With the help of an effective and strategic personal development plan (PDP), we can steer our careers in a definitive direction, keeping ourselves relevant, employable and fulfilled.
In The German Ideology, published in 1845, Karl Marx describes a communist utopia in which everyone has the option of doing a range of different jobs, at will, every day, with no “one exclusive sphere of activity”. He imagines being able “to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic”.
Today, that reality may still sound ambitious, but perhaps it’s just a little less unlikely than it might once have been, if not on a daily basis. Statisticians tell us that the average person is likely to change careers five to seven times during their lives, with young people graduating from job hoppers to career chameleons, switching between organisations and industries, picking up transferable skills along the way.
In the modern workplace, then, a career of unvarying drudgery in a single organisation (or even field) is no longer the accepted norm – but neither is coasting. If we’re going to take full advantage of the career opportunities on offer, we’re going to have to prepare and plan accordingly. Ongoing learning is non-negotiable in the fast-paced, ever-changing world of work. Education cannot be frontloaded and forgotten in our long and diverse lives, but must be interspersed throughout.
“If you now work into your 70s or 80s in a rapidly changing job market, then maintaining productivity is no longer about brushing up on knowledge – it is about setting time aside to make fundamental investments in re-learning and re-skilling,” sums up Lynda Gratton in The 100-Year Life: Living and Working in an Age of Longevity.
Whatever career route you choose, whether you go deep or broad or mix up the two, the bottom line is that we need to invest in our ongoing development to remain relevant, employable and fulfilled.
And for that, we need a (cunning) plan.
Investing in ourselves
Specifically, we need a personal development plan (PDP), a document in which we identify and articulate our individual development and career goals, and how we might achieve them. This provides us with our own unique framework for growth; one that supports us to think carefully and strategically about our short- and long-term career aims, to pinpoint areas for improvement, and to note how our current learning fits with our practical goals and ambitions.
At a basic level, a PDP helps us to excel in our current role, guiding us to set and meet goals that improve our performance and meet the immediate requirements and skills needs of the job we’re doing now, incorporating the activities that make up our continuing professional development (CPD).
For CPD goals, we need to take into account the skills, knowledge and experience we need to perform effectively and progress in our roles; assess any development opportunities open to us; consider any professional qualifications that are desirable or mandatory, and identify the sources of internal and external support available to us.
This programme itself constitutes CPD, and as a participant, we ask you to identify how the modules you are following link with your current role and your organisation’s business objectives, liaising with your manager to align course content with your everyday work.
That involves keeping a record of the activities you’ve undertaken – training, research and reading, taking on a new role or supporting others, perhaps – which contribute to your ongoing development in the relevant component on our learning platform (Aptem), or reuploading your PDP as you update it.
A lifelong action plan
Personal development plans, however, should also have a wider focus beyond performance goals over the next 12 months.
A PDP should be a flexible, living action plan – a lifelong process constantly reviewed and adjusted that serves as a tool through which we can future-proof our skills, assess our talents, clarify our (evolving) aspirations and help us to achieve them over the long term. It should take into account our current work context, while at the same time supporting us to forge a dynamic career path.
As such, PDPs must be something that we drive. Employers have a responsibility to support our skills development (and an interest in doing so), but nobody is as passionate about our personal professional development as we are. And who else is better placed to see the full picture of our careers ambitions or to understand our talents and the context of our lives?
Having a plan is also good for our mental wellbeing, helping to clarify our thoughts, limit uncertainty and aid our focus. Ultimately, a PDP is a tangible sign of our self-investment, demonstrating that we feel we are worth the effort, time and energy needed to develop ourselves. Done well, it can be a source of discovery, inspiration and motivation.
Structuring a PDP
While there is no standard format for a personal development plan, and thousands of permutations exist, all plans typically aim to:
- evaluate our current job or career situation.
- identify (immediate and longer-term) career goals, targets and objectives.
- assess gaps in our current skills, knowledge and resources.
- determine actions to acquire these skills and to achieve our goals.
- identify methods for evaluating progress and the appropriate frequency.
Each goal we set must be:
Specific Clear and precise, without vague or ambiguous language
Measurable Objectively measurable
Achievable Realistic – setting unrealistic targets is demotivating
Relevant Demonstrating a clear purpose or benefit
Time-bound Achievable within a defined timeframe
Extending Challenging and stimulating.
Rewarding Providing a defined reward for completion
For instance, in the downloadable template we have designed as a starting point, this translates to the following PDP questions:
- What is my learning goal or objective?
- How – and how often – will I measure progress?
- What resources do I require to achieve this goal?
- How is the goal relevant, with a clear purpose and benefit?
- What is my deadline and timescale?
- What obstacles might I face – and what sources of help could I draw on?
- How does the goal challenge and extend me?
- How will I know when I’ve achieved my goal?
- What will be my reward for achieving my goal?
- Has my goal been achieved? Yes/no. (Any supporting evidence/Reasons for no).
However, the whole point of a ‘personal development plan’ is that it is personal, so each of us should tailor the format of our planning document to meet our own needs and preferences.
