How to Create Powerful Development Plans for Your Employees in 8 Easy Steps

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12 minutes
Last updated:
August 16, 2021
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12 minutes
The ultimate guide to creating employee development plans. Get started easily and give your people the learning opportunities they ask for.

We’ve written extensively about the value of employee development in the past couple of our articles. It not only benefits your employees in their personal career goals, but it can also massively help your business. Besides the immediate benefits of having more qualified staff, you’ll also have a smaller turnover and less money will be spent on hiring new employees.

While it’s obvious that employee development is inherently good, many business owners get stuck - where do you even get started with it? It’s especially difficult if you’re a small company without the need (and the budget) to hire a full-fledged HR department.

Today, we’ll show you what an employee development plan is, why it’s a good idea, as well as some practical ways to get started today.

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Today, we’ll show you what an employee development plan is, why it’s a good idea, as well as some practical ways to get started today.

What is an employee development plan?

An employee development plan is a structured map for improving an employee’s knowledge and competencies so that they can perform better in their existing position or even acquire new skills to perform better in a similar or different role.

There are two important aspects to keep in mind here. One, the goal of every employee development plan is to acquire new skills. This does not mean that the employee’s main goal should be to jump up in the hierarchy. Instead, you could also focus on acquiring new, additional skills which would allow them to make a lateral move to another (un)related department.

The second thing to keep in mind is that there is no universal development plan or even a development plan for a specific department. These plans have to be customized according to a specific role, or better yet, one person in particular. In that way, it will have the biggest chances of success.

Benefits of employee development plans

Even without a degree in HR, we know that having an employee development plan is inherently good for your organization. However, there are some practical benefits too.

  • Increased number of job applicants - if potential new hires know that you have a development plan in place, they are more likely to apply with you than a company that doesn’t have a development plan
  • Lower turnover - if your employees have a plan ahead of them, they will be less likely to quit or start looking for a different place to work
  • Better employee succession - you’ll identify who’s a great fit for a promotion and you can help them along the way
  • Higher employee engagement - your employees will feel valued and they’ll know that you’re willing to invest in their future in your organization
  • More profits - perhaps the most important factor for some companies - employees with improved skills will bring more money and improve your bottom line
  • A plan for the future - employee development forces you to take a look at what is ahead for your company and as such, you’re better equipped for new challenges

As you can see, there are quite a few important benefits of creating an employee development plan. With that in mind, let’s go through some practical steps in creating and maintaining one in your company.

Template: How to create a professional development plan

The good news is, creating a great professional development plan is nothing complex and all it takes is going through a series of steps. While every plan will differ based on your industry, company, role, and specific employee, there are some universal steps that you can take too.

1. Identify company needs

This is a crucial step for your company’s future and your development plans, so it naturally goes first. This entails taking a good look into your plans for the upcoming months and years and seeing what needs to be done and how. Take some time for this step because you will need to ask yourself quite a few questions and come up with honest answers. These questions include:

  • Do I attract the right kind of talent?
  • Am I happy with the way my employees are growing within my company?
  • Will the current pace of growth be good enough for the months and years to come?
  • Are my employees happy with the growth opportunities they have within my organization?
  • How good is my retention and are my employees leaving me to go for better opportunities?
  • Are we keeping up with the latest changes in technology and industry trends?

Once you have an honest answer to all of these questions, you’ll have a great starting point, not just for one employee’s development plan, but for an entire department or organization too.

You need to have a good foundation so don’t just rely on your instincts here. Do listen to your gut feeling, but also ask your top management team, department team leads, and everyone else who may have a good idea of what it takes to get your company to that next level.

2. Take time to understand the employee’s needs

While every employee development plan eventually benefits the organization, you have to start from the employee. If they’re not on board with the program, they will not stick with the proposed activities and you’ll be wasting both time and money.

Once you know your organization’s main goals, sit down with the individual employee(s) and tell them what the plans are. You can’t take any shortcuts here and put employees into groups or use template plans for two or more employees. The more personalized the plan, the higher the chances of success.

As mentioned, sit down with the employee to ask them a series of questions regarding their personal, needs and goals within the company. These can include:

  • Do you have everything you need to excel in your role?
  • If there’s something you’re missing, what is it?
  • What’s your biggest success in your role so far?
  • What is your main goal as an employee of this company?
  • What is your biggest career goal?
  • Is there an area of your job where you feel that you’re lacking something?
  • What’s the number one thing preventing you from doing the kind of work that you’ll proud of?

This first conversation will be the cornerstone of your employee development plan and will help you guide your efforts in the right direction.

