Assemble Your Development Plan - Finding your Career Path

In the last few blogs in this series, we’ve been exploring some of the more abstract topics related to building a career in HR – like how to work out whether a career in the field is right for you, and what role might be best for you. Now though, with all of that work behind us, we’ll be starting to focus on the more practical measures that you can take to advance your HR career. 

In this blog, we’ll be exploring one of the most essential, and most practical, steps that you can take when it comes to building your HR career – building a career development plan.

Why create a career development plan?

Isn’t it just a waste of time? You can’t predict where fate will lead you after all. You could come up with the most detailed career development plan and find that none of it works at all.

These days though, where competition for jobs is incredibly fierce, where technology is developing at pace and where the world of work is constantly changing, the people who succeed in their careers are generally the ones who can think strategically and plan.

With that in mind, the most obvious reason for creating a career development plan is to formally work out the steps that you’ll need to take to achieve your stated career goal. It’s a map that shows you the various steps you need to take to achieve your ultimate goal.

As well as providing a physical purpose – showing you the practical actions that you need to take – creating a career plan can also provide mental benefits too. Coming up with a career development plan can also make your ambitions seem much more real. Putting them down on paper, or typing them up in a document can help you visual them, improving the chances that you’ll actually achieve them.

Having clear objectives and a clear plan can often add a sense of fulfillment and control to your life, too. They can make you feel part of a bigger picture and that you’re contributing something meaningful to the world. In an employment world (and even in a wider world) where the pace of change is often overwhelming, having something that can act as a mental ‘anchor’, grounding you and helping you maintain a sense of control, is really important. Goals can act as one of these things.

As we’ve mentioned before, our jobs are one of the areas where we spend the majority of our time in a week. Unless we’re too young, too old, too ill or incredibly rich, we’re all compelled to work to earn money, to provide for ourselves in the world. Rather than being a passive bystander in the process of working, it makes sense then to take an active role and shape where you want to go. Doing so can help you feel much more fulfilled overall.

A happy female professional

How to create a career development plan

1.    Determine your final goal

In the last chapter, we looked at gathering the basic information you need to create your ‘ultimate’ career goal. In other words, the most advanced position in your career path – the role that will be waiting for you at the very top of your career ladder.

Whilst you don’t necessarily have to know what role you ultimately want to be doing in 20 years when you’ll probably have developed your career to a more sophisticated level, it’s really helpful to have at least a rough idea of where you want to be. Having an inkling of where you want to be tomorrow will help you to make better decisions today.

By thinking about which goal you ultimately want to achieve when you’re at the height of your professional development, you’ll be able to work backwards and clearly identify a path for how you can get there.

Looking at the final goal you want to achieve in your career can look like an odd thing to do when you’re trying to decide what decisions to make right now. Trust the process though.

How to create a goal

It’s one thing to tell you to go away and find your ultimate career goal, but how do you actually do it? One of the best ways is to try to align senior roles that you’ve researched with your own specific traits, interests and values.

Try and find senior roles that align with:

  • Your personal values – the attitudes, belief and moral behaviours that you’re personally invested in. Alison Doyle explores the idea of career values and how you can work out which ones you have in this fascinating blog for The Balance.
  • Your professional interests – the areas of Human Resources that particularly fascinate and inspire you
  • Your strengths – the things that you are inherently good at and that you enjoy doing
  • Your challenges – the things that you find difficult and that you don’t enjoy doing

At this point, it’s useful to start taking some notes – either by hand or on the computer – to record your thoughts and give you something to use as a reference for later on.

Coping with career uncertainty when deciding your goal

Unless you’re a clairvoyant, you’re not going to know the future holds for your career. As a result, we need to make sure that we can stay flexible with our long-term goals.

For instance, at the moment, you might be obsessed with becoming a Head of HR at a small company. After working for a few years in HR though, you might find that your career ends up drawing you down a different route. You could end up finding that you have a real talent for Diversity, Equality and Inclusion and that you end up getting promoted into a DEI role after a few years in your current HR role, which in turn leads to more DEI opportunities. In 20 years, you might find you’ve developed your career into a Head of DEI at a larger organisation rather than the Head of HR that you’d originally planned.

