Creating a Professional Development Plan: Tips for Small Teams

The number one reason for employee turnover for 10 straight years? Lack of career development options.

Statistics like this are sobering, but they don’t necessarily help you address the issue. When you’re still figuring out where your small business will go, it’s tempting to put professional development plans on the back burner. But unless you want to lose the handful of rock-star employees you’ve hired, helping your team grow needs to be a top priority.

While you may not have clearly defined roles or even departments as a small team, you can still support your team by involving them in the growth process. In fact, small teams allow for more one-on-one time and give you a chance to nurture talent.

Start using these development strategies with your team so you can build (and keep) top-performers.

Encourage Employees to Advocate for Themselves

It can be difficult for employees of smaller teams to speak up about what they want, because there aren’t always clear options to chose from. If your marketing department consists of two people, where, exactly, are your marketers supposed to go from there? It puts your employees in the awkward position of either asking to abandon their tiny department or fight for their coworker’s spot.

Your staff needs to know that those aren’t the only choices available. By encouraging your team to be honest about their aspirations, you also empower them to take ownership of their personal growth trajectory. This is important because many high-performers lean toward pleasing management. So, instead of chasing their passions, they cater their professional development plans to what they think management wants.

Don’t let yourself fall into a fruitless back-and-forth with your people-pleasing team members. Instead, set aside time in one-on-ones to discuss their interests and talk about how they envision their career paths. Let them guide the conversation. If they’re hesitant, lean on self-evaluations to gather insights.

Once you know more about where an employee wants to go, you can help them map out a plan to get there. Remember: it’s your responsibility to help people navigate their career paths, not decide exactly where that path will lead. You should work with each team member to set S.M.A.R.T. goals, but make them accountable for monitoring their own progress.

Unlock Internal Knowledge

Because small teams are used to lending a hand where needed, cross-training and collaboration can be an effective and efficient way to help small teams expand their skills. As you help your team members craft their professional development plans, take advantage of your staff’s collective knowledge and talent.

Make good use of your more experienced employees by turning them into mentors for the newbies on your team. Mentorships are good for both the mentee and the mentor. Mentees get to learn from their veteran coworkers, and mentors gain greater job satisfaction thanks to the working relationship.

Job shadowing is a more one-sided approach but can be useful for anyone looking to explore a different position. When people get to work with someone who has their desired job (or something similar), they can get a sneak peek at what a typical day looks like. This could make them fall in love with the job or help them realize it’s not a great fit. Either way, it’s a solid learning experience.

Because small teams often rely on people with multiple skill sets, cross-training can be a particularly useful development tactic. It’s an efficient way to expose your people to different specialties while also increasing your team’s collective skills. Cross-training also gives people the confidence they need to take on stretch assignments.

As the name implies, stretch assignments are designed to stretch a person’s skills just beyond their comfort zone. For example, you could ask someone interested in management to supervise an intern. If one of your content writers wants to give project management a shot, you might ask them to head up a special writing project to see how they handle time management, leadership, and organization.

Experimentation in other areas of the workplace allows your team to test out roles and identify opportunities for new skills training. Testing the waters before diving into the deep end helps people approach professional development plans with a better idea of what they do and don’t want from a career.

Implement Job Leveling

Small teams often struggle with vertical growth limitations because, on small teams, there simply aren’t enough higher-level positions to move into. If everyone becomes a manager, there won’t be anyone left to manage. And not everyone dreams of managing others. Job leveling can solve both of these issues while still giving your team members a chance to grow.

Start by defining competency levels for a specific role. For example, job levels for marketers might look like this:

  • Level 1: Marketing Assistant
  • Level 2: Junior Marketer
  • Level 3: Marketing Manager
  • Level 4: Senior Marketing Manager
  • Level 5: Director of Marketing

Of course, leveling up does not have to mean moving into management. Levels can also show progression in a specific role. For example, a content editor could level up by hitting specific editing milestones tied to enhancing and building upon their skills. That way, an editor can earn promotions through achievements such as creating custom editing guides for beginner editors or completing copyediting courses.

Job leveling is ideal for small teams that don’t have a lot of higher-level positions to move into. Levels give employees the opportunity to expand their knowledge and earn more money. And, because levels have clearly defined requirements, they prevent employees from coveting other’s jobs (or questioning whether or not someone deserved a promotion).

Consider Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Options

Startups and small businesses tend to create positions on an as-needed basis. Instead of waiting for a need to arise, work with your team to predict future needs, and design professional development plans accordingly.

Choose-your-own-adventure career paths get your staff involved in the business while working on their personal growth. When your team isn’t boxed into a set development path, they can really think about their passions and how those interests can support their career and the company.

Small teams can use this to their advantage. You can encourage employees to research the industry so they can come to you with a job proposal. Not only does this get them fired up about their professional development plan, but it also helps you see how your company could benefit from this new position.

Choose-your-own-adventure paths also naturally lend to goal-setting. To create their own adventure, people will need to outline what the role would accomplish and what the ROI would be for the company.

Open career paths also give people the chance to move into totally new positions within the same company. For instance, after taking on a stretch assignment heading up a project, a marketing employee might realize they really enjoy project management and want to move into a project manager role.

Talk to Your Team About Professional Development Plans

Only 37% of employees are satisfied with the potential for growth at their companies. Don’t let your small team fall apart because you didn’t give your staff a chance to grow.

Start your next one-on-one with a professional development discussion. Listen to your team, and make sure they know that you care about their progress and want to see them evolve. Small teams have a unique advantage: you can craft careers that align with your company’s development plans. Capitalize on that by learning more about your people and helping them find a role that keeps them engaged and satisfied at work.

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