How to Help Employees Set Professional Development Goals: Your Ultimate Guide
Are you looking for ways to support your employees in reaching their full potential?
One way to start is by actively helping employees set development goals that drive engagement and motivation.
"Managers must be a direct source of development for employees and know when to focus development locally and when to guide them in looking elsewhere. Thomas Davenport & Stephen Harding, Manager Redefined.
Investing in the development of your employees benefits them and has a positive impact on your organization.
In this guide, we'll share all the tools and strategies you need to effectively support your team in setting and accomplishing their professional development goals.
🌱 What are professional development goals?
Professional development goals are targeted, specific, and measurable objectives to enhance an individual's skills, knowledge, and abilities in their chosen field of work.
These goals help individuals by:
- Providing direction and purpose to advance their careers.
- Enabling them to stay current and competitive.
- Defining what success looks like at an individual level.
Similar to how knowledge of the destination aids in planning a road trip, professional development goals enable individuals to decide the direction of their careers and what's needed to get there.
And they're different from performance goals, which evaluate employee performance and focus on an individual's role (Key Performance Indicators, for example). Many HR and project managers love these, as they clarify an employee's priorities.
🏆 4 Benefits of setting development goals for employees
Increased alignment and clearer direction
Setting development goals with your employees ensures they see how their role adds value to the organization.
Setting development goals with employees aligns their personal goals with the organization's objectives, ensuring everyone is working towards a common goal. This clarity of direction helps employees focus on their role and how it contributes to the company's success.
Here are some examples of how you can increase alignment with development goals:
- An employee in customer service sets a goal to improve their communication skills, aligning with the company's value of providing exceptional customer support.
- A salesperson sets a goal to increase their product knowledge, which aligns with the organization's mission of delivering expert advice to customers.
Setting attainable development goals gives employees a sense of purpose and motivation to grow in their careers.
Plus, these goals help employees think critically about their future career aspirations and work towards them.
"Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others" Jack Welch, former GE (General Electric) CEO, in Winning: The Ultimate Business How-To Book.
Improved skills in the workplace
Setting development goals will enable your people to prioritize their efforts and allocate time and resources towards specific growth areas, such as developing future-proof skills of strategic value to your organization.
For example, when marketing managers aim to improve their data analysis skills, they can make more informed decisions about marketing campaigns.
Another example can be an HR representative setting a goal to improve their conflict resolution skills. This goal would benefit the individual and the organization by fostering a more positive workplace culture.
Employees gain a voice
The collaborative process of setting development goals encourages open communication and allows employees to express their growth aspirations.
Collaboration fosters a healthy workplace culture where employees feel valued and heard.
😓 7 Challenges of setting employee goals
Setting unrealistic goals
Setting specific and challenging goals are two principles to follow in goal setting.
However, much like many New Year's resolutions, we can make them too hard to accomplish they end up having the opposite effect.
Unattainable goals can open the door for unethical behavior, which has devastating consequences.
For example, among the reasons for Enron's downfall in 2001 was its goal-setting practices, which independent evaluators highlighted as a source of misconduct.
When goals lack clear objectives, employees face difficulties meeting and exceeding expectations.
It's also essential to clarify the "why" behind professional development goals, as it simplifies the employee's role in performing to attain them.
HR and management professionals have a part to play here. Their understanding and communication of the objectives determine whether everyone moves in the same direction.
Lack of alignment between employee goals and company strategy
It's not always the employee's fault when their development goals don't align with the organization's strategy.
At best, the strategy might not be fully disseminated within the company; at worst, it is non-existent.
Tip: The earlier you relay the company roadmap to your people, the sooner they can integrate the knowledge into their development goals.
Lack of progress tracking
Where employee development targets are unclear or not well-defined, it becomes difficult for you to track employee progress at every step.
A robust goal-setting tool helps you evaluate individual performance and provide constructive and iterative feedback.
Tip: Using an employee enablement tool can make life easier.
Lack of support
You can do everything right to create the development goals and clarify expectations. Still, without continuous support, employees will struggle to achieve them.
Support can take many forms, from regular feedback sessions to coaching and mentoring structures or guided support through performance management tools.
Whichever form works for your people managers must be implemented regularly for meaningful change.