Career progression is a funny thing and it can often pull us in new, exciting and ultimately, unforeseen, ways.

One way that people manage this uncertainty when it comes to their career is by setting a more flexible approach to creating their final goal. Set a goal but don’t feel the need to blindly stick by it if you find yourself drawn into another area of HR.

It also needs to be said that your final career goal doesn’t have to be a senior one: after all, there are only so many ‘Head of HR’ jobs in a country. If a senior position doesn’t suit you, that’s absolutely fine. There’s nothing wrong at all with targeting a more intermediate role, like a HR Advisor or HR Manager if you feel that better reflects your personality, your personal values and your own ambitions. The key is to find a role that you’re comfortable with and that you feel represents your career development at its height.

Which brings us on neatly to the next stage of creating your career development plan…

2.    Map your steps

The next step is to identify a route for achieving your career goals. It involves researching the progression route for your intended role and examining any specific experience, skills, knowledge and qualifications that you might need to do it. In other words, creating that map of your career that we’ve been talking about.

The career ladder

Your career map usually starts with thinking carefully about the ‘career ladder’ – the progression route towards your dream career.

We’ve spent a lot of time exploring the need to begin by finding your ultimate career goal so that we can work backwards and find the different career stages that we’ll need to achieve to lead up to that role.

There’s a reason why many people often refer to career development as ‘climbing up the career ladder’ – and it’s not just because they’re partial to a good cliche. Career development really does share some similarities to climbing a ladder.

Think about it for a minute. A ladder is made up of different steps, all leading to the very top. You’ll need to start at the bottom and clear one rung of the ladder before you can reach the next rung, and so on, until you’re at the top. That’s similar to career development. If you want to achieve the most senior role in your field (the top of the ladder, to use our metaphor) you’ll usually need to start with a junior HR position and then progress to more advanced roles, higher up the seniority chain.

Mapping your career steps/ stages is ultimately about trying to work out how you’ll go about climbing that ladder – it’s about identifying the specific ‘rungs’ ie. steps of the ladder, that you need to tackle to reach your ultimate career goal.

Identifying the ‘rungs’ on the ladder or career stages

Start by looking at the final position and ask yourself the following questions:

  • What experience do I need to get there?
  • What skills do I need to get there?
  • What knowledge do I need to get there?
  • What qualifications do I need to get there?
  • What is the role immediately ‘below’ this one?

Use a mind-map or a spidergram to organise your information, creating a large central circle with the role and then smaller circles connected to it, like this:

A circle with 'final role' written in the middle, that is split into four quarters one saying 'knowledge', one saying 'skills', one saying 'experience' and one saying 'qualifications'

Add the things that you’ll need around the smaller circles, if you know them already (we’ll look more at this in point 3 below). Colour-coding can be useful here! This step will hopefully give you a good, concise overview of the essential things to know about the role.

An example of a how to find your career path

Here’s an example of how you uncover the career path for a particular role – or at least, the way that you can approach it.

Meet Rosa. Rosa wants to be a HR Manager eventually.

She starts the process by listing her dream role but she doesn’t know the other positions she’ll need to get to that position just yet though. Her current understanding of what her career development plan looks like is something like this:

  • HR Manager > ? > ?

She researches, using the internet and talking to an acquaintance who works in HR and finds that the role most people work in before becoming a HR Manager is a HR Officer or HR Advisor. She adds this to her map, giving her something like this:

  • HR Manager > HR Officer/ Advisor > ?

By carrying out more research, she finds that most people who become HR Officers/ Advisors initially work as HR Assistants. That helps her fill in the gaps:

  • HR Manager > HR Officer/ Advisor > HR Assistant

Rosa now has a rough career path for her role! She creates a mindmap like the one above and adds each role, each in a central circle.

Follow a similar process and gather the information you need about your career path. Then add these roles to your mindmap or spidergram, similar to how we did the first one in Figure 1

3.    Research the knowledge, skills and experience you’ll need for each role

The next step is relatively easy to do but it takes time and work. Basically, now you’ve identified the career route you’ll take to get to your ultimate career you can start finding out the specific knowledge, skills, experience and qualifications that you’ll need for each role.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), one of the leading professional membership bodies for Human Resources, has fantastic online resources about HR roles, qualifications and getting started in the field. The website is essential reading when it comes to researching your HR career route, helping you find answers to the respective skills, knowledge and experience you’ll need for most roles.