In your communication with the employee, you should be open and welcome to their feedback. At the same time, you should stress that the success of the program largely depends on their own hard work and dedication and that it will only work out if they’re willing to do their share of the work.

3. Skill gap analysis for both parties

Now that you have your employees on board, let’s start with some practical matters. If you want to upskill them and help them learn something new, you first need to determine what their strong points are and where they could use improvement. At the same time, you need to take a look at your company’s plan for the future and see what key skills you’re missing to achieve those goals.

For the first part of the equation, the interview with the employee is a good start. Their subjective view of the situation will help you see what their perceived needs are. For a more objective assessment, you can do a training needs analysis to determine what kind of skill gap you have at your hand. Finally, get in touch with their immediate managers to see if they think there’s an area where you can make improvements.

On the flip side, you have the needs of the organization to reach their own goals. If your aim is to close 30% more deals by this time next year, you should invest in upskilling and reskilling your sales team as part of your employee development plan.

Ideally, this is a win-win situation. The employees get the skills they need to perform better at their job, a chance of promotion or a lateral move and overall greater job satisfaction. Of course, you have to get something in return as an employer and that is an employee that crushes their goals and exceeds your expectations and ultimately, makes more profit for you.

Example for an employee skill (gap) matrix. It helps you identify opportunities for growth on a team or company level.

4. Set realistic goals

We just mentioned a 30% increase in sales within one year. Looking at that sentence in isolation, it may be a good goal or something that’s completely unrealistic for one employee or a department. Before setting out to create an employee development plan, you should have a set of goals that are realistic for that employee. 

Since you’ve assessed the employee’s potential, you’ll know if they have what it takes to advance to the level you set out for them. The key thing is having clear, well-defined goals. The reason is simple - when the goals are clear, it’s much easier to track the success of your employee development plan.

For example, you can make a goal for an employee to become proficient in a programming language enough to be able to build out a page or a feature on their own. If they’re in sales, you can make it a goal for them to be able to close 30% more calls by the end of a year. 

When the goal is clear and realistic, both the employee and the employer will be able to see clear progress as time goes by. This will be a huge boost of motivation for everyone involved.

On the flip side, if you set goals that are not measurable and not realistic, you will have a hard time tracking whether the development program is working or not. For example, “improving my communication skills is a great goal to aspire to, but it’s hardly measurable.

For soft skills, you’ll need to develop a different method to assess and measure them, so take your time here to create something meaningful.

5. Identify actual activities

Great news - now that you know who’s on board and what kind of skills they need to fulfill their plans, you can go ahead and create a plan of activities for each employee. Here are some that are a good start.

  • Courses - for a more formal teaching approach that doesn’t require direct involvement from your company
  • Mentoring - one-on-one mentoring is one of the easiest ways to transfer knowledge directly within your company and can actually help both the mentor and the mentee
  • Job rotation - if you want your employees to be ready for lateral moves, letting them take on some completely different responsibilities is a great way to get started
  • Job succession planning - make a detailed outline of how an employee’s career path will look like, should they stay in your company for a prolonged time period
  • Coaching - hire an external coach to help them learn new skills or have someone within your team coach an employee (or a group) on new skills
  • Online resources: quizzes, ebooks, guides, courses, podcasts, communities, and much more

Once you start doing some basic research, you’ll see just how many opportunities there are, provided that you’ve set the proper foundations for your employee development program.

One tip that can greatly help is to have a set of activities planned out before your first meeting with an employee. For example, you already know who would be a great mentor for them to help them become better at closing sales calls. That way, you can offer them options during the very first meeting and they can decide what they like best. In this way, you can hit the ground running and get started with your employee development plan immediately.

If you want to go deeper, we have summarized 6 innovative employee development activities you can start with.

6. Support your people to actually go through

Let's be honest: Going through with your training plans is pretty hard in busy day-to-day work.

In fact, not even 10% of video courses get finished!

People need motivation, reminders, and structure. Take your colleagues by the hand. Ask regular questions via tools like Microsoft Teams or Slack. Find out if they need support.

Or create powerful company-wide learning routines.

Zavvy, for example. helps you set up powerful learning routines in your company and turn it into a learning organisation. This will help you make sure that your support actually drives change in the whole company.

7. Track the results

Now that you’ve put everything into place, it’s time to see if your development plan is working. In order to do that, you need to track its success from two different angles - the level of the employee and the level of the company.

From the employee’s side, you’ll want to ensure that the activities in the employee development plan are making an impact on their skills and whether you’re making a tangible improvement over time. Many times, it’s not possible to objectively measure an improvement in certain skills (especially soft skills), so you have to resort to interviews with the employees. Also, it’s a good idea to ask their direct managers if they see any improvements in the right direction.

