Creating a Professional Development Plan - with Examples


August 02, 2021 - Dom Barnard

"The only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be." - Ralph Waldo Emerson.

No matter where you are currently employed - or if you are embarked on a study programme - your prospects hinge largely on the effort, time and energy that you invest in yourself. This is why creating a professional development plan is so important.

If you are an employer, working with your team to help them to build these plans can be a valuable way to unlock their potential and keep them motivated in their career.

What is a professional development plan?

This guide will include examples, but a professional development plan will look different for everyone! It is fundamentally a strategy to get you where you want to be in your career. Though you could also include your work-life balance goals if you choose to.

Your plan sets out the steps needed to advance in your chosen profession and the methods you will use to support and evaluate your progress. Alongside each step is the external resources and personal activities you will need to achieve each milestone.

Some employers put professional development plans in place to match each employee’s personal goals with the organisation’s business objectives. However, you could create your own plan, and include lifelong learning goals and long term objectives.

Why bother planning your professional development?

"The best way to predict the future is to create it." - Abraham Lincoln.

We spend a large part of our lives at work, yet studies show that over 50% of people are dissatisfied with their current role. If you are keen to advance your career, you are not alone, as 76% of employees are ambitious to find job growth opportunities.

However, simply wanting to advance is not enough. To make changes, strategically and consistently, the ideal solution is to create a professional development plan.

Having transparency over your progress will help keep you on course and helps you to optimise all the opportunities for lifelong learning.

You can create your plan with your existing employer to structure how they can support your progression and invest in you. It can clarify your ambitions concerning job prospects within your current organisation.

However, your plan is also something you can share with future employers or business investors. It can be a measure of how far you have come professionally, and a way of demonstrating what you are doing to further enhance and expand your experience and skills.

Can someone self-employed have a professional development plan? Absolutely! It could be that yours is structured around goals to build your business venture, grow your profit and eventually execute an effective exit strategy, for example.

What to include in a professional development plan

Much depends on what your ultimate goals are. For many, this will be promotions and career advancements that lead to your ideal position of authority. Other people may frame their plan around a career shift and securing a fulfilling post that serves their personal rather than financial interests.

Your plan could even be designed to take you towards being your own boss one day.

Whatever your goals are, the basic components of a professional development plan are:

  • Where are you now, and where do you want to be?
  • The resources and help you need to progress.
  • The training support needed at each stage.
  • Work experience that would help you to achieve your goals.
  • Proactive things you can do in your own time to reach your goals.
  • A timetable for achieving each stage.
  • A system for measuring your progress.

Most people create a professional development plan as a spreadsheet, or a table that lists the individual steps, how they can be achieved, and a deadline for each one.

There are templates you can download or you could design your own with a series of columns to structure your strategy and resource matrix.

To help you, below are more detailed examples of the sort of information you can put into your professional development plan.

Setting professional development goals

Appraisal of your current situation and your goals

"I think the things you regret in life are the things you didn’t do." - Steve Jobs.

The starting point of all professional development plans is to collect information about where you are now and where you ultimately want to get to.

Give some thought to your immediate ambitions, and also your medium and long-term goals. What obstacles stand in your way?

You need to do an audit of your current specialist and transferrable skills; your employer may be willing to help with this by providing a Training Needs Analysis. From this, you can formulate a list of new abilities you will need to achieve each step of your plan (see resourcing your plan below).

Keep in mind that your personality matters too, and strengths and weaknesses may impact your development plan. Do you lack confidence or find concentration an issue?

When gathering the information you need for your professional development plan, it could be appropriate to seek input from your line manager or personal tutor. They may well have insights you can use to frame the content.

Remember, to succeed, you need SMART goals - Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-Bound (SMART).

Building a structure for your actionable plan

With your starting point and end goals clarified, you now need to map out the steps that can take you where you want to go!

Against each step, you place a list of actions and resources that can make them a reality. This could be lifelong training and education activities, for instance, that build your knowledge and understanding at each step. Or, your path to progress through professional qualifications.

Keep in mind that some of your goals may also require you to build experience. This could include unpaid placements or shadowing colleagues, for example, and finding other ways to grow your job-role familiarity and confidence.

Also, though framing your professional development plan with the work skills you need for your niche is important, don’t forget to consider the so-called "soft skills"; sometimes referred to as power skills.

Not all promotions are secured with professional qualifications or even work experience to date. Many posts also rely on you being able to demonstrate you have acquired abilities in things such as communication, problem-solving and emotionally intelligent leadership. Can you prove you’ve invested in your time management skills, critical thinking and conflict resolution abilities, for example?

These are things that are hard to quantify or prove. However, having a professional development plan can help you keep track of how you are working to acquire them, relevant courses you can do, and vivid examples of you putting those skills into action.

There may also be skill-building exercises you can do that are entirely personal to you to help you to achieve each step of your plan. For instance, becoming more confident about public speaking, developing better negotiating skills or being more assertive. You may want to keep this part of your journey to yourself, and simply demonstrate your newfound skills in job interviews and everyday life!

A system of regular reviews and adjustments

Even the best professional development plan will need to be a ‘working document’, subject to updates and changes as you progress through your career.

Not least, when you put yourself on a path to lifelong learning, it can create opportunities and ambitions you may not have thought of when you started.

So, as part of your plan, build in periodic reviews of your progress to date, and take time to refresh the next steps and your ultimate goals if needed.

Why timescales are important in a professional development plan

Evaluating your progress relies firmly on having clear career steps laid out, but also on establishing deadlines for achieving them. Framing your professional development plan according to time is an excellent way to maintain your focus and motivation. Otherwise, you may find you start to ‘drift’ and lose momentum in your development.

As part of creating a SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-Bound) professional development plan, it’s important to have valid deadlines to complete each step. Also, don’t be disheartened and abandon the plan if you miss a key time goal. Simply adjust your plan and stay on track to reach your endpoint in a new timeframe.

Professional development plan summary

As this is your own personal blueprint for career success, an ‘off the shelf’ version will only get you so far.

However, example sections when creating a professional development plan could be:

  • Self-analysis – current career status and personal skill set.
  • Employer input – a Training Needs Analysis for your current and future roles in the organisation.
  • A set of SMART goals.
  • A set of incremental steps to reach your ultimate goal.
  • Resources and actions assigned to each step to support your progress.
  • A timescale for each step.
  • Clarity on how you will evaluate your progress.
  • Periodic reviews to update and amend your plan.

Lastly, you need things that you can’t add to your physical professional development plan. You need to be determined to make it happen and stay on course, which takes self-belief, discipline and a strong work ethic.

"Your success will be determined by your own confidence and fortitude." - Michelle Obama.