Lack of clarity on career progression strategies
From the beginning of the process, define the development strategies and relay them to employees.
Career progress often has a compensation incentive tied to it, so you must make this clear.
Unclear company values
In the prevalent startup "mindset" that many organizations adopt for growth, it's easy to focus on the product or service and kick the can on articulating company values.
However, your organizational values represent the core beliefs each team member should embody.
These values should be apparent in your employee's development goals. For example, suppose one of your values is always putting customers first. In that case, a development goal can be learning to approach customer issues tactfully and reduce customer waiting times.
🎯 6 Characteristics of effective professional development goals
Let's work through a practical case to understand the importance of setting SMART goals.
Let's say you have an employee who wants to build a career in the tech field.
Unfortunately, having an ambiguous goal like "Improve cloud computing knowledge" doesn't provide a framework to help accomplish that individual goal.
However, "Complete one cloud computing course in the next 60 days so I can play a support role in the April product launch" is more effective.
Why? Because it hits all the markers of SMART goal setting.
Measurable: There's no "fence-sitting" in this personal goal: the employee will either complete the cloud course or not.
Attainable: Depending on the complexity of the course, 60 days is sufficient time to enroll, make progress, and even complete it.
Clear: There's no ambiguity: the goal is specific on what needs to be done to achieve it.
Relevant: Gaining mastery in cloud computing is very relevant and clearly impacts the employee's role when the product launch happens.
Time-bound: There's a 60-day deadline for the goal, creating a sense of purpose and urgency for its accomplishment.
Meaningful: Not only is the goal in line with the employee's role but completing it means they have improved their cloud skills and are in a better position to support the organization during the launch.
For this employee, achieving it sets the pace for the next set of goals that, in totality, define their career vision.
Now, is it always going to be this simple?
Perhaps not. However, approaching goal setting with this mindset helps the employee visualize the meaningful and realistic goals encompassing their career path.
Tip: Try Zavvy's development plan template to save time and discover additional aspects necessary for goal achievement.
💡 15 Best practices for helping your employees set realistic and meaningful development goals
Start conducting development conversations
Setting aside time to have development conversations with employees is as important as discussing company goals with senior management.
Schedule specific times for these discussions, and where necessary, provide the required resources to streamline the conversations.
Review organizational needs and share findings with the employee
The types of skills your company needs are crucial information that employees need to know. And it's just as important as setting goals and tracking progress toward their accomplishment.
What you share should get people thinking about how their aspirations help build engagement and buy-in.
💪 Are you keeping track of the core competencies necessary for business success? Check out our comprehensive database of 36 core competencies.
Guide the employee on setting goals that align with company objectives
Employees who understand how their roles connect to the organizational goals are more likely to be engaged.
Achieving professional goals often involves juggling competing priorities. So, understanding the bigger picture helps you make the right tradeoffs as needed.
Invite employees to identify job-specific goals
Many employees want to learn and grow on the job. But the effort needed to learn often takes a back seat to the daily grind.
However, it doesn't have to be that way.
💡 You can encourage your employees to grow with stretch assignments or cross-training.
Evaluate employee potential vs. readiness
When a position opens up, management often looks at the talent bench to fill it up. However, some might show the "potential" to suit up, but very few are ready to do the job.
Through a combination of assessments, interviews, and other modes, you can evaluate readiness – the stage between potential and actual uptake into a role, according to Korn Ferry's The Readiness Linchpin whitepaper.
Use the employee's latest self, peer, and downward evaluations to identify strengths and potential for growth
One of the most confidence-inspiring ways you can do is to help your team members see their strengths and learn how to use them.
And if you want to build a strong team, it's up to you to look for the skills and talents of every employee.
Tip: 360 degree assessment surveys are a great place to start when evaluating strengths.
Ask the right development questions to identify potential goals
Even if you think you know what motivates your employees, understand that people's career aspirations change. Asking the right development questions helps test assumptions and gets individuals to think deeper regarding their careers.
Sample questions include:
- What work projects are you most proud of?
- What do you want to achieve here but don't have time for?
- Are there skills or strengths you could use more here?
- If there are aspects of the role you could change, what would they be?
- What lessons have you learned about obtaining career goals?
