Unless you’re running your own company (and even if you are), there are a lot of things that are out of your control when it comes to work. But one thing that’s more within your control than you may think is your career path, and that’s where individual development plans (IDPs) come in.
IDPs allow you to be an active participant in your career by mapping out your professional trajectory. Think of them like a GPS for your career: You have a goal or destination in mind, and a path to get there, though sometimes the path can get rerouted due to traffic or shortcuts. Taking the time to write an individual development plan can pay off both in terms of short- and long-term career growth and development, but it requires more than just jotting down what you want and don’t want at work. An IDP is also not a one-and-done exercise. Just like people evolve in their careers, their individual development plans should evolve, too.
5 Steps for Building Your IDP
1. Identify your top strengths.
Your strengths are what distinguish you from others and help you achieve success in your role. Strengths come in many forms, and can be knowledge, skills, and/or behaviors that make a positive impact on your organization, so don’t forget to include anything that might not seem obvious. For example, empathy can be just as important as closing a deal in an organizational context. Strengths can also evolve and change over the course of your career.
While individual development plans are not the same as performance reviews, the two are related, and you can leverage the feedback you’ve received in reviews to help determine your strengths. Use your self-assessment, which should already incorporate self, manager, and peer feedback. Do you see any trends and consistent themes of what people praise you for? If all of your coworkers, who each have slightly different working relationships with you, think you’re good at something, you probably are. Consider your personal relationships as well (e.g., what do your friends or family members often come to you for?); work is not the only place our strengths play out.
Strengths make up your personal value proposition to your manager, your team, and your company — and likely some, if not all, of your strengths are why you were hired in the first place. While it may be uncomfortable or feel like bragging to talk about your strengths, there’s no one better to sell yourself than you. Think about what comes naturally to you, or what you accomplish more easily or faster than others. One useful way to frame your strengths is to reflect on the business impact or measurable results you contributed to. After all, it doesn’t matter how skilled you are if you don’t apply that skill somewhere.
However, no one is good at absolutely everything, so as with all things, a focused approach is best: Try to keep your list of strengths to six to eight items.
2. Capture your development opportunities.
On the flip side of strengths are opportunities for development. Instead of thinking about these as weaknesses, consider them as knowledge, skills, and behaviors you can improve on, or potential strengths, either in the short or long term.
Performance reviews can come in handy for determining your developmental areas, too. Again, look at themes across your various forms of feedback: What are your colleagues saying you could be better at? We all have blind spots when it comes to our own performance and behaviors, as well as how they impact others, which is why constructive feedback or 360-degree reviews can give us additional insights. Constructive, or critical, feedback is uncomfortable to receive (and give), but in many instances it can be more helpful than positive feedback in terms of your career growth and development.
Take some time to internally reflect on areas or skills you want to develop. Are there qualities you can cultivate or skills or knowledge you can obtain that would help you succeed at specific projects or in your role as a whole? Are there any actions you can take now to help future-proof your job? You don’t have to tackle everything at once — prioritize the development opportunities that you can either work on now, have already seen progress with, or will make the biggest impact.
3. Brainstorm your long-term career vision.
Even if you don’t have all the specifics mapped out, it’s important to have long-term professional goals to set the direction for where you’re heading. It’s impossible for us to predict the future. For example, a few years ago, who would have predicted the COVID pandemic and that remote and hybrid workplaces would become the norm? So your long-term career vision will naturally have some flexibility. Instead of focusing on a title you want, think about the following three factors:
- Motivators: Motivators are the aspects of work that get you excited to get out of bed, enable you to persist when faced with challenges or hard projects, and keep you engaged at your job. Think about situations where you’ve felt the most motivated at work, and try to find the reasons why and identify your top three motivators.
Common motivators include autonomy, recognition, compensation, creativity, influence, learning, lifestyle, problem-solving, relationships, social impact, security, and variety. They’re specific to you, and can be intrinsic, extrinsic, or both. While some motivators may take priority over others at different times, they are generally stable throughout your life.
- Purpose: Most of us like to live our lives with purpose — the desire to contribute to something greater than ourselves. Think about what drives you, not just at work, but in life in general. What kind of impact do you want to make at work, at home, in your community, or in the world?
- Environment: An organization can be a place where you either survive or thrive, and a large part of that comes down to culture. A positive organizational culture is one where employees are engaged and happy and do their best work — it’s a winning combination for both the employees and the company as a whole. The organization has clearly defined values (that align with yours), prioritizes belonging, and follows through on what it says it’s going to do. In addition, there has to be accountability at all levels. John Amaechi, a British-American psychologist, once said, “A culture is defined by the worst behavior tolerated.”
4. Set a shorter-term career plan.
Now that you have a long-term career vision, it’s time to make a short-term career plan to get you closer there. If, ultimately, you want to be an executive at a company, that’s not going to happen overnight, and there are several steps in between now and arriving at the C-suite. The good thing about short-term career plans is that there can be many paths that lead you to your destination. And if you choose one now, it doesn’t mean you’re stuck there forever — that’s why it’s a short-term plan. The reason you set your long-term career vision first is to provide a North Star. That way, if and when circumstances and plans change, you know you’re still heading in the right direction.
First, make a list of all your possible short-term opportunities, and cast a wide net. This could include options inside your team and company, or even outside your industry. Next, cull down the list to opportunities that are realistic and possible by factoring in any constraints (these could include your motivators, strengths, or resources) and your development areas. It’s likely you’re going to have to prioritize some development areas over others in your short-term career plans, so consider what that will entail, what trade-offs you might need to make, whether it’s worth it, and if you can take the necessary next steps now.
5. Detail immediate growth areas.
Equipped with a short-term career plan guided by your long-term vision, next you need to figure out what actionable steps you can take to execute that plan. Try to break down goals into smaller, specific tasks you can tackle one or a few at a time. That way, large plans become less overwhelming and you can track achievements and continuous progress over time. One framework you can use is the “3 E’s” — education, exposure, and experience:
- Education: What classes, training, books, articles, webinars, and other formal educational resources can help you build knowledge? There are countless resources online for every area of interest, so it’s a matter of picking the ones that are the best use of your time.
- Exposure: Find people who already have the skills or knowledge that you’re trying to gain, and learn them from. This could be through mentoring, informational interviews, or tapping into your network of close contacts or loose connections. (There’s a whole paper by sociology professor Mark Granovetter, PhD on the strength of weak ties and how they can open up opportunities that aren’t immediately obvious.)
- Experience: Put yourself in positions or situations where you can gain experience in your development areas. You can read all the books in the world, but the best way to get better at something is to do it (and do it again and again).
Individual development plans are a helpful tool for employee growth because they establish not only where you want to go in your career, but also how to get there, and having clear direction is useful for both you and any managers supporting you. Creating an IDP requires self-reflection and deciding what’s most important to you, and an effective way to approach it is to take into account your strengths, development opportunities, long-term career vision, short-term career plan, and immediate growth areas. Once you have an IDP, it’s essential to revisit it regularly. An IDP is a living, breathing document, and it should be revised, adjusted, and updated to reflect any changes in your career or life to optimize your long-term success.
For help creating successful individual development plans, check out the new IDP feature in Lattice Grow, a unified performance review, employee engagement, and career growth management platform.