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5 steps to creating career development plans for future leaders


A well-thought-out employee development plan provides your employees with opportunities and clear direction on how to increase their skills and advance their careers. And with an expanded skill set, they’ll have more tools to help your business forge ahead. It’s a win-win for you and your staff.

But an employee growth plan or program shouldn’t be created off the cuff. Follow these five steps to help make sure your development plans for employees are on point.

What is a development plan?

The plan is the most crucial aspect of the employee development process. It serves as the framework for an individual’s professional growth. A plan should outline the steps employees need to take to enhance skills within their current roles, progress to a new role along the same career track or learn what’s needed to switch tracks. Without a plan, your organization’s professional development efforts may be unfocused and do little to serve your employees’ needs.

Step 1: Consider business goals

Before you set objectives for a work development plan, try to align development needs with your company’s business needs.

Consider your long- and short-term business objectives. Do you need one of your salespeople to move into a district manager role? Does someone in accounting need to learn to use and implement a new software?

Once you’ve identified your objectives, you can identify the necessary skills, knowledge and competencies that support those goals.

For example, if your business will be going through a growth spurt, you may need additional leaders. What skills do these leaders need? Do any of your current employees have the skills – or capability and desire to learn them – needed to move into these roles?

Developing internal candidates to bridge the gap between current employee skill sets and skill sets needed for the future would be of great value to the company.

Putting time and effort into employee development now can save you time and money on recruiting, onboarding and training outsiders. Plus, creating a career path and demonstrating advancement and promotion opportunities through development can help you retain top talent.

Step 2: Talk to your employees

Don’t assume you know your employees’ skill level and career aspirations. Talk with your team members to get a better understanding of their career goals.

You should also ask your employees to assess their own work and discuss any challenges they’re having in their current position. In what areas do they struggle the most? Would they benefit from additional training, mentoring or a stretch assignment?

Some of your employees may already have development goals in mind, but don’t know how to get started or if the company will support those plans. Other employees may not realize you see potential in them or need encouragement to reach for the next step in their career.

For instance, Samantha may be terrific at sales, but resists the idea of learning Excel or the budgeting process. She may remain reluctant until you help her understand that those skills are required to move into sales management, her ultimate goal.

By talking to employees, you can work together to figure out what role your business can play in their plans as well as what opportunities you can offer them.

Step 3: Recognize potential vs. readiness

As you assess your staff, it’s important to remember that there’s a difference between potential and readiness. For example, Michael may have the potential to become a super star manager, but isn’t yet ready to move into that role.

Readiness comes in a variety of forms, encompassing desire, skills and experience. Michael may be interested in moving into that management role you see for him – but not yet. He may be caring for elderly parents or young children and doesn’t want to travel as much as the new role would require. Or he may need two to three years of progressively more complex assignments in order to master the project management skills required in the new role.

Keep in mind that not every employee wants to – or should – move into management, no matter how good they are in their current position. Leaders often make the mistake of thinking that someone who is great as a salesperson or widget maker (potential) will in turn be great at managing the sales team or widget manufacturing (readiness). Doing versus managing are very different skills sets and pushing an employee into a job they aren’t ready for can have devastating consequences.

Step 4: Consider all types of training and development

Now that you know what the objectives are, it’s time to figure out how your employee will acquire their new skills.

Employee career development plans don’t have to be expensive and may take numerous forms. Formal classroom training or online courses are only one way to help your team expand their talents.

Most learners need to be engaged to deeply learn a new skill or gain knowledge. That’s why other types of development may be even better than a course, and include:

  • Stretch assignments and special projects
  • Working directly with a subject matter expert
  • One-on-one coaching and mentoring
  • Local networking groups

Taking on pieces of the next job up the ladder is a particularly good way to prep to take over the whole job one day. It gives less experienced employees the chance to learn and grow, and builds your bench so you can promote from within.

Step 5: Create a plan for before, during and after

Once you’ve identified some specific learning opportunities, create a plan with specific and timely goals. It’s more difficult to measure an employees’ progress when the objectives are vague, overly broad or don’t have a deadline.

Next, what is it going to take to put your employees’ plan into action? Is there any prep work that needs to be done? Is anyone else involved? Will the employee need to take time away from work? Will someone else need to cover for them while they’re training?

Before the training or new assignment starts, make sure your employees understand why they’re being asked to learn this new skill, what you expect them to learn and how this benefits the company and their careers.

After training, help them apply their new skills in the workplace.

You’re spending a considerable amount of time and possibly money on helping your employees improve their skills. To get your greatest return on investment, your employees need to be able to put those new skills to work in your company.

Set up opportunities where your employees can quickly apply the new skills to the job and get feedback. This will help them reinforce and refine their new skills. If they don’t use the new knowledge when it’s fresh, they’re likely to lose it.

The takeaway

Creating an employee development plan not only helps you make your workforce more effective and knowledgeable, but you can also improve employee satisfaction. And when your employees are happy, they’re less likely to go looking for work elsewhere.

How effective is your employee development plan? Learn how to design a powerful people-focused HR plan by downloading our free e-book, How to develop a top-notch workforce that will accelerate your business.