Five Tips To Creating A Winning Professional Development Plan

W5-tips-professional-developmenthen you talk with your manager about your performance and career aspirations how would you rate the usefulness of that conversation? Think about the answer for a minute. Are you satisfied with the amount of time your company and, more specifically, your manager devotes to the professional development of its employees? Is there a system in place to make sure all people have equal opportunity to be developed and flourish, or does your company employ the informal “chosen few” system? If you are the company owner or manager, how do you think you do in these categories?

Here’s the sad truth about professional development. Very few companies do it well, even when there is a system and despite their best speeches that people are the most important asset. This isn’t necessarily all attributable to a lack of caring. There are managers and people in positions of leadership that don’t care about their people and it shows. True leaders do care, but oft times are overwhelmed with the volume of everything that needs to get accomplished. While companies have processes in place for performance reviews and professional development, managers are rarely held accountable to doing them or doing them well. I know many people who said they have gone for years without having a performance review. I myself had managers that didn’t provide reviews much less professional development. Companies will go through various models over time citing that this is the one that will bring the company closer to achieving its goals of retaining and shaping talent, but every system almost always leaves out accountability. There are companies such as GE who have created a science around their talent management. Clearly it works as the giant has turned out one super star leader after another. The base of their system is holding everyone accountable, and not just the person being evaluated. If a person has a bad review, the manager is also brought to task and asked what did they as the manager do or not do.

This doesn’t just effect Corporate America. A lack of development opportunities can be seen in every industry. Every person who wants to succeed at what they do wants the resources to improve. When those resources don’t manifest it forces people to either leave or become complacent. When people become complacent a company has simply taken a good talent and destroyed it. Not only that, they have blocked their own success. Who knows what great idea that individual had brewing?

Given this, how do you make sure you are getting the development you need? Black women are less likely to be developed, be considered for promotional opportunities, have a sponsor or high level advocate or be given opportunities based on potential versus proven skill. Every person needs to take control of their own career and development, but it is important that black women be hyper vigilant about it in order to take advantage of “stray opportunities”. Here are five keys to creating and executing a professional development plan that will set you up for success in your current role while positioning you for the next step.

1. Create A Career Map And Plan

You can’t get where you want without knowing where you’re going. As the paraphrased quote from Alice In Wonderland says “if you don’t know where you’re going any road will take you there”. The inherent challenge in this is people evolve and change over time. What we want in college isn’t necessarily what we want after college, or 10, 15 years down the road. Part of the issue with professional development programs is that they’re like college, you have to declare a major. I started in financial services. In college I wanted to be a trader or a CFO. After about four years, not including summer internships, I realized that world wasn’t for me. Don’t get me wrong, it was fun and lavish. It just wasn’t who I wanted to be. I made a change to health care after business school. I still aspired to the C-suite as CEO. Then I realized what I really want is to be in a strategy role. I’m good at setting the direction, driving buy-in, creating a plan, marshaling resources, and executing. I can effortlessly go from strategy to tactics. I’m like a camera, I can zoom in and out as necessary to best capture the picture that tells a story. Also, I love health care but what I love, really, is serving people. I am drawn to where humanity has the greatest need and being there. That’s why trading wasn’t for me.

As my career went on I saw fairly early on that very few people would choose to develop others, including some of my direct managers. I always did the required IDP, individual development plan, though I found it useless. It didn’t seem to matter what I put on there, some managers barely looked at it. They just wanted to check the box. Let me correct myself, most managers, not all. I have, in my twenty year career, been blessed to have worked with some phenomenal managers who also thought the IDP process was useless and opted for their own brand of development. It worked. What they did differently is having me describe what the dream role is and then working backwards to create a map, then a plan.

