You Need a Career Development Plan

You can't navigate your way to career success without first plotting a course. This career development plan strategy will help you figure out where you want to go and exactly how to get there.

Rachel Cooke
6-minute read
Episode #604
The Quick And Dirty

Owning your career development is the fastest path to whatever your vision for success may be. Here are the steps to build a plan to get you there:

  • Begin with career goals. You need to have goals in mind before you can make a plan to reach them.
  • Collect strategies. Note different ways to learn and network.
  • Build a plan. What concrete steps will you take to grow your knowledge and skills?
  • Align with your boss. Or don't. Maybe you're on a path to self-sufficiency!
  • Be accountable. Your plan only works if you use it.
  • Be flexible. If you find your plan doesn't inspire you, change it up.

The other day a client said “I feel like I’m as smart as everyone I work for. When is it going to be my turn to be the one in charge?”

Maybe you’ve never said it out loud, but have you ever had some version of the same feeling? I suspect we all have at some point. Sometimes the professional waiting game can feel eternal. When do I get to be the boss? Or the one interfacing with the client? Or the one to decide or hire or teach or lead the meetings?

These aren't just idle questions; they're a little thing I like to call career goals. They're the aspirations that drive us.

But asking questions is only a start. If you're going to meet your goals, you need a career development plan.

What is a career development plan?

The words "career development plan" seem to describe something formal and specific, much like a business or marketing plan. But in reality, your career development plan can be as informal as you'd like. As long as you define the purpose of your plan and understand how it serves your career goals, you can design and rock a plan that will get you where you want to go.

Career development is simply a strategic set of actions you take to grow in your career by building your knowledge, skills, and experience.

So, let’s talk about it. Career development is simply a strategic set of actions you take to grow in your career by building your knowledge, skills, and experience. And your career development plan is a written account of those actions.

Do you need a written plan? No. But it’s a great way to stay motivated and committed to your own career. A strong career development plan will position you to move further and faster, expanding your definition of success, and empowering you to achieve it on your terms.

How to build a career development plan

The good news is you only need two things to build a career development plan, and neither of them is money.

You need goals and commitment. That’s it.

Sometimes bigger companies will have formal development programs, but many don’t. And those that do often require you to be nominated and follow their schedule, their agenda. These programs tend to be tailored to the company’s needs and goals. Those company goals may or may not align with your own.

My advice today is about defining your goals, your terms, and then customizing your development accordingly.

Here’s how I’d suggest approaching it.

Begin with career goals

Where do you want to be in five years? Five months? You may have total clarity and a concrete goal.

I want to be the senior manager of the engagement team.

Or your sense may be more nebulous.

I’m getting tired of spreadsheets. I think I’d like to be doing something more research-based.

There are no laws of career clarity. Whatever your goals—however specific they are or are not—you can work with them.

The great news? You’re not tattooing these goals on yourself. You have my permission to switch gears or change your mind at any time.

But begin with the end in mind. Where do you want to go in your career? You can't begin plotting a course without a destination.

Collect strategies

Once you have a destination in mind, it’s time to build the roadmap. This is where strategies and tactics come into play. Here’s where you start to ask questions, not only of yourself, but also of trusted colleagues and mentors around you.

If X is your career goal, then what steps can you take to move in that direction? Is there content you need to learn? Are there experts you need to meet? Do you need certain on-the-job experiences? Are there programs offered by your company you can take advantage of?

Consider who and what you have access to and jot down a list of strategies you might build into your plan. Some of my faves include:

  • Try LinkedIn Learning. Can you take online courses to build your skills and knowledge?
  • Sit in on other team meetings. Can you listen in on how the marketing or analytics team discusses its day-to-day?
  • Attend conferences, webinars, and other professional events. You'll learn and network at the same time.
  • Job shadow. Can you follow and learn from someone in your company who holds your dream job?
  • Find a peer mentor. Being able to tap the knowledge of someone with the skills and experience you aspire to is invaluable.
  • Read. Articles, professional journals, books ... there's so much you can learn from thought leaders in your industry.
  • Follow hashtags and conversations on social media. What conversations are happening on LinkedIn that you can learn from?
  • Internal programs. Does your company have an internal learning and development catalog? What can you take advantage of?

Choose some strategies that feel compelling and in line with your goals.

Align with your boss. Or don’t.

If your goal is to move up or across within your current organization, then it’s a good idea to align with your boss before you make your plan official. The more your boss understands your career goals, the more they can support you in working towards achieving them.

Your boss may be able to help mentor you, nominate you for company programs and job rotations, or suggest people to add to your network.

There are, times when aligning with your boss may not be the thing to do.

But there are, times when aligning with your boss may not be the thing to do. Before I became my own boss, I had the requisite development plan in place designed to move me up my company's ladder. But in the role I held, I had the good fortune of partnering with various coaches and consultants. And those partnerships helped me realize that starting my own leadership consulting business was what I wanted to do.

So I crafted my own career development plan. I started taking consultants to lunch and coffee. I’d ask them about how they started, what I should read and learn, who I should meet. I captured and followed their advice. That became my secret ninja development plan, and now I’m running the business I dreamed of.

Build a plan

Turning ideas and tactics into a plan is as simple as thinking through sequences and timelines. Your enthusiasm may tempt you to dive in, but remember this: Crawl before walking before running.

Before you start talking to a potential mentor or hitting a networking event, you may want to focus on reading some books and taking an online course or two. Learning some basic lingo and philosophies relevant to your chosen career path will prepare you for having productive conversations with experts.

Your enthusiasm may tempt you to dive in, but remember this: Crawl before walking before running.

So, give some thought to how much you can take on at once, and how urgently you want to achieve your goals. From there, start plotting out a timeline of activities and milestones you’d like to hit along the way.

There’s your plan. Bam.

Be accountable

Having a plan is like having a gym membership. You see where this is going, right? Career development plans and gym memberships only work if you use them. So give that plan a workout.

Schedule “career development” time on your calendar and protect it as much as you’re able. Use that time to read, network, and take classes.

Check in periodically—with a boss, a mentor, or an accountability buddy—to ensure you’re doing what you promised yourself.


Be flexible

Remember what I said about your career development plan not being tattooed on you permanently? Stay flexible as you go. Maybe you set out to learn to code, but now that you’ve taken a class or two, you have yet to feel lit up. No sweat. What can you try instead?

Pay attention to not only what you've been learning, but also how you feel about it.

Part of career development is learning more about yourself as you go. Pay attention to not only what you've been learning, but also how you feel about it. Are you feeling inspired and motivated? Be ready to say no and change directions.

At the end of the day, your career development plan is all in service of you. No one's going to make you do it—it's your investment in your future self. So make that down payment today and let the dividends start paying off.

About the Author

Rachel Cooke

Rachel Cooke is a leadership and workplace expert who holds her M.A. in Organizational Psychology from Columbia University. Founder of Lead Above Noise, she has been named a top 100 Leadership Speaker by Inc. Magazine and has been featured in Fast Company, The Huffington Post, and many more.