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5 Best Practices for Creating a Leadership Development Plan

A few years ago, I was working with a leader named Julie. She had recently transitioned from managing individual contributors to managing other managers, and she had received some valuable feedback regarding her leadership growth opportunities. Namely, she was encouraged to elevate herself – and thereby her team – by letting go of the details, empowering her team to do their work, and increasing her visibility cross-functionally and with more senior leaders.

She felt motivated by these opportunities. They seemed reasonable and worthy of her time…but where should she begin?

Well, what’s one of the most impactful ways to achieve a specific outcome? Create an actionable plan.

This applies to so many things in life: completing school, learning a new skill, starting an exercise routine. It’s also crucial for developing skills and capabilities as a professional or leader.

Julie’s challenge? She – along with many leaders – had never created a professional development plan. As a result, it felt like an overwhelming process to embark upon.

But it doesn’t have to be. Using Julie’s experience as a case study, we’ll outline five best practices to follow in developing and executing on your plan.

First things first: A good leadership development plan is simple, actionable, and challenging yet realistic. You can’t (and shouldn’t) do everything at once. In fact, a developmental action plan is meant to be a living document that evolves and is updated over time (e.g., annually).

One: Start with gaining clarity on your short- and long-term career goals.

Begin by considering your top 2-3 career goals and the purpose behind your development. Would you like a promotion? Are you hoping to build your skills for influence? Would you like to increase your people management toolkit? Get clear on what you’re aiming for. Accordingly, these priorities should get you closer to your goals – this will give you purpose as you pursue developmental action.

For Julie, in order to be successful as a manager of managers, she had to figure out how to scale herself and lead through her team. Long-term, she wanted to continue her upward advancement (hopefully getting to the C-suite within 5+ years).  In order to reach that goal, she knew she had to start developing now.

Two: Find your why.

Next, take a page from Simon Sinek and ask: what’s your why? What makes this important to you? When the going gets tough and life gets in the way of your goals, what will help you stay focused?

Julie knew she wanted to be a leader since her early days as captain of the soccer team. She loved seeing other people succeed and felt exceptionally accomplished winning together, as a team. She was also driven to pave the way for other female leaders and felt a strong sense of purpose to create an environment where others like her could succeed too. This was her “why,” and it kept her going even in the most frustrating of situations. And again, she knew that to fulfill her purpose, her own development had to stay front and center.

Three: Look for themes.

Reflect on feedback you’ve received over the last several years – both positive and constructive. Where do you excel? What has consistently gotten in your way? What one thing, if developed, would make a difference in your performance or reputation?

From her first role out of college, Julie was lauded for her problem-solving skills – give her any challenge, and she would figure it out. This meant a lot of time spent head-down, analyzing variables. At some point, this strength started becoming an area to monitor: in leading her team, her tendency to dive in to solve problems often got in the way of delegation. These themes became central to her development plan.

Four: Design your plan.

After some reflection, it’s time to piece this altogether.  We encourage you create a one-page plan wherein you:

  • Specify career goals.
  • List out 2-3 strengths to leverage and 2-3 developmental targets for growth.
  • Specify actions to move the needle against your development targets.

In our experience, this is where leaders tend to struggle (and Julie was no different!). It’s one thing to identify high-level priorities and entirely another to identify clear actions for achieving them.

Advice for Creating Action Items

Actions might be measurable. This can mean quantifiable, such as “increasing P&L by x amount,” or verifiable (e.g., “Did this happen? Yes or no”).

That said, generally, think of your development according to the three ‘E’s: experiences, exposure, and education. As you select measurable actions, choose a blend of these three.

For example, an experience could be going through this coaching process, whereas exposure could be about finding a mentor (someone who does the thing you’re working on really well) and studying how they operate. But exposure could also mean attending higher-level meetings or getting exposure to new ways of thinking or working. Education involves reading, watching videos, attending a training, or taking a course.

Another helpful framework is 70/20/10:

  • 70% of development time is “on the job” – projects, stretch assignments, job rotation, and applying new behaviors.
  • 20% of development time is “with others” – mentoring, networking and events, conferences, coaching, and shadowing others.
  • 10% of development time is “in the classroom” – training, leadership workshops, reading books, and getting a degree or certification.

Finally, think of both strategic and tactical goals – a good plan includes elements of both.  And consider: what would get in the way of successfully taking action? How can you plan for those roadblocks?

Five: Keep your plan visible and adapt it over time!

Finally, as noted earlier, consider this a living document. It’s not something you work on and file away, but rather something you share (with your manager, a trusted advisor or coach) and then review, tweak, and adjust as time goes on and your work context changes.

I encourage leaders to print their plan and place it somewhere  highly visible (behind your desk, on your white board).

Julie printed hers out on a colorful sheet of paper and put it right next to her daily to-do list. This meant that every day, she was reminded of her plan and actions. She also created a recurring monthly calendar meeting to review her plan, measure her progress, and adjust as needed, and brought it into her 1:1 with her manager on a quarterly basis. Talk about taking ownership of your career and goals!

Now, three or so years later, Julie has been promoted again, and her team all have development plans of their own. To be clear, her motivation and ambition kept her engaged, but her plan paved the way and kept her laser-focused on her “why.”

What advice do you have for creating a great development plan? Tell us in the comments below!

About Stefanie Mockler

Stefanie earned a Bachelor of Science in Psychology at Indiana University and a Ph.D. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology at DePaul University in Chicago, IL. As a researcher, she has a passion for examining the ways in which individuals, and in particular women, can strive to achieve their desired work/life balance while succeeding in leadership positions.

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