Career Counselor

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Dear Career Counselor:

Our new boss says we should be doing professional development planning with each of our staff members. I don't know where to start! In the past, professional development meant picking conferences to attend. What should be in a PD plan? How should I approach this planning with my staff?

— Confused about PD

Dear Confused:

There is certainly much to be confused about right now. New opportunities in professional development pop up constantly, while some traditional approaches can be hard to afford. It's a good time to think broadly about developing your staff rather than focusing on past practices. Include in your planning any activity that enhances your staff's ability to successfully perform, or even expand, their jobs. Conferences can be great, especially for developing professional relationships outside of the campus IT department, but many other opportunities require less investment of time and money for both the individual and the institution. Those alternatives deserve consideration as well.

The details of a PD plan will differ for each person; the key is to ensure that the approach is suitably tailored to help each team member grow professionally and increase their ability to contribute. In addition to addressing immediate needs, a PD plan should identify career objectives and map a potential path that the employee can take toward achieving those goals. This may seem a rather daunting task, and you might wonder where to start, but it's easier than it appears. It can also give you an opportunity to work closely with each member of your staff to discover their aspirations, identify common ground, and plan for professional growth. It's a good idea to have your staff propose their own plan. Give them guidance while resisting the urge to do this for them; after they create it, the two of you can review it together. You can suggest ways to strengthen the plan or bring it into alignment with what resources you have. It is an important aspect of staff development for them to assume some responsibility for this and not merely let you do it for them. In the end, both you and your staff stand to learn a lot as you go through the process.

Here are a few steps you can follow to create effective PD plans with your employees:

  • Define staff goals. Ask your employees to clearly articulate their one-year and five-year career and/or knowledge goals and what they believe it will take to achieve them.
  • Identify what's needed. Use your knowledge and experience to help refine what types of work experience or skills the employee will need to achieve their objectives. Be sure to identify training, conferences, readings, and projects that will provide this experience.
  • Set up a timeline. To keep professional development on the front burner, help your staff break down the larger goals into smaller tasks with projected timelines, so they have a plan for how to reach the overall objective. You might want to set up a calendar for professional development and goals for all your employees so that you can see the target dates as well as the overall implications for your entire organization. This also helps you ensure that the various PD activities are scheduled in ways that don't hinder your ability to provide necessary operational support to your campus. In addition, it allows you to assess budgetary impact for any particular fiscal year to avoid a first-come, first-served funding model for professional development.
  • Set clear expectations. Clearly identify what will be expected from each employee as they achieve their goals. Outline new projects that might be considered if they reach their objectives, and help them understand their role within your organization and the effect their career objectives will have on that role. Incorrect assumptions on the part of the employee or employer regarding outcomes and potential changes should be avoided for everyone's benefit.
  • Provide encouragement. While it is your staff's responsibility to be proactive and take the initiative to accomplish their goals, you can provide the support and encouragement they might need at different stages of the PD process. Help them understand the changing elements within your environment and prepare them to adapt and modify their goals as necessary.

As your staff create PD plans with your guidance, it will become clear that training is a key feature. Note an important distinction, though — professional development is structured to enhance not just skills but careers for your employees. Additionally, a large portion of learning also comes from experience, not just traditional training or conferences.

A few additional options will help complete the PD plans for your staff:

  • Scheduled training, in person or online
  • Mentoring and/or coaching opportunities
  • Reading lists
  • Research
  • Real-life experiences
  • Conferences
  • Vendor seminars
  • Community service/volunteer work

The plans that are created will need to be flexible, changing as the environment and requirements change, but they should also be modified when an employee's aspirations change. Most importantly, they should set realistic expectations for each member of your staff — not everyone can become the director of operations or the deputy CIO. Nonetheless, everyone can apply some foresight and planning to find or create challenge, variety, and interest in their job and career.

Once the plan is defined, and the goals and timelines are identified, it is time to put it into motion. While each individual will continue to work in partnership with you, they should also realize that they own their personal PD plan and take the initiative to make it happen.

Now that you know how to create a professional development plan, you might wonder why you should go through all the time and effort it will take. Remember that changes in our world are making our knowledge and skills outdated very quickly. Skills considered transferable just five years ago are now being questioned as possibly irrelevant. While core skills such as communication, languages, and project management still have relevance, new and evolving knowledge is needed on a daily basis. Your department will become more knowledgeable and skilled through individual professional development, which in turn allows you to be more effective and efficient in your work.

Change is continuous in all aspects of life. It is happening at an increased rate, which means that everyone needs to learn faster and smarter to maintain the skills required for the job. A PD plan for each employee (including you!) will help you mitigate the effects of change and produce more knowledgeable staff — creating a win-win situation for everyone.

— The Career Counselor

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