How to Create a Professional Development Plan

An employee development plan is vital to a motivated and productive workforce. If you don’t have one, this guide will help you create one that will help both your employees and your company’s future.

Updated April 22, 2020

We all want to feel like we're going places in our careers. The same is true of your workers — and if they get the sense that they’re treading water at your organization, there's bad times for your company ahead.

An employee development plan is a necessary part of human resource planning, and really it's hard to do an effective job of strategically managing human resources without one.

Even if you mostly deal with contract employees or temporary workers, there's value in an individual development plan. No matter what your relationship is with your workforce, you can always improve it through finding ways to benefit and develop your employees.

Overview: What is an development plan?

An employee development plan or performance improvement plan is a process through which an employee can grow within an organization, chiefly in two ways: by charting out pay increases and additional benefits during their employment in the company, and by providing opportunities for professional growth through training and development of skills for new roles and responsibilities.

Such a plan is vital to long-term workforce planning because it ensures you’re developing people to fill important, advanced positions within your company rather than having to hire people from outside.

Benefits of a development plan

The benefits of a development plan are wide-ranging, but generally they fall into three main areas.

1. It helps an organization retain employees

Employee retention is key for one very good reason from a business perspective: money. An employee development plan can save companies a lot by ensuring that your workers stay put.

One report found that the average U.S. employer spends $4,000 and takes 24 days to hire a new worker. That's a lot of money and lost productivity whenever an employee leaves, not to mention the fact that a brand new employee typically is not going to be anywhere near as productive as a veteran.

By retaining your employees, you can reduce your turnover rate and avoid the expensive disruptions that come when a worker takes a more lucrative opportunity.

2. It makes workers happier and more productive

Beyond just keeping workers within your organization, an employee development plan can also make them more motivated and improve their skills, which benefits them and you.

You can use a plan to identify real benefits and growth opportunities that will increase the motivation of your employees. And by teaching them new skills and providing opportunities for advancement, you grow strong, talented workers in your company that will serve you for years to come.

3. It’s great for marketing

Yes, people usually buy from you because they want your product or service. But your company's image matters a lot, particularly when there are competitors they could also do business with.

If you've developed a reputation for a great working environment and happy, helpful employees, that will cause customers to trust your brand more — and trust is a key element in sales.

How to create a professional development plan

But just how do you even get started with an employee growth plan? It’s a fairly straightforward process, but it will take a lot of introspection and evaluation on your part. Here are some employee development plan ideas to help you out.

Step 1: Set some goals

The first thing you need to do as an organization is to set some goals, which will help guide how you craft an employee development plan in order to achieve those goals. This might be a good time to bring in an HR business partner to figure out what your overall strategy should be.

Essentially, you want to be sure that you don't just pull a development plan out of a hat and hope that it fits your organization. You want to carefully craft one that includes what is best for both the organization and the employee.

Tips for setting goals

Here’s a couple of ways that you can ensure that you are setting the right goals for long-term success:

  • Identify positions needed: As you examine your long-term goals as an organization, you should be able to derive some short-term goals to help you get there. This should make it clear what kind of positions you will need within your company to make these goals happen, which is vital information to have as you formulate your employee development plan.
  • Make sure your goals are specific and attainable: Organizations often make the mistake of setting goals that are either vague, unattainable, or both. Make sure your goals lay out clear and specific results that you want to achieve, and don't put them too far out of reach.

Step 2: Have a conversation with workers

It's a bad idea to attempt to create a development plan for employees without talking to employees first. Consider a company-wide survey on the things that matter to them.

Most likely, that's more pay. But they probably value other things like more vacation time, more training, and opportunities for advancement. By getting specifics from them, you start to get a clearer picture of what your eventual employee development plan should look like.

Tips for talking to workers

Here are a couple of tips for starting that conversation with your workers in a way that will be productive for everyone:

  • Just listen: The temptation is to prescribe a development plan and then ask what they think of that — they'll probably say it's fine, but they may not feel like you're looking for their input. Without input, there is no buy-in. Just ask your employees how they would like to develop in their company and work off that.
  • Have employees self-assess: Self-assessments from your workforce can provide critical insight on how they see their performance and where they think they are lacking. It could give you ideas beyond standard employee evaluations on where to take the development plan.

