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How to create SMART career development plans for your employees


Does your business use annual reviews to motivate and guide employees? Believe it or not, that process doesn’t have to be something to dread.

By adding the SMART GROW theory to your review process, you can change the annual review into a living, breathing thing that helps your employees understand their roles in the company’s success, and done right, becomes a tool for professional growth.


SMART and GROW are two popular acronyms that are used as guidelines to shape career development plans. SMART stands for:

GROW sometimes gets added to SMART for added structure in shaping a career development plan. GROW is another, complementary method of performance management and coaching created in the 1980s by Alexander Graham, Sir John Whitmore and others. It stands for:

These acronyms work together to keep managers and employees organized as they think through what the employees really need to do in the coming year.

Working together

Before sitting down to work on a career plan, both manager and employee should think through the coming year’s goals, using SMART and GROW as guides. Some standard questions to consider include:

  • What do we most need to accomplish this year? How will I contribute to that?
  • How can I contribute to the business achieving its goals?
  • What skills do I need to acquire to do a better job? How can I improve those skills?
  • What time and money is needed to achieve this goal?
  • How will we measure progress?
  • How realistic is this goal?
At its best, a SMART career development plan will reveal what you and your team need to do to accomplish your departmental and individual goals.

As supervisor, you should communicate beforehand any company-wide goals required by everyone, such as “cut travel spending by 10 percent” or “ways to go paperless” (specific, measurable).

Encourage the employee to consider realistic goals as well as goals that require the employee to stretch, to learn something new, or be challenged. Meanwhile, you should consider where each employee is in his or her career. Someone two years from retirement will have different goals from an employee with only five years of work experience.

The employee’s goals should be compliant with business and departmental needs, as well as help the individual grow as a professional.

When you meet to discuss the coming year’s goals, you’ll need to make sure goals are written to accomplish what’s really needed.

For example, you and Bob meet and he proposes that he increase his sales 10 percent over the previous year (specific, measurable, time-bound). You both agree it’s attainable. However, the way you rewrite Bob’s goal needs to address the underlying issue – what stands in the way of Bob getting more sales.

You should reword the goal so that Bob is motivated to improve his selling skills through more training or mentoring (obstacles, way forward). The real goal is for Bob to sell more consistently throughout the year, not just capture one big sale that launches him to his 10 percent goal (goal, reality).

Reality vs. dreams

Employees often have lofty ideas about what can be accomplished, but 70 percent of their goals needs to be attainable. That’s where the ideas of measurable, specific and timely goals can shape your conversation.

Another example of a tangible, company-oriented goal might be “get a notary public license to save company time/money” (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant). If an employee wants to work on a college degree unrelated to your business, it’s outside the purview of your organization and therefore not relevant, to your company at least.

A SMART career development plan differentiates itself by being a living document.

Multi-year goals such as education, replacing the accounting system or reducing turnover and absenteeism can be a special problem for career planning. Yes, these are goals that definitely benefit the company, but may not be something that can be accomplished in a single year.

In the case of such desirable long-term goals, you’ll have to work with the employee to create multi-layered results that reward incremental progress. For example, your supervisor may be able to decrease absenteeism by 5 percent in the first year, with a goal of 25 percent in year three (measurable, time-bound).

Another example: Rather than a vague goal of increasing morale or decreasing turnover, write the goal to include something tangible and attainable, such as “hold one team-building activity every quarter,”(measurable) or “hold exit interviews with 75 percent of employees who leave”(measurable, attainable). And even though it may not spell it out, the natural result of completing such goals will lead to lower turnover and increased morale.

Remain Flexible

It’s important that you and your employees talk regularly about what progress they’re making toward their year-end goals. A SMART career development plan differentiates itself by being a living document.

Say your employee hasn’t had time to register for and take classes for her notary public certification. In a monthly conversation, you might identify why and make suggestions for projects that can be delayed or moved to another employee so that she can accomplish this goal.

Another advantage of revisiting the plan monthly or quarterly is that it allows you and the employee to make new goals should business priorities change.

For instance, layoffs may mean that your employee has taken on the work of three people or has totally different responsibilities. In such cases, a quick review and redesign of the career plan can help you both stay on target.

At its best, a SMART career development plan will reveal what you and your team need to do to accomplish your departmental and individual goals.