Nectar and SHRM announce strategic partnership for employee recognition and rewards
Learn More
Employee Engagement

How To Build A Career Development Plan Your Team Will Actually Use

Nectar Team

As employees spend more time within an organization, there is a natural inclination to want career advancement. A recent study from Hypercontext noted that 17% of respondents who had looked for a new job recently shared that lack of career growth opportunities was their primary reason for wanting to move on. Employee turnover is a challenge for many companies.

Employees want to progress in their careers, but often they don't know how to go about it. Worse, many employers haven't mapped out their hiring strategy and advancement opportunities, so they don't know what to do either. Without a clear path forward, team members feel stuck and unfulfilled.

Organizations can solve advancement issues by working with employees to create career development plans. Let's dive into what these plans can do for your organization.

What Is A Career Development Plan?

A career development plan is a roadmap that outlines your employees' path to achieving their professional goals. These plans help employees stay focused on their growth and make it easier for managers to identify potential and provide support. Career development plans can be tailored to each team member’s unique situation and needs. Employees should work with their manager to update these documents as circumstances change.

The Importance Of A Career Development Plan

A career development plan is an essential tool for employees. Outlining a roadmap to their professional goals allows them to track their progress and make necessary adjustments along the way. Additionally, it can help employees stay motivated by giving them a sense of direction and purpose.

Career development plans can help your employees:

  • Set realistic and achievable career goals
  • Develop their skills and knowledge
  • Stay motivated and advance their career at your organization

A well-thought-out career development plan will also benefit your business by helping you:

  • Retain top talent
  • Foster a culture of lifelong learning
  • Increase employee engagement and satisfaction

A career development plan is a pivotal tool to help your employees reach their full potential. By taking the time to create one, you can invest in your most valuable asset – people.

How to Create a Career Development Plan

Creating a career development plan is a multi-step process. It requires a lot of lift for the organization and the team member. Here is a brief overview of the process:

1. Create Your Companies Career Development And Growth Plans

Before bringing an employee into the conversation, companies must consider their growth plans. The company needs to create these policies so individual managers can have honest conversations with employees as they join and continue to work for the company.

Here are some questions company leaders can ask while building growth plans:

  • How fast do we intend to grow?
  • What positions might be open a few years from now?
  • How does an employee grow within their specific title (for example, what’s the difference between a specialist, manager, senior manager, director, etc.?)
  • Can you support the growth of your team?
  • Are there ways to move forward with an employee if their growth goals are bigger than where the company wants to go?

2. Assess Your Employees' Current Skills And Knowledge

After completing your foundation, it's time to dive into each employee's career development plan.

The first step in creating a team member’s career development plan is to assess their current skills and knowledge. Having this baseline of knowledge will help you to identify development opportunities.

There are many ways to assess your employees' skills and knowledge. You could use:

  • Skill audits
  • Workplace simulations
  • 360-degree feedback from peers, managers, self-reports, and clients
  • Informal conversations

When assessing employee skills, you should consider what makes sense for their current role. For example, roles in marketing likely need different skills from roles in customer service. Create a list of all the department and role-specific skills employees should have and then audit how they rank against these needs.

3. Figure Out Where Your Employee Wants To Be

Before employees can set proper career development goals, they need to understand where they are going. In an ideal world, where do they want their career to go?

Here are some questions managers can ask to understand where employees want to be:

  • What is your ultimate career goal?
  • In an ideal world, where would you be one, three, or five years from now?
  • What parts of your job do you enjoy the most?

3. Identify Goals To Get Your Employees There

Goals require control. Who doesn't want to be a senior manager by the end of the year? Unfortunately, that goal ultimately requires the action of company leaders and funding for a raise (Employees can't control that.) Instead, we can look at what that job requires and work on goals that make us good candidates for those positions.

So, instead of seeing goals as where you want to be, goals should be a vehicle to get you where you want to be.

These goals should be SMART:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Relevant
  • Time-Bound
How smart goals feed into where employees want to be.

A few examples of SMART goals include:

  • I want to do ____ at work, so I will get a certification in ____ by the end of 2023 to meet the qualifications of that position.
  • I am interested in ____ as a career path, so I will read/listen to X books about ____ in 2023.
  • I want to find a work support system of X close associates, so I want to book X one-on-one meetings monthly.
  • I would like to increase my LinkedIn followers by X%, so I will work towards that by writing X posts a week in 2023.
  • I want to work in an office overseas by 2024, so I will take language classes once a week in 2023 to prepare.