At an individual level, you can also use pointed questions reflecting their experience, strengths, and situational awareness.
Share best practices from employees with similar responsibilities
Goal setting can also be an opportunity for peer learning and collaboration. Rather than viewing career progress as an abstract concept, sharing real-life best practices from people with similar roles gives employees the opportunity to learn something new, gain confidence to push, and even form new relationships.
Emphasize attainable goals
Employees are prone to "play it safe" when setting the goal, so they're easier to achieve.
However, employees who pursue ambitious targets tend to outperform peers who identify less-challenging milestones.
At Google, setting ambitious goals through the OKR concept (Objectives and Key Results) motivates employees and entire teams while ensuring transparency in company growth.
Help the employee break down major goals into smaller actionable tasks
"Improve at managing projects" is too broad an objective. It lacks a clear sense of the result and the route to achieving it.
If you want concrete goals, encourage people to answer what, how, and when questions about their goals. This information provides the smaller tasks that need to get done to attain the primary goal.
Establish a plan with check-in dates for each goal
If you want to bring down a forest, you do it one tree at a time.
For your teams, this means establishing a regular schedule for check-in conversations, preferably weekly meetings focused on assessing progress on each goal at a time.
The benefit of consistency is that you remain accountable and build relationships.
Consider all types of training and development to support goal achievement
The development process can take many forms.
One example is implementing in-person training programs focused on competencies or self-driven e-learning lessons where you understand how to set goals and measure progress.
Conduct regular checks to review employees' development progress
Frequent conversations regarding progress, resources needed, and priorities to focus on should be the norm. These regular checks ensure:
- Employees receive guidance on various decisions.
- Maintain focus on the most important things.
- Evaluation happens continually.
Such frequent conversations help shape key actions that enable work accomplishment. For example, former LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner met his executive team frequently to assess their progress against set goals.
Offer career coaching to help employees achieve their goals
Many employees know what they want to achieve but not always how to get there. That's where coaching becomes vital.
Career coaching gets individuals to open up about their needs and identify the right development path to make these a reality.
Support employees who want to pursue new roles in the company
Your experience can help you consider what could have been done differently, which opens the possibility of taking a new path.
When considering a new role, the basics of development goal setting don't change: What do you want to achieve in this role?
👀 3 Examples of professional development goals
We formulated three examples of professional development goals.
Then, for each, we collected ideas on how to help your employees achieve those goals.
Finally, we formulated the action items as if directly speaking to the employees.
Develop strong presentation skills
As a professional, there's no escaping the fact that you will need to present information to various stakeholders from time to time (or regularly!). Therefore, articulating your content concisely is necessary for faster decision-making.
How to improve presentation skills:
- Identify and read up on the presentation aspects you wish to improve.
- Practice. First, by yourself. Then, with a small team of trusted colleagues who can give honest feedback.
- Volunteer to present whenever an opportunity arises.
Write an impactful business report
The written word is a powerful communication tool that can establish you as a trusted resource within the organization.
How to attain this goal:
- Take a writing course (within a clear timeline) that focuses on communicating business information.
- Request work-related assignments that enable you to practice.
- Seek regular feedback based on your submissions.
Transition from role x to y
At some point, you may feel a role transition is the best course for your career development. Whether this happens within or outside your current organization, it's vital to approach it wisely.
How to attain this goal:
- Start volunteering for projects where you can collaborate with the work and team of the intended future role.
- Continually document your experience and transferrable skills that apply to the role.
- Complete learning courses to build the knowledge needed for the new role.
- Look for open positions and apply for those that fit your skill set.
💡 We hope that these examples and the 14 extra ones that Zavvy has carefully curated show how you can guide employees to unlock potential and aim higher professionally.
➡️ Develop your workforce with Zavvy
One of the best ways to build your business is by enabling your employees to grow alongside you.
With Zavvy's comprehensive employee development software, your employees get to be in charge of what they want and how to get there.
HR, L&D, and people managers rely on Zavvy to grow and guide their teams through the career development path.
The platform makes it easy and possible for organizations of any size to define professional growth requirements and guide teams through to achievement.
Schedule a demo and let Zavvy's tool help you empower teams to professional development success.