Pull out a piece of paper (or open Word) and follow along. Turn the paper to landscape and create four columns. In the far right column that is where you will describe the dream role and the attributes that go along with that. For example, a Chief Strategy Officer should have excellent knowledge of the industry, sound financial analysis and modeling skills, be a diplomat, highly developed communication skills, and be an outstanding influencer. In the far left column write down the skills you currently have. Me, I have deep knowledge of medical devices, sound financial skills and background, and track record of success in programs that require influence. In the left middle column is where you will write down the skills you need, gaps, and identify the resources to help fill them. Still looking at myself as an example, a gap I need filled is leading more high profile projects. The resource for that would be working with my manager. In the right middle column is where you will write down the next roles you need in order to position yourself for the goal role. This can be convoluted because there is no one path that leads to the destination. Don’t just write down the title of the role, write down what the role is doing. Every company has different titles. Unfortunately everyone gets so hung up on the title that they neglect the content of the role.

2. Vet Your Plan With A Mentor

Once you’ve mapped out your career goals, gap, and plan sit down with members of your personal board of directors. These are the people you trust to tell you the truth about yourself. They should bring forward any skills or gaps you may have missed. They may even try to shape your expectations a bit. When you talk with them be sure to pitch it to them the way you would your manager, that way they can also critique your approach and style. Mentors provide great counsel and advice, but be mindful that you don’t allow them to say you’re aiming too high. This is why it’s important to have mentors who are outside of your company. People inside of your company are also indoctrinated to the culture. If you write down that your next role is two levels above where you are currently, they might tell you take it off or to reset your expectations even when you have solid rationale for the leap.

White males level jump all of the time. Or they move through the levels at break neck speed. The biggest reason they are able to do it is not merely by virtue of their skin color and gender, but rather because they think they can. They set the intention to do it, they map it out, and garner all of the sponsorship they need to make it manifest.

When I coach or mentor someone who has aspirations of level-jumping I don’t discourage it, rather, I ask them to explain it. That adds another layer to the map because they need to think about what they are going to do to make it happen. What experiences do they need in their current role, who do they need to influence and what skills do they need to display in order to make such a move palatable to the organization? If you’re thinking to yourself right now, level jumping is hard and I’m counseling people the wrong way allow me to point out something. White males level jump all of the time. Or they move through the levels at break neck speed. The biggest reason they are able to do it is not merely by virtue of their skin color and gender, but rather because they think they can. They set the intention to do it, they map it out, and garner all of the sponsorship they need to make it manifest. Women, in general, have not been as good with this.

3. Crush Your Current Role

I cannot tell you how much it irritates me to the core of my being when someone tells me they want a certain level or promotion or whatever and they aren’t doing their current job well. I can ignore most things and let a lot of things roll off my back, but not that. After you vet your map with some of your board members revisit column one, the far left. Are you doing your current job at an exceptional level? If not, you need to spend your time focusing on that column. Chances are it’s not a secret to your manager or team that you aren’t performing well. Before you go in with a wish list and your career development map you need to make sure you are buttoned up in your current role.

The best way to do this is through an effective performance review. Your self evaluation should be thorough and thoughtful. Your manager should be regularly taking the time to coach you on all aspects of your performance and perceptions of you, as well as amplifying your good works up the chain of command. If this is not happening for any reason, this needs to be addressed first in order to have an effective discussion regarding your career aspirations.

4. Discuss Your Plan With Your Manager

Once you’ve created your map, vetted it and re-checked yourself you are ready to have the conversation with your manager. If there isn’t a company designated time frame for career development discussions, set up a meeting specifically for it and allow plenty of time. I usually need 90 minutes. 90 minutes out of the year to discuss my career aspirations isn’t asking a lot. Don’t just pop into your managers office with a road map. Mentally prepare your manager for the discussion so they can shift their mindset. Send your map ahead of time. Make the map clear enough that they can glean the intent from looking at it but noting you will walk them through it.

Communicate clearly and concisely while walking them through the mental journey of how you got there. Be clear that you want them to be a partner in your development. Surprisingly there are people managers who don’t believe professional development is  a part of their job. If this is the type of person you work for, you will want to be sure to stress that you view them as a partner and you are asking for their help. If your manager does see this as part of their role they will be relieved that you are taking this much ownership of your career and will want to help you where they can.