4. Develop A Plan Of Action

Once you know where your employee wants to be and the goals they have set to get there, it’s time to wrap it up in a plan of action.

Some elements that you may want to include in the plan of action are:

  • Development activities: These could include taking training courses, attending events, reading relevant books or articles, or shadowing a more experienced colleague.
  • Support needed: Such as mentoring, coaching, or access to resources.
  • Timeline: This should detail when team members will complete each activity.

5. Review The Plan Again

Before you assume that your action plan is in place, you must give your team member a chance to review the work, make changes, and finalize the plan. At the end of the day, they will be in charge of hitting milestones and advancing their career. 

When you wrap up your initial career development plan meeting, encourage your employee to:

  1. Finish fleshing out any areas of the plan that feel underdeveloped to them.
  2. Prepare to have another meeting to discuss the finished plan and next steps.

During this next meeting, you can:

  • Discuss how they feel about moving forward with the career development plan.
  • Create a quarterly plan about how to tackle the first year of the career development plan.
  • Schedule future career development discussions.

6. Update The Plan Regularly

Career development plans aren’t meant to be stagnant. These documents are living, breathing reflections of how your employees feel about their careers. As employees try new things, take classes, and explore their current skill set, their interests will inevitably change.

It's important to keep the lines of communication open. Employees who encounter problems while working towards their goals should feel comfortable coming to you to discuss them. This will ensure the plan remains relevant and achievable.

Some elements that you may want to review and update are:

  • The goals themselves: As time goes on, an employee's goals may change. They may want to move into a different role or department, or they may develop new interests.
  • The activities detailed in the plan: The activities needed to achieve a goal may change as an employee's skills and knowledge develop.
  • The timeline: The timeline for achieving a goal may need to be updated if it is not realistic or achievable. Often timelines change as the employee gets busier or company priorities change.
Updating a career development plan

7 Practical Tips for Utilizing a Career Development Plan

Building a career development plan that's more than just a thought exercise takes intentional action. Here are seven tips for creating a plan that gets used:

Encourage Team Members To Take Ownership Of Their Development

Are you taking more ownership of the plan than your employees are? Career development helps the organization, but it severely impacts the employee, their growth, and their financial trajectory. You can't force them to participate or do the work for them. Employees must take responsibility for their learning and growth. Let employees know what resources are available to them, and give them the responsibility of following through and utilizing them.

Don't Wait Until Your Employees Are Unhappy To Create A Career Development Plan

If you notice that an employee is stagnating or seems unhappy in their role, don't wait until they come to you with a list of demands. Instead, initiate a career development plan proactively. Doing so will show them that you care about their career growth and are invested in their future at the company.

Help Them Set Realistic Goals

It's vital to help your employees set realistic goals for their career development plans. If the goals are too lofty, they may become discouraged and give up altogether. But if the goals are too easy, they may not feel challenged or motivated to achieve them. Help your employees find the right balance between challenging and achievable progress.

Encourage Them To Take Risks

A career development plan should include room for experimentation and risk-taking. Your employees shouldn't be afraid to try new things to expand their skills and grow professionally. Encourage them to take risks, but also ensure they have a solid backup plan if things don't go as planned.

Create Career Development-Themed Challenges

If you manage a team, one way to encourage career development is to create challenges for team members to complete throughout the year. These challenges could be anything from reading a certain number of  professional development books to taking an online course related to their field. Leaders can give prizes or incentives to employees who complete the challenges. If you're interested in challenges, implementing a tool like Nectar can help you manage the backend of these incentives with ease. For example, at Nectar, we have a learning and development challenge employees can use to improve their careers.

Celebrate Successes Along The Way

Career development plans are often lengthy. Employees could be mapping out goals for 1-5 years. It's easy to get discouraged when your career vision takes a while to unfold. Make sure to celebrate successes along the way as your employees work towards achieving their career goals. Celebrating small wins will keep them motivated and encouraged and show them that you're proud of their progress.

Be Flexible And Adaptable

Things change; hence, a career development plan should be flexible enough to change. If an employee's goals or circumstances change, be willing to tweak the plan accordingly. Providing flexibility shows that you're committed to supporting their development, no matter what.

How Can Companies Utilize A Career Development Plan?

