-term goals.

Steve Hogarty is a writer and journalist based in London. He is the travel editor of City AM newspaper and the deputy editor of City AM Magazine, where his work focuses on technology, travel, and entertainment.

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Management and Leadership