It’s rare that meaningful career progression simply happens to you; rather, making strides in your professional life requires purpose. To that end, determining how best to chart your course in the workplace is one of the most important tasks you can undertake. While it’s especially important to be intentional about a personal development plan in the early days of your time on any team, maintaining and adjusting this plan throughout your career is also vital.
Of course, as is generally the case with important tasks, creating and abiding by a personal development plan is not always a walk in the park. Advocating for yourself and developing a long-term course of action can be a daunting undertaking, especially if you’re new to a company or to a team. But for the sake of your career—not only at your current place of employment, but also at the next—it is vital that you determine how you can become a better teammate, a better coach, and an all-around better asset to any environment.
Personal development plans take on many different shapes and sizes, and of course, no two plans will (or should) be alike. They are, after all, inherently personal, and must be tailored to your unique personality and needs. That said, there are a few steps that we recommend following in order to derive the most meaningful and effective plan for yourself, for your manager, and yes, for your direct reports, too.
Set and align your goals
The importance of goal-setting is often underestimated. It’s relatively easy to mosey your way through your job without having a clear north star, but research has suggested that setting goals leads to significantly higher performance outcomes than more passive approaches (like simply saying, “I’ll do my best”). It’s critical to know what you want out of not only your current role but your overall career.
Once you’ve established your goals and defined success for yourself, it is important to ensure that these aims align with those of your teammates. If there seem to be conflicting interests, address them early on. The more likely scenario, however, is that there will be overlaps. It is here that you can begin to consider how you can work together to achieve mutual or mutually beneficial goals and begin to track your progress.
Independently identify what you’re best at
Too often, we start with the negative. During my time at Yale’s School of Management, a number of our people management courses highlighted the importance of authentically acknowledging the positives first. Rather than offering up a “compliment sandwich,” which is really just a criticism encased in a disingenuous compliment, think carefully about what your best traits are. Where do you add the most value? What unique attributes do you bring to the table? It is only by identifying these characteristics that you can leverage and build upon them.
Have your manager and direct reports (if applicable) identify your best traits
Once you’ve gone through the exercise of identifying your own best traits, have those who work with you most closely do the same. After all, in today’s workforce, there is no such thing as a true individual contributor. As a result, you need to have a good understanding of what others appreciate most about you. Identifying the commonalities (and the discrepancies) between your and their diagnosis is critical in drafting a personal development plan that makes the best use of your best qualities.
Independently identify your areas for improvement
While knowing what to build on is vital to your success, equally important is determining where to improve. It is key to complete this exercise yourself first—remember, your personal development plan is about you; as a result, you need to know where and how you need to get better. Be honest with yourself about where you tend to struggle, and begin to ask yourself why.
Armed with this information, formulate actionable steps that you can take to improve. The more discrete and specific you can be, the better; it’s not enough to simply say, “Be more patient.” Instead, consider what specific instances make you seem impatient, and have precise changes you can make (like taking a walk around the office instead of waiting for an email at your desk).
Have your manager and direct reports (if applicable) identify your areas for improvement
Understanding how others react to you will make you a better leader and a better team player. When asking for feedback, be sure to adopt what is commonly known as a growth mindset. Remember that this feedback is ultimately to your benefit; having this information will help you to understand what adjustments may be necessary. It is in everyone’s best interest for you to improve, so don’t feel attacked by comments that may at first seem negative.
Once you’ve gathered this feedback, compare and contrast it with your own assessment. Again, where is there overlap? Where is there diversion? Don’t be afraid to ask your teammates how you can improve, and be specific with your line of questioning. Your goal is to gather specific action items that you could take to be a more effective employee.
Identify someone as your goal
Instead of identifying your dream job, identify your dream person. Whether at your company or somewhere else entirely, find someone who emulates the traits or has the job that you see yourself in 10, 20, or 30 years down the road. If picking a single person seems impossible, that’s fine, too! Elect an entire dream cohort. Regardless, the goal is to begin thinking through your goal persons’ background and CV. What did her career progression look like? What strategic moves did she make? Don’t underestimate the power of LinkedIn or online biographies in helping to uncover this information.
This could provide a solid foundation from which to build your own personal development plan, complete with goal roles and goal timelines. Share this information with your manager and your team, and have open and honest conversations about how you can begin to map onto this plan.
This is not to say that you should simply copy someone else’s path; of course, each personal development plan is personal. That said, drawing inspiration from someone who has achieved your idea of success (this is why defining success at the outset was so important!) can be quite illuminating.
Set monthly meetings with your manager/direct reports about this
Having a personal development plan is all for nought if you’re not frequently revisiting it; not for the sake of making edits, but for the sake of staying honest. Once a month, dedicate time to speak to your manager about your progress toward your goals—both in terms of your perception and your manager’s perception. What are you doing well? How could you be doing better?
If applicable, have similar meetings with your direct reports. Those who work for you are often the most genuine reflections of your work style. Ask them not only how you’re doing, but how they’re doing as well—be purposeful in making time to determine the type of manager you are, and how that does (or ought to) affect your development plan.
Write things down
This may sound trite, but too often, a personal development plan is something that lives only in our heads. But to make it tangible and real, be purposeful about taking note of what you’re good and could be better at.
Make a habit of bringing a laptop or something to write on and with to your meetings—in fact, this was some of the best advice I received at McKinsey about personal development. Make it obvious that you’re trying to improve and interested in learning by bringing the necessary equipment to the table. Only then can you document how far you’ve come and where you’d still like to go.