In most organizations, individual development planning is one of the most simultaneously stressful and disappointing annual rituals we practice. Overwhelmed leaders must engage in what should be a deep, thoughtful, and forward-looking dialogue - frequently with all of their employees, in a compressed timeframe, all while reviewing twelve months' worth of performance. Employees rarely feel that they've gotten the attention they need and deserve. And after all that, plans are generally packed away (like holiday decorations) until next year.
Research consistently acknowledges that learning, growth and development are among the top reasons people stay with or leave a job. With increasing competition for top talent, leaders must find ways to make development planning more effective and enjoyable for their employees. Those who are successful at doing this demand more of the development plan. And you can too by leveraging these best practices.
Institute the not-one-meeting rule
Never write a development plan in one meeting. Doing so communicates to the employee that this is a task to be crossed off a to-do list. Instead, treat development planning as the iterative, ongoing activity it's intended to be. Jointly create a ‘sloppy copy' draft of initial ideas and sleep on it. Return after a few days of reflection to enhance your initial thoughts. Given the importance of this process to the organization and the individual, it deserves more than cursory attention. It deserves curious attention, thoughtful consideration and the creativity that can come from a process rather than a point in time.
Start with what
Before digging into detailed actions, identify a set of appetizing, inspiring objectives. This represents what the employee wants to learn, do or achieve. This foundational element of development planning is frequently overlooked.
Cross-reference the why
Development objectives must have the staying power required to compete over an extended period of time with other priorities, setbacks and distractions. A sustained focus requires a clear understanding of how the objectives fit with and support personal goals and business needs.
Handle the how
Early attempts at development planning should resemble a brainstorming effort. Start by surfacing many ideas, even those that might not be realistic, and whittle the list down to the most actionable and interesting ways for the employee to reach his or her objectives. Get creative. Don't rely exclusively on workshops for learning. Connect people for peer-to-peer exchanges. Suggest mentoring possibilities. Encourage ride-alongs. Explore hands-on experiences that will build necessary skills.
Then, perform a reality check. Review the plan to ensure that it's doable and break it down into attainable steps. It's demotivating to review a development plan twelve months down the line, only to see that no progress was made.
Encourage employee ownership
Development is a partnership. Employees can no longer be passive consumers of an organization's or a leader's developmental efforts. They must take the lead, set the pace, and have skin in the game. This kind of mutual accountability creates the conditions for greater buy-in, commitment and follow-through.
Document the plan
Because memories are short and attention is fractured in today's workplace, always write down the details of the plan. Keep in mind that you're documenting it on paper, not in concrete. Development planning must have depth and staying power while being flexible and fluid. A written document provides a starting point for focus, monitoring, and adjustments as conditions change.
Create an attention plan
It's easy for plans to be tucked away and forgotten. Because good intentions get lost in a sea of busy, it's critical to agree with employees about how you will keep the development objectives and actions top of mind. Depending upon the situation, regular check-ins, monthly plan reviews or quarterly updates will ensure that development gets the attention it deserves. This also gives the opportunity to update and edit the plans so that they can become the living, breathing, iterative tools they're intended to be.
Catch ‘em developing
A good development plan will offer countless specific behaviors, activities and accomplishments that will signal progress. Effective leaders identify these development markers in advance. Then they watch for and recognize their employees' efforts and achievements. Jumping on positive steps forward in the moment telegraphs the importance of development and encourages employees to invest more attention and energy.
While the development plan itself is simply an artifact that memorializes conversations and sets a joint intention, it's the most visible, tangible dimension of a process that's critically important to employees and organizations alike. Demanding more of the development plan is the first step toward realizing the full potential and power of the individual development process.