There are many ways that companies can use the results of a career development plan. One way is to use it to help identify potential promotions or new opportunities for employees. If an employee wants to move into a management role, the company can keep track of which employees are excelling in their current roles and may be ready for a promotion.

Another way is to identify areas of improvement. For example, if an employee's goals include developing new skills, the company can provide training or mentorship programs to help them achieve their goals.

Additionally, you can use the plan to create a career path for employees, which can help them understand what they need to progress within the company.

Overall, the goal of using a career development plan is to help employees grow and develop professionally, which will benefit the company as a whole.

What If The Company Trajectory Doesn’t Match What Employees Want?

When employees and organizations collaborate on career development plans, there may be a point where employee wants and company needs don't match.

For example, one of your sales team members may dream of becoming a company sales coach. While this is an excellent career wish, many companies can't afford to hire internal sales coaches. At some point, the company's needs have to outweigh employee wants.

So, when does that happen?

You don't have to part ways as soon as you hear about their ultimate career vision. Instead, see what's possible internally if this employee is great.

Here are some questions to consider:

  • Is this a position you might have? If so, let the employee know and be honest about the timeline.
  • Can you create a hybrid position for them? Maybe you can include more elements of the career they want in their role (you would need to readjust expectations to ensure the work is reasonable.)
  • When do they want to make this change? Is this a change they’d like to see in a year? Or is this a long-term career goal?

Based on this conversation, you can begin to see when it might be time to part ways with an employee. If the employee does excellent work, this shouldn't be a quick separation if it's not warranted.

An employee working on a laptop

Finding The Right People For A Career Development Plan

Not everyone in the company would be a good fit for a career development plan. Underperforming employees will benefit more from a performance development plan. As their performance improves, you can pivot to introducing them to a career development plan.

Here's a quick note on the performance development plan (PDP): It outlines the specific goals and objectives an employee needs to meet to improve their job performance. A PDP typically includes a timeline, target dates, and steps that need to be taken to achieve the desired outcome in an employee’s current role.

What Is The Difference Between A Career Development And Performance Development Plan

A career development plan typically includes short-term and long-term goals that employees want to achieve. In contrast, a performance development plan focuses on short-term goals that need to be met to improve job performance.

Employees are assigned a career development plan when they are making significant progress in their current role and could be great candidates for future opportunities. 

Companies typically create performance development plans for employees who are underperforming and potentially on the brink of being terminated. These plans ensure you are doing what you can to keep and improve the employees on your roster.

Overall, a career development plan aims to help employees grow and develop professionally and personally, while a performance development plan aims to help employees meet specific job goals.

Download Nectar’s Career Development Template

We’ve covered a ton of information that should help you and your employees create customized career development plans. As a bonus, we’ve put together a helpful template you can copy to Google Docs or download as a PDF.

We’ve built out a:

  • Career Development Skills Matrix: This will help you track the skills each employee should have before you create a career development plan.
  • Career Development Template: Our template walks you through setting goals, skills check-ins, and support systems for the next one, three, and five years.
  • Career Development Timeline: Our timeline helps employees plot their goals and skills development ideas from year one to year five, so they always know what to work on when they have time for development.
Download our free career development template


If you've been on the fence about building career development plans, we hope this article gave you a solid foundation to get started. Career development can open up many opportunities, fears, and excitement for employees. When companies approach this topic correctly, they can improve tenure and create happier employees. Whether you are new to career development or a pro, hopefully this post gave you food for thought.

Actionable workplace tips & insights for fellow people lovers

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

You might also like...

Company Core Values: 7 Common Mistakes To Avoid When Creating Them
Employee Engagement
Company Core Values: 7 Common Mistakes To Avoid When Creating Them
Creating your company core values is extremely important. Here are the most common pitfalls that you can avoid while crafting your own.
read now >
25 Most Effective Employee Engagement Strategies For 2024
Employee Engagement
Top 25 Most Effective Employee Engagement Strategies For 2024
We asked 34 CEO's and HR leaders what they considered to be their top employee engagement strategies. Check out what they had to say!
read now >
A Crowdsourced Guide To Employee Retention Strategies In 2024
Employee Engagement
A Crowdsourced Guide To Employee Retention Strategies In 2024
Learn what dozens of CEO's and HR leaders said were their top strategies for employee retention, especially with today's hybrid workforce.
read now >