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4 Steps for Setting (and Achieving) Professional Development Goals

June 11, 2020
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If you want to take your career to the next level, one of the first things you should focus on is professional development. Making sure that you’ve cultivated — and continue to hone — a portfolio of in-demand skills and proficiencies can be that boost that enables you to rise within your company or take exciting opportunities elsewhere. One way to ensure that you’re continuously adding to your skillset is to set professional development goals: concrete plans to learn new abilities, obtain new certifications, or develop additional expertise in valuable areas.

Unlike performance goals which might be set for you by a supervisor or manager, professional development goals aren’t tied to specific job tasks and expectations, such as increasing sales a set percent or acquiring a certain number of new leads. Rather, a professional development plan is designed to augment broader competencies that enhance your overall value, like mastering a new technology or getting leadership training. And while some companies offer a robust professional development program, others leave it up to individual employees to create and implement one for themselves. Regardless of which situation you’re in, the way to go about this is the same. Here are four steps for successfully setting — and achieving — your professional development goals.

1. Set your target.

The first step for setting effective professional development goals is to home in on what characteristics or skills you’d like to develop, and what problems your employer is looking to solve. For example, maybe you’d like to grow your network or learn a new programming language. Or perhaps the company where you work wants to expand into video, and they need more people to be trained in editing software and production best practices. If you’re working within a corporate structure, your supervisor may weigh-in on what competencies they see as critical for your advancement. But if you’re figuring out your path on your own, start brainstorming.

Leila Bulling Towne, founder of The Bulling Towne Group, an executive coaching and leadership firm, highlighted two frameworks she uses to help clients set the right goals for themselves: “stop/start/continue,” in which you look at behaviors or habits you need to stop, begin, and keep up, and “current state versus ideal state,” in which you think about the differences between where you are now and where you want to be. Both of these methods can generate ideas for what kinds of skills you should be cultivating, she said.

And be sure you don’t get stuck only thinking about the areas in which you want to get better. While working on improving a weakness is often the first place employees start, “people forget they have strengths in their portfolio to leverage,” said Tim Toterhi, founder of high-impact career coaching consulting firm Plotline Leadership and author of The Introvert’s Guide to Job Hunting: How to Outshine the Competition. You can certainly improve your public speaking or finally learn how to make pivot tables in Excel, he said. But you can also take “something you’re good at and make it even better so you can reach the next level and make it part of your brand.”

2. Do your research.

Make sure you’re looking closely at the people who already are where you want to be. Ephraim Schachter, President of Schachter Consulting, where he specializes in helping CEOs and CXOs and their teams prepare for leadership roles, and creator of The CSuite Accelerator Executive Coaching Leadership Curriculum, advised checking out the marketplace. If you want to be a marketing director, then find marketing directors on LinkedIn or other sites, he said.

“Look at their career paths and the organizations they belong to, and look at the commonalities,” said Schachter. “If five out of six marketing directors attend a certain conference, then attend that conference. If they have spent time developing their design skills, then sign up for a design skills class.”

Schachter said that researching what other people have done can give you the clarity that’s essential for this process.

“This doesn’t have to be mysterious,” he said. “There are other people already succeeding in what you want to do that you can emulate.” 

3. Get buy-in.

If you’re working within a corporate framework, or even just hoping to get your supervisor’s sign-off for dedicated time and resources to pursue your objectives, it’s critical that you have support. In order to obtain it, make a case for how your development aligns with your company’s priorities.

“In a way, you're selling your professional development goals to your manager, and they need to tie-in to company goals,” Bulling Towne said. “They should be very tangible. Tangible is what corporations can grab onto.” Having this conversation lets your manager know you're looking to move forward in your career.

4. Make yourself accountable.

Start by creating a system to hold yourself accountable. Schachter recommended scheduling frequent, periodic reminders in your calendar. “Look at your goals at least every quarter, and every week do something to further [them],” he said. “Monitor that weekly or monthly, then reevaluate.”

And all the experts agreed that making yourself accountable to someone else is essential. “The vast majority of us cannot be held accountable by ourselves,” Bulling Towne said.

Totehri recommended asking for feedback in real time. For example, if you’ve made it your mission to improve your presentations, ask if you can have five minutes to check in with your supervisor or a trusted and respected colleague after you speak at your next meeting. “You get that instant feedback and that’s what can propel you to continue to drive the habit,” he said.


The bottom line: Deliberately choosing thoughtful, achievable professional development goals can make your work more fulfilling and advance your career in the process. But improving your skills and enhancing your learning can pay off in more than just career advancement.

“The development piece helps you at work, but it helps you at home, too. It optimizes [your] experience of being alive,” Schachter said. “Hopefully, we’re works in progress our whole lives.”

Now all you have to do is implement these steps and start jotting down some ideas for embarking on this rewarding process of continued, lifelong learning.