The primary goal of the meeting with your manager is to agree to a development plan, in writing. If you want to be promoted in your current role you want to agree on requirements and timelines. Ideally your professional development map then becomes a contract between you and your manager.

5. Give Yourself The Gift Of Self Development

There was a time in my career I felt I wasn’t being developed. Rather than push against the grain I simply went out into the world and found my own development. And it turned out to be a series of phenomenal experiences. In the end I invested thousands of dollars into my self development. I learned about topics I otherwise wouldn’t have  in ways that I wanted to learn. I signed up for leadership classes that took place over a week in the woods. These were not PowerPoint by death sessions. We were up early and stayed up late. We yelled, bonded, cried and fought. We got out of ourselves so that we could see ourselves. This training wasn’t just people in Corporate America. These were entrepreneurs, nurses, moms, dads, teenagers, etc. These were people who had, or wanted, a vision for their lives and were willing to do whatever it took.

In the very first course we, I, ran across 100 feet of hot coals. In another course they took us out into the forest and left us there with no food, no tent, just a tarp, a blanket and water for 24 hours. That was the first day. The purpose was to clear our minds to prepare for what we were going to learn. They taught us about connection and what true leadership is. In one exercise I did a trust fall from a tree branch 12 feet in the air. I also took speaking courses, in a hotel. One of which we had to create an outrageous performance for the entire class. I sang Beyonce’s Listen a capella – I don’t sing…well. In another we spent days crafting a 60 minute talk and once we had it down, we had to shorten the entire thing to eight minutes and deliver it to the class. I have exponentially benefited from that exercise. I’ve had several coaches to help with various things.

Do you want to know the most exciting thing about all of that? No one opened that door for me, I opened it for myself. I didn’t need someone to nominate me or dub me a “chosen one” or “high potential”. Someone told me about the organization and I opted in and they opted back. I chose them and they chose me back. I improved as a person and that improvement had absolutely nothing to do with my employer. Now, did they reap the benefit of my investment in myself? Yes, but only for as long as I say. The beautiful thing about development is when you leave a place you take it with you. Give yourself the gift of self development. Allow yourself to do the different thing. Sure, absolutely, check the boxes you need to check at your company or organization. The leadership development programs, etc. Those boxes are valuable and are supposed to put you on a level playing field, but if you want to separate yourself from the pack invest in yourself. Believe me, people notice.

Do you want to know the most exciting thing about all of that? No one opened that door for me, I opened it for myself. I didn’t need someone to nominate me or dub me a “chosen one” or “high potential”. Someone told me about the organization and I opted in and they opted back. I chose them and they chose me back.

Once you’ve gone through all of these steps don’t just put your plan away. Keep it somewhere you can see it. Remember to update it at least once a quarter. Bring it up in every one-on-one with your manager so they are reminded of your goals and can see the progress you are making toward them. Also, use it to remind yourself that you are just as capable and qualified as white males who level jump or get selected for career-making opportunities. Use your plan to position yourself to be in the right place at the right time and as justification to support your pursuit of high profile opportunities. As it says in the Bible, you have not because you ask not – remove that as a barrier to your success.

Lastly, don’t be a cookie cutter of everyone else. Be you. We are all meant to shine as individuals and to contribute according to our gifts. Yes, it does seem that the people who move up and get promoted are the ones who mimic the upper echelon. Take a good look at how many of those “copies” ascend to the C-Suite and how often does the company bring in someone from the outside when a slot at the top opens up. If it’s often, that means the board doesn’t feel there is enough bench strength. Part of my brand is high agility with high success. You throw me into any situation and the odds are extremely high that I will adapt and achieve success if not exceed expectations.

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Nile Harris
Nile Harris, the Chief Chick, is a word weaver and dream believer with 20 years of experience in healthcare, finance, and education. This aspiring motivational speaker, TED presenter and LinkedIn Influencer is committed to valuing people, driving healthcare access and innovation, and weaving words that move people to action. Her views are her own.
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