Step 3: Map out career paths

The phrase "dead-end job" is a killer for a company's retention rates, and you absolutely don't want that label. In order to avoid that, you'll need to map out clear and achievable career paths for your employees.

They need to see exactly what it will take to go from entry-level employee to a high-ranking executive. This will fuel their motivation to go above and beyond, and will make it easier to find qualified workers for high-level roles without having to look outside the company.

Tips for mapping out career paths

This step should be taken with care, and there are three things you should keep in mind while mapping it out:

  • Identify necessary training: It's important to attach necessary skills to each step on the career path. For example, you might want employees to complete an advanced sales training course before they will be considered for a regional vice president of sales role. When you draw up your plan, attach a list of skills and training they must complete before they can advance.
  • Map it out: How you chart out the career path is up to you, but you should make it as visual as possible and filled with specifics. You might create a career path "tree" and provide necessary qualifications next to each (course A1 completed, two years of service in company, etc.).
  • Have another conversation: Now that you have the career path mapped out, have your managers talk with employees one-on-one to decide what career path makes sense for them, and make sure they are regularly checking on progress toward that goal.

Step 4: Determine pay increases and other benefits

In addition to career paths, you'll also need to determine what kind of pay increases and benefits you will offer down the road. While this is often tied to promotions, you should have a separate plan that ensures that, even without promotion, your employees are being rewarded for longevity at your company.

Tips for figuring out pay and benefits

Don’t discount this step, which for many employees may be the most important of all. Observe these two tips in particular;

  • Publish a clear pay raise schedule: Oftentimes workers are left in the dark about pay raises and bonuses. Be transparent by offering a specific pay raise schedule, such as an X% raise each quarter after a satisfactory review, and an annual bonus to be paid on X date for X% of the employee's salary. Employees will appreciate all this being laid out.
  • Don't forget other benefits: You can offer other benefits as extra incentive beyond cash, such as more vacation days or steep discounts on consumer goods through a company program. This is certainly not a replacement for money, but it’s something additional that will keep your employees motivated and happy.

Step 5: Evaluate periodically

Once you have the employee development plan in place, you can't stop there. You should be evaluating the plan on a regular basis. Talk to your managers about how the employees are progressing.

Talk to the employees about whether the rewards are enticing enough or if the path is too difficult. Examine workforce analytics to determine if you're experiencing an increase in productivity as a result of the plan.

Tips for evaluating

You’ll need to sharpen the saw from time to time, so don’t make the mistake of setting the wheels in motion and not bothering to check back. More than likely, you’ll need to make tweaks. So keep these three things in mind:

  • Schedule review meetings: It's important to ensure the career paths are working as you envisioned, so you should have quarterly meetings with your management team to discuss how your employees are progressing. You will need to make adjustments if they're not progressing, or if their progression isn't impacting company morale or productivity.
  • Find success stories: If an employee has enjoyed a positive experience on his or her career path, highlight this to the rest of the company, keeping the employee anonymous, of course. By seeing a real-life example of how one can be successful on these career paths, it could provide motivation to others.
  • Use HR software: The great thing about HR software is its ability to track key HR metrics and other key people analytics that will help you determine just how well things are going with your employee development plan. And it will handle a lot of the other administrative tasks so you can focus more on the workers themselves.

Start having conversations as soon as possible

The longer you go without an employee development plan, the more you risk seeing valuable employees walk out the door for better opportunities.

Now is the time to start carving out time in your schedule to talk to some of your managers and employees about an overall goal for your workforce that incorporates the needs of both employees and the company.

The sooner you start those conversations, the sooner you can get a plan in place that will take your company to the next level.

The Motley Fool has a Disclosure Policy. The Author and/or The Motley Fool may have an interest in companies mentioned.