When you’ve worked your way through each of the roles on your career map, add the information you’ve gathered to your mindmap. You should have a document that’s filled with a lot of circles and a lot of information.

Well done. You’ve created your career map: a basic overview of the roles that you’ll likely need to achieve to reach your ultimate career goal.

Now, it’s time for the hard work to begin…

A female professional working at her desk

4.    Set short-term and long-term objectives

With a clear idea of where you need to go, you can start breaking down the whole process into smaller, more manageable sections. With this done, you can start setting objectives for each section that you can work towards.

There are two types of objectives that will be useful to you when it comes to creating your development plan and achieving your career goals: short-term objectives and long-term objectives.

Short-term objectives

These are objectives that are designed to be completed in a short space of time, like within the next week, month or a couple of months. They are often focused on practical tasks that provide an immediate benefit: like studying a particular piece of information for instance.  In terms of your HR career development, short-term objectives can include things like:

  • Researching, and applying for, potential HR jobs
  • Gathering information on CIPD qualification providers
  • Studying a specific piece of HR information, useful to your current role

Long-term objectives

As you can guess from the name, long-term objectives are focused on goals to be achieved over a longer period of time, like within the next few years, a decade or 20 years.

They often take more of a ‘bigger picture’ approach than short-term goals and can often be broader. They sometimes require more sustained levels of commitment, motivation and patience to be able to complete because of the fact that you’re working on them over a long period of time. Examples of long-term goals include things like:

  • Studying a qualification
  • Achieving a specific role

Look at each of the roles that you’ve identified and come up with a mixture of short-term and long-term objectives to help you achieve that specific role. This is where the quality of your research is really important – comprehensive research into the requirements of each role will make it easier for you to identify the tasks you’ll need to complete which you can then set as objectives.

5. Make sure these objectives are SMART

There can be temptation when you’re setting objectives to either make them too easy to achieve or far too difficult. Using the SMART framework can help you to create objectives that are effective, precise and most importantly, achievable.

Theorised back in 1981 in an article by management consultant George T. Doran in Management Review called ‘There’s a S.M.A.R.T. Way to Write Management’s Goals and Objectives’, the framework has proved hugely influential on the world of goal-setting. The SMART approach to objectives has continued to evolve and adapt as the years have progressed.

Nowadays, SMART objectives are considered ones that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-limited:

  • Specific: Your objective is focused on one particular task or is concerned with one specific focus.
  • Measurable: Your progress and whether or not you achieve your objective can be measured
  • Achievable: Your objective isn’t too difficult that you can’t successfully complete it
  • Relevant: Your objective is relevant to your overall project
  • Time-limited: There’s a time-limit that you need to achieve your objective within, ie. one week, one month, one year

Studies cited in the Research from the Journal for Experimental Psychology suggest that setting challenging goals can help you to develop emotional investment in your objective – a particular powerful motivator.

6. Create a timeline

With a list of focused short-term and long-term objectives for each role in front of you, you’ve got most of the information that you’ll probably need to plan your journey towards your dream HR career. The next step is a relatively simple one but one that needs a bit of thinking about – creating a timeline for your career.

Perhaps the simplest way to create a development timeline is to assign rough deadlines to the development of particular roles and long-term objectives and assign stricter deadlines to short-term objectives.

It’s never a good idea to create an immovable deadline. After all, life happens and you never know what might get in the way of your intentions. Instead try to focus on building flexibility into your timeline so that it stays resilient no matter what the world throws at you.

Start charting your future with your development plan

How did you find that process? Did you manage to follow all of the steps?

If you did, congratulations! You’re now the happy owner of a bespoke career development plan.

This development plan will provide the backbone of your career development over the coming years.  Remember though, your development plan is just that – a plan. It’s a working document that should be updated as you climb your way up the career ladder and with changes in your circumstances, objectives and motivations. It’s not a strict document that is set in stone and that can never be changed. It can, and should, change as you change.

In the next chapter, we’ll explore how work experience and studying dedicated HR qualifications can give you the edge when it comes to applying for HR roles.

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