A Professional Development Plan Template: Craft Your Employees’ Story Arc

If you made it to the last page of a novel, and none of the characters had grown or evolved, you’d probably think it was a boring story.

You may be writing an equally stagnant story about your own company if you aren’t helping your employees craft their individual story arc. It’s not just that people don’t want to read a boring story — they don’t want to be a part of it either. In fact, one of the top reasons employees leave companies is because they don’t feel like their employers care about their development.

Meanwhile, 94% of employees say they will stay at a company longer if it invests in their personal development. You need a professional development plan because it provides a roadmap for navigating these crucial conversations with your team members. As a leader, it’s up to you to to guide your team and invest in their development before your top performers start looking for other companies that will.

To construct a professional development plan — or a character arc, you and your team member need to answer five questions, which we’ve laid out below. Each question is tied to a section of the professional development plan template you can download.

Self-Assessment — Where Are They Now?

You can’t begin a story without a starting point. Self-assessments help your team members determine where they are in their careers right now.

Some people struggle to brag about themselves, so start off the professional development plan template with prompts that encourage their positive sense of self.

  • I feel in my element when:
  • My strengths are:
  • I want to learn more about:
  • I want to improve:
  • Right now, my daily duties include:
  • In the future, I want my responsibilities to be:

These prompts help people narrow in on their passions while also taking a closer look at what skills they need to work on, so they can level up.

Unlike authors, managers don’t always have a clearly defined plot prepared for each team member. Self-assessments can help leadership identify opportunities to guide, encourage, and offer course correction.

Encourage your team members to be honest with themselves and with you. Make sure their assessment seems accurate from all angles — neither overly glowing or critical.Hype them up if they undersold themselves and provide constructive criticism if they oversold.

Goals — Where Do They Want to Go?

Positive character arcs involve people working toward specific goals, but the character isn’t always aware of the goal they are working towards. Professional development plans, on the other hand, formalize the growth process by clearly outlining what employees hope to achieve.

Vague plans won’t help your team succeed, so make sure you help them set S.M.A.R.T. goals — Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound.

Non-S.M.A.R.T goal: I will gain the skills I need to become a project manager.

S.M.A.R.T goal: I will complete a 3-month project management course by March 31st, 2021.

It’s important to work closely with your team members to create goals that put them on the path towards their desired position. Ask questions to determine what makes them feel satisfied at work:

  • What aspects of your current position do you love?
  • What accomplishments at work are you most proud of?
  • If you had an extra two hours every day to develop a new skill, what would it be?
    • How would that skill prepare you for a new role?
  • How do you picture your growth at this company in the next one to two years?
  • What do you need to be successful?

Let’s say you find out that Monica from marketing loves working with e-commerce clients and enjoys setting up online stores. She wishes she had more time to experiment with different e-commerce platforms so she could become an expert in the industry. Her professional development plan might include goals tied to beefing up her e-commerce skills, so she can work towards becoming the head of the e-commerce team.

As a manager, you should guide the conversation so you can design a path that benefits both your team member and the company. Asking questions will help you set milestones for specific goals, plan out skills-building trainings, and design a path toward your team member’s desired position.

Major goals, such as taking over a department, will require many milestones along the way. Use frequent one-on-ones to continuously update professional development plans, so you can ensure your team members are making progress on their career journeys.

Areas of Improvement and Barriers — What Do They Need?

When people are trying to level up in their careers, they often struggle with self-doubt or perceived barriers. Managers should help their team members determine what is standing in the way of their success.

For example, statements like “I don’t have the skills I need to get a promotion” are products of self-doubt that can be positioned as areas of improvement. Sentiments such as “I don’t feel like the company has a clearly defined career path for me,” on the other hand, tell you that your team member views management’s lack of interest in their development as a barrier to their success.

Professional development plan templates can help you coax the information out of your staff. Instead of just asking “what are your weaknesses?” include questions that will give you more insight into how your team member feels about their skills.

  • Do you feel prepared for a promotion? Why or why not?
  • How do we need to adjust your current career path so it will take you where you want to go in this company?
  • What do you need to do your best work?
  • What resources and/or support do you need to grow in your role?
  • What skills do you want to improve upon?

All of these questions focus more on feelings and beliefs than actual facts, which helps you as a manager get a better look at what’s going on inside employees’ heads.

Support from Managers — What’s the Truth?

When employees discover the truth, they can work on reaching their potential. If your team member buys into the misconception that they aren’t skilled enough or that the company doesn’t care about their success, its leadership’s job to show them the truth.

Use a combination of performance reviews and one-on-ones to talk to your team members about their fears and concerns. If you make frequent check-ins and real-time feedback priorities for your team, identifying and addressing potential hurdles will be a lot easier.

Let’s go back to Monica from marketing for a second. If you only talk to Monica about her career goals for one hour every six months, you’ll have a hard time helping her evolve. If Monica only has an hour to talk to leadership about her aspirations, she probably won’t want to waste any time talking about her struggles or concerns. But if you meet with her for 30 minutes every week, you’ll have a lot more opportunities to learn about her as a person and a professional. Plus, you can proactively remove barriers and support Monica continuously instead of just twice a year.

Use professional development plans to hold yourself and the rest of the leadership team accountable. What will you, as a leader, do to remove obstacles for your team? What struggles will you help your team overcome?

Timeline — How Long Is the Story?

The timeline you establish for your team member’s professional development plan will depend on how far they need to go to reach their desired position.

Clear timelines keep team members motivated and accountable. Consider these two statements:

  • “I want to become a mid-level manager within the next year.”
  • “I want to become a mid-level manager by February 1, 2021.”

Although they sound similar, one presents a clear deadline while the other keeps the goal open-ended. Deadlines are important because they allow you to work backwards and set milestones leading up to that deadline. Nebulous timelines like “within the next year” are too easy to adjust. Without milestones and due dates, team members can get sidetracked without noticing and slow down their progress.

Nurture Great Employees with a Professional Development Plan Template

Successful stories and companies rely on the people who drive them forward. If your people can’t evolve, neither can your company.

Professional development plans give your employees’ stories structure. They are the storyboards that plot out what each person will achieve and how those achievements will factor into the overall growth of your business. Remember — if you don’t invest in your people, they will find another company that will. Download our free professional development plan template and help your team grow and evolve along with your business.

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