How to design a personal development plan

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Cynics who scoff at the idea of introducing personal development plans take heed: the need for effective staff training has never been more urgent. Consider the ructions digital disruption is bringing to global labour markets, and the anxiety felt by workers fearful of losing their jobs. Speaking at Davos this year, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff described a looming “digital refugee” crisis. World leaders recognise that closing a rising gap between rich and poor can only be achieved by engineering a massive forced re-distribution of wealth, or by making people more employable through better training.

Personal development plans can go deeper than your everyday performance review. They offer managers and their staff an effective survival template. It’s just a matter of doing them right – so they don’t become the tedious box-ticking exercise so many consider them to be.


It’s about them, not you

Even when staff are eager to impress, there’s a risk they’ll see development plans as a chore. That is, unless managers stop concentrating on their own needs and appeal to their staff’s passions and abilities. Of course, the reason for even bothering with growth plans is to address business needs. The holy grail, then, is to create a plan that simultaneously excites staff. If that’s not possible, try to cover at least one motivational factor other than business need, while doing as much as possible to make workers feel like they own the process.

“Personal development does not necessarily imply upward movement,” says the UK’s Chartered Management Institute. “Rather, it’s about enabling individuals to improve their performance and reach their full potential at each stage of their career.” Don’t get too carried away, though. Have a written copy of your business model at hand to ensure employee needs gel with those of the company.


Be serious or don’t bother

One of the key ingredients to making a personal development plan work is engendering a sense of trust. At a basic level, that means regularly finding time for staff. But it could also mean finding money. Access to finance, equipment or outside professional training could well be needed. As HSBC warns, “If you underestimate the resources required, you risk setting employees up to fail and damaging morale, productivity and the trust of employees.”

Getting serious about development plans also means getting serious about their structures. You need to do more than simply asking staff to write down their skills and hobbies. Philip Clifford, Associate Dean for Research at the University of Illinois, told science journal Nature that they should have four key components. These include sections for self-assessment and reflection, career choices and pathways, explicit short and long term goals, and ways to achieve and implement those goals.

You may also want to determine who staff want to be taught by and how they would like to learn. An effective (though quite lengthy) questionnaire for determining preferred learning styles can be found here.



Review on a regular basis

How often development plans should be reviewed is a contentious question. Review too regularly and staff could feel suffocated. Review too sparsely and they could have veered too far from the plan. HSBC recommends that personal development plans for new recruits happen monthly for the first three months, moving to quarterly reviews thereafter. For more established employees, plans should be reviewed at least twice a year.

Scontrino-Powell, a US organisational psychology practice, recommends setting specific goals with hard deadlines. Plans could then be reviewed quarterly with one-on-one meetings with the boss. Longer term goals can be broken down to shorter term chunks, and checked regularly. Strengthening creative thinking skills, for example, could involve attending a conference and writing a one-page summary of top products on display and what made them so special.

If employees are failing to achieve their targets, it’s time to consider a course change. Again, it’s important to make employees feel in control. Offering an opportunity to provide a self-assessment form gives them scope to suggest how they, and the process, can be improved.


Personal development plans are for everyone, even you

Nobody wants to feel singled out. So it’s important that development plans apply widely in an organisation – even to the boss. Traps managers can fall into include a failure to recognise their own weaknesses, a tendency to micro-manage, and an inability to listen to advice.

They can also be bad at providing encouragement. A recent study conducted by employment consultancy Zenger Folkman found that 21 per cent of subjects admitted to avoiding giving negative feedback. Even more concerning, a greater proportion, 37 per cent, avoided giving positive feedback.

Bringing in an external consultant to conduct a 360 review, where staff rate their boss, could start the planning process. The reviewer could then help the manager devise a personal development plan that addresses staff concerns. Reverse-mentoring programs could factor into a boss’s own growth strategy. Crucially, it’s important to establish that managers themselves have the appropriate skills to conduct personal development plans. And learning how to do one could even form part of their own plan.