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Take Charge of Your Professional Development

It is the time of year when many of us are working on performance reviews and developing plans with our direct reports to track their professional accomplishments over the next year. These plans may involve milestones for the development of their skills and abilities, or may just be a list of projects to complete. Whether a focus on growth is part of your annual review or not, it is a good idea to take charge of your professional development and work through a plan of your own.

Professional Development Plan

If you agree, then you have to figure out how to create a Personal Development Plan (PDP). While it's a popular term, most people flail around trying to figure out how to create a good one or just fall back on whatever development plans might be included in their company annual performance review template. I've done some research over the years and can help guide you through the process.

Begin with Why?

When developing your PDP, knowing why you are doing this is always a good place to start. Some common reasons are:

  • To move into another position (move up in the organization)
  • To get a new job
  • To get better at what I do

I tend to focus on that last one year after year, and it pretty much takes care of the first two as my skills are recognized and capitalized upon by my company. If I were earlier in my career, however, I might focus on the position and job goals a bit more.

A good PDP is going to address your need to improve, practice, and grow professionally, while also balancing the needs of your organization. Some questions to help get you started in thinking about your purpose and what should be in your PDP include:

  • What skills/knowledge do I currently possess?
  • What skills/knowledge do I need?
  • What skills/knowledge does my organization need from me?
  • Where do I want to be in my profession in 5 years?
  • What skills/knowledge will I need to grow into that role?
  • How can I improve or strengthen?

Then Decide What and How?

Now that you have settled on why you want a PDP and have done a self-assessment to help identify general areas for development, it's time to get more specific. Dorie Clark, a marketing strategist and professional speaker, identified three primary forms of professional development in a Jan-2016 article for Harvard Business Review. You might consider goals in each of these areas:

  1. Learning: includes the skills you want to acquire and interesting trends on the horizon. 
  2. Connecting: includes building a strong internal network and then looking outside your organization to make strong industry connections.
  3. Creating: includes creating content and sharing insights to help crystallize your own knowledge and get your expertise recognized.

Some additional questions you might consider as you develop the what and how for your PDP include:

  • How will I judge the quality of my work?
  • How will I measure progress against my goals?
  • How will I know I have accomplished my learning goals?
  • How can I embed the professional development strategies I choose into my workday?
  • How can I work with others to address my goals?

When selecting professional development strategies, begin by casting a wide net to discover the possibilities. Look for courses or programs of study (as appropriate to your goals), interest groups to discuss and learn with (you can find many of these online), or professional groups that meet periodically in your area or online.  You can also find good books and other publications to read, bloggers to follow, webinars to attend, or groups to volunteer with that allow you to practice your skills.

Some techniques that may be helpful include:

  • In the Learning development area, use an RSS Reader to follow influential bloggers in your skill areas and devote up to one hour per day to keeping up with what they are writing. The RSS Reader will deliver the articles to you rather than you having to waste time going out to find the articles. Over time, you can add additional blogs and websites, and remove those that are no longer relevant to your development.
  • In the Connecting development area, develop a power map or a stakeholder map where you map out the influencers on your career and color code each person for the strength of your relationship. Be sure to map out the influencers on your influencers as sometimes strengthening your relationship with one of these secondary people can help improve your relationship with your direct influencer. Once you have your map, develop goals for strengthening the weak relationships and maintaining the strong ones.
  • In the Creating development area, keep a journal to reflect regularly on your day and what worked and what did not. Taking time to reflect is one of the most reliable ways to develop your abilities. As you get comfortable writing, you might consider writing articles for different websites or building your own blog.

You want the professional development strategies you include in your PDP to stretch you a bit while still being realistic. Don't overburden yourself so much that you are doomed to failure before you begin. And be sure to leave room to take advantage of opportunities as they present themselves during the year.

Make sure to write down your PDP. One of my favorite templates is in a spreadsheet format with columns for:

  • My development goals
    • What needs to happen to achieve the goal (i.e., objectives)
    • Timeframes / Milestones
    • Obstacles that might arise
    • Strategies for improving my chances of meeting my goal
    • Supports I can use in meeting my goal
    • Periodic review - How am I doing? (left blank until I review my progress)

    Now What?

    You've developed your PDP, so what happens now? The obvious answer is to work your plan, and that's really important. Keep your plan handy to review on a regular basis (weekly, monthly, quarterly) to make sure you don't forget about it. I like to look at it weekly to see what "to-do's" I need to incorporate into my next week, monthly to reinforce my weekly "to-do's," and quarterly to assess my progress and what adjustments I need to make. Annually, then, I start over from scratch to adjust for the things that change.

    You should also think about with whom you should share your PDP. Sharing with other people can help you stay committed to the plan, but it can also give you support you might not have known existed. You don't have to share it with your supervisor, although a good supervisor can often suggest additional resources and help you in taking the time to work your plan. But not every supervisor is supportive of personal development. Other people you might consider sharing your PDP with include your spouse or significant other, a colleague in your office, a trusted advisor or mentor, or even a professional coach who can help you develop and work your PDP.

    Of course, your PDP is really up to you. You are the one who benefits from it, and you are the one that has to do the work to see improvements. Just recognize that the PDP is never "final" and it's never "done." There is always more professional development to be had and what needs to be done changes as circumstances change. If you have to adjust your PDP during the year, that's not a problem. To be effective, a PDP is a living document that changes over time.

    Finally, just because most people use the end of one year and the beginning of a new year as a convenient time to make changes in their life doesn't mean that this is when you have to do a PDP. I find the holiday season with all it's busyness to be the wrong time for me to do all the personal reflection that I need as a basis for a useful PDP. Instead, I wait a couple of months until my birthday - a much quieter time of year and still a good milestone for starting new things - to do my significant work for a PDP. I still have to do my annual review and development of a new annual plan on the company's timeline, but I complete my more in-depth, more thorough PDP on my schedule. Do what works for you.