On the side of the company, it gets a little bit more complex. In order to measure the results of your plan, in the long run, you need to keep up with how your employees are progressing one by one. That can be quite a challenge, so we would suggest either using some sort of HR software (like Zavvy) or hiring someone as a part of your HR team to keep track of your employee development activities.

You can and should have meetings from time to time. However, it’s even more effective to run pulse surveys more frequently (once or twice a month) to get more timely results. That way, you can make changes more quickly if things don’t seem to be going in the right direction.

8. Don't shy away from iterating

Don't be afraid to revisit your previous planning. The following actions will help you do so:

  • Get input.
  • Fine-tune individual components.
  • Conduct a formal assessment.
  • Can you understand how the development plan affects processes?

Keep conducting assessments and re-tuning them. This will ensure that plans are working out and your employees are happy. Change requires adjustments as well as constant attention to ensure a

Examples from other companies

Before you start looking at how to create your own employee development plan, you can take a look at some examples to find inspiration first.

Here is a nice example from University of Berkeley, California:

Career development action plan for exmployees at SEOptimer.

It’s pretty straightforward and puts the weight of the employee development plan mostly on the employee. The employee has to do a self-assessment of their most important motivators, skills and competencies as well as what they see their future in the company looking like. Moreover, they need to set their own short-, medium- and long-term goals.

This is a good starting point, but the form itself won’t be enough to produce good results. You also need to add another layer of information through an interview with the employee. If you want more serious results, you have to be willing to put in more effort.

Here is another example of a fairly simple employee development plan from SEOptimer:

Example of a personal development plan (PDP) at SEOptimer. It's more ebalorate than the first example

As you can see, this one is slightly more detailed in that it leaves more room for the employee and the employer to fill them out. It’s better than the first one we mentioned, but it’s key for both the manager and the employee to be present and fill them out together. It’s highly unlikely that an employee will instinctively know what kind of skills gap you have in the company and what specific activities they can do to get to their desired skill set. Last but not least, they won’t know the ideal evaluation period either.

Here is another version of a similar employee development plan from SEOptimer:

Example for an employee development plan at SEOptimer. It's a 12-month outlook.

This one is slightly more detailed in the sense that it covers a specific career goal and lists very specific skills gaps that need to be addressed, actions that can be performed and the timeframe to perform them.

When it comes to lessons you can learn from these plans and examples, one that really matters is that the length of each development plan is at least 12 months. If you want to plan for the better of your company and your employees, you need to go for the long run and anything shorter than a year will not cut it.

Another learning is that for each employee, you’ll have a host of documents regarding their skills and individual plans. If you have a large number of employees, this documentation quickly piles up and requires lots of organization. You could do this manually, but why would you? Tools like Zavvy let you manage your entire workforce from one dashboard, which makes it easy to set and track employee development initiatives too.

The two angles of employee development

One thing that all of these examples have in common is that they all look at development plans from one angle - the angle of the employee. While this is beneficial, it’s not a good practice. A good employee development plan looks at one employee’s path to acquire new skills from two angles: one of the employee and one of the employer.

While the employee gets invaluable new skills that they can use to advance their career, the employer should also fill a certain skills gap and benefit from the upskilling as well. Having this in mind, we’ll stress once again that it’s a great idea to have a dedicated person in your organization in charge of setting, monitoring and assessing your employee development program.

No promises

One more thing that has to be mentioned and is definitely worth your time is that you should never make any promises to employees regarding the success of their employee development program. For example, if they reach a certain success, that you will be giving them a promotion, a raise, a move to a different department or something else.

First of all, this can get you in legal trouble, especially if you have it in writing. In case you fail to deliver on your promises, you could be looking at lawsuits from your employees who will feel cheated out of a promotion.

Second of all, not even the best HR experts can make accurate predictions on how a development plan will work out. As mentioned before, success largely depends on the input from the employee. They may not put in the necessary effort and the development plan will flop. However, they’ll still expect their “reward” for completing the initiative.

Make no guarantees and state that their career advancement in the company will depend largely on their results.


For many companies, employee development plans are something they take for granted for too long. By the time they realize they need to help their employees, they already feel the negative effects of low employee satisfaction and high turnover.

Introducing an effective development plan benefits everyone - it makes your employees happier and it helps your company in the long run. If you’re on the fence, don’t be - start working on your employee development plan immediately! If you don’t have an HR team, apps such as Zavvy will help you identify room for improvement, track results, set goals and achieve them with ease.


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