Intelligent short- and long-term goal-setting lies at the heart of an effective PDP and requires careful consideration and prioritisation, as well as a healthy dose of self-awareness. Before spelling out any objectives, we need to consider what makes us tick and where our talents lie, visualising our ideal future, and gauging what it might take to get us there.
What does self-assessment tell us about ourselves and our characteristics?
While personality testing has its flaws, methods such as the Sova/Future Talent Learning Personality Assessment, based on the HEXACO six-factor model of personality traits, can give us important insight into our own default traits and how these can support or derail us as leaders, generating actions for CPD and wider development.
What energises us and makes us feel strong?
For Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall, authors of Nine Lies About Work, a strength is more about appetite than ability; it’s that appetite that makes us determined to keep working at it and that, in the end, produces the skill improvement necessary for excellent performance.
Do we aspire to specialism or to be a generalist – or a mix of the two?
Are we more inclined to embrace the so-called ‘hedgehog nature’ in the manner of Italian sculptor Michelangelo – who stayed true to his calling from the age of 13 – or follow the path of a generalist ‘fox’ such as his polymath peer Leonardo da Vinci – an artist, scientist, architect and engineer.
Might we instead work to cultivate breadth and depth in our careers, taking a T-shaped approach to career development, as advocated by consultant and coach, Nick Lovegrove for today’s age of agility? Note that specialists tend to thrive in ‘kind’ environments, where patterns recur and feedback is unequivocal, while generalists enjoy ‘wicked’ environments, where patterns are less easy to establish, and feedback is unclear or even non-existent.
Other factors to bear in mind include how we prefer to learn and our tendency towards introversion or extroversion. If we generally focus inwards, rather than gaining energy from other people and the external world, we may need to factor these behaviours and preferences into our learning, development and role choices. Introverts often prefer one-to-one conversations, listen more, reflect before making decisions, share ideas when prompted, and struggle with change, where extroverts enjoy group conversations, speak more, make decisions quickly, speak up in meetings, and easily accept change. On the other hand, we also need to learn how to operate outside our default preferences. Whatever these are, our PDPs should provide enough challenge to support our growth and development outside our comfort zones too.
That’s why self-awareness is such an important precursor to this kind of planning. The more we know about ourselves, the better we will be able to set out meaningful goals.
A campaign strategy for our careers
To gain an idea of where we want to progress to, Marc Effron, president of The Talent Strategy Group, suggests writing ‘from/to’ statements, one (briefly) describing where we are today, the other detailing our next big (not our ultimate) destination. These must be honest and direct, ideally involving input from trusted colleagues who can provide a candid view of our origin and destination. For example:
From the leader of a small HR team, who adds value through professional expertise and positive relationships, to a strategic people leader who influences C-suite.
His second step is to create a personal experiences map, showing which functional and management experiences we want to acquire in the next two to five years to grow our career.
Taking inspiration from political campaigns, Dorie Clark, adjunct professor at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and author of Entrepreneurial You, suggests formulating a campaign strategy for our careers, looking beyond today’s skills gaps and tomorrow’s promotions to our vision for ourselves five or 10 years down the line. Broadening our perspective in this way may involve researching, in detail, the skills and affiliations of the people we wish to emulate and identifying the gaps between their experience and ours. It might also be instructive to pre-write ideal future CVs, listing education attained, positions gained and any other relevant factors.
Clark highlights one executive who went so far as to emulate the biographies of people he admired, even taking up marathon training to follow in the (literal) footsteps of one hero, in a bid to gain similar benefits – perhaps of focus, resilience and mental wellbeing.
To get from ‘here to there’, we must develop our plan around mini goals and milestones, picking an (adjustable) endpoint and outlining markers along the way, from application deadlines for study to opportunities to join company or external initiatives, and other chances to increase our professional visibility. Becoming strategic about networking involves ensuring that influential people know who we are – for example, attending (or even speaking at) the conferences they go to, sharing or commenting on their social media posts, and joining relevant groups and committees.
Support and mentorship
Some of these new contacts might even become our current or future mentors. Mentorship is an important part of career development and helpful for developing an effective PDP, providing different perspectives on our strengths, weaknesses, objectives and career ambitions. Having the support of a trusted adviser will aid us in setting realistic goals and maintaining momentum towards them, keeping us motivated (and accountable). In fact, finding the right mentor could even be part of our PDP, particularly if we are at a career crossroads or feel ‘stuck’.
During this programme, you will gain valuable support from your coach, but we also encourage you to select a mentor inside or outside of work (perhaps with the help of your line manager or someone in your network) whose experiences resonate with your specific needs and goals.
As our own self-development pays off, preparing us to seize opportunities and to progress in our careers, we can return the favour, helping to develop others as we have developed ourselves.
Test your understanding
- Consider how this Transformational Leadership Programme fits into your CPD and your wider PDP.
- Outline some of the factors you will bear in mind before developing your own PDP goals.
- Try writing a ‘from/to’ statement to clarify where you’d like to progress to in your career.
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