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How to create a realistic employee development plan

Crafting a path to success involves a clear plan. So how do you develop a realistic employee development plan?

There’s no magic formula that inspires employee loyalty. Everybody wants different things from their job. But there are several factors that do seem to influence retention rates: recognition, responsibility, fair remuneration, and a clearly defined path of progression. Ping-pong tables and gimmicky perks, not so much.  

That last one, progression, is something every company can control. If staff can see opportunities within the company, and they feel the company is invested in their professional development, they’re more likely to stick around. About 34 percent more likely, according to some sources. There are other benefits, too. Research from Deloitte indicates that organisations with a strong learning culture are 92 per cent more likely to develop novel products, and 52 per cent more productive.  

So how do you develop a realistic employee development plan?  


1. Set clear objectives 

To begin, you need to define exactly what the employee wants out of their role, and their career. This will help you formulate some specific objectives for the development plan. These objectives should factor in the employee’s skills, knowledge and competence, and (ideally) align with the company’s goals. It’s meant to be a mutually beneficial arrangement, not a one-way street.  


2. Assess current skills 

Next, try and measure the current skillset of your employee. You can do this through self-assessments, performance reviews, and feedback from managers and colleagues. This will give you a well-rounded picture of your starting point. And once you know that, you’ll be able to spot areas for improvement and potential growth. Try to be realistic with this assessment. There’s no shame in identifying professional weaknesses; that’s the whole point of training.  


3. Define a timeline 

What goals does the employee want to hit in six months? A year? Five years? It’s probably not necessary to go beyond that scope, but try to define some sort of timeline. Start with smaller, easier-to-reach objectives, and build up to more ambitious career goals. Maybe completing a Bachelor’s degree, or moving into an entirely different department.  


4. Prioritise development needs 

Next, prioritise the development needs based on their relevance and importance. That’s their relevance to the employee and the company. Consider the employee's role and career aspirations, as well as the organisation's wider strategic objectives. Focus on the skills that will have the most immediate impact on performance and growth. 


5. Create an Action Plan 

Develop an action plan for the employee that outlines the specific steps and timelines for their development. Break down the development activities into manageable tasks, and set realistic deadlines. With the key word being ‘realistic’. You can lean on SMART goals for this task. SMART goals are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-Bound. It’s a good methodology for designing a tangible development plan (rather than a set of vague aspirations).  


6. Provide resources and support 

The plan is in place, now all we need are resources. The most obvious of these is budget – setting aside dedicated funds for employee training and development. According to RMIT Online research, about 77 per cent of managers say they could be doing more to upskill their staff, so there’s definitely room for improvement here. But money isn’t everything. Try to find time and learning materials, too, and perhaps a mentor (either within the company or external). 


7. Monitor progress 

Schedule time for regular check-ins so you and the employee can track their progress. You can stagger these at different intervals, depending on the nature of the development goals: perhaps once a month for the first few months, and then bi-monthly after that. Find a cadence that suits both of you. And don’t be afraid to adapt or tweak the goals themselves, if circumstances change or new opportunities pop up. The questions you need to keep asking are: Is this plan still relevant? Is it still helpful? Is it still having an impact?  


8. Recognise and reward 

Celebrate milestones on your employee’s journey, and share their progress with the wider team (if they’re comfortable with that). You can also improve workplace learning by encouraging employees to share their findings and new skills within the organisation. That way everybody benefits from training. This is what people mean by ‘learning culture’: fostering a company-wide attitude towards lifelong learning and continuous development. This isn’t just good for staff, it’s good business. Deloitte has found that companies with a strong learning culture are 17 per cent more profitable.  

This article was originally published on 24 July 2023