Employee Growth

How to Help Your Team Set Professional Development Goals — Plus Specific Examples

August 3, 2021
June 23, 2022
Deanna deBara
Lattice Team

As a leader, you want your team to succeed. But in order for that to happen, success needs to be more than just a vague, undefined idea. To be successful, your employees — and you — need to know exactly what success means and how it’s defined. You can accomplish this by working closely with your employees to help them set professional development goals that support the success of the team, as well their own growth and development.

This is easier said than done. If you don’t know how to set professional development goals effectively, you may find yourself facing a variety of issues — including goals that are too vague, goals that don’t align with an employee’s desired career trajectory, or goals your employees aren’t excited to pursue — that can keep your employees and team from reaching their highest potential.

Below, we’ll take you through everything you need to know to set effective professional development goals with your team, including specific examples of goals for employees, so you can help your staff set the right goals — and set them up for long-term career success in the process.

What Are Professional Development Goals and Why Are They Important?

“Professional development goals are individual objectives for growth [that aim] to either improve one’s performance in a current role or advance one’s career,” explained Anne Jacoby, CEO of Spring Street, a consulting firm that focuses on culture, creativity, and organizational effectiveness.

Professional development goals are important because they “have the power to offer greater clarity, specificity, and alignment between employee and organizational values,” Jacoby continued.

That’s a win for the employee and the organization. “When a business encourages its employees to pursue professional development goals, generally both the individual and the company benefit,” said Michele Bailey, founder and CEO of brand and culture agency The Blazing Group, business speaker, and author of The Currency of Gratitude: Turning Small Gestures into Powerful Business Results.

“[This process] is great for employees because it ideally gets them focused on the skills and behaviors that will make them more successful and fulfilled,” said Jacoby. “The organization also benefits from [more highly skilled] employees who are motivated and ready to [achieve and exceed] organizational objectives.”

Professional development goals are also important because they help employees map out the trajectory of their careers. This can lead to a higher level of engagement — which, in turn, can lead to higher employee retention. “Highly engaged employees who can visualize a roadmap to professional success within the company are more likely to stay around,” noted Bailey.

Finally, prioritizing professional development is an effective way for organizations to show employees that they’re invested in their growth, which can positively impact teams in a variety of ways.

“A company that encourages and supports their employees in professional development is showcasing its commitment to its employees,” Bailey pointed out. “This commitment can have a great impact on morale, company culture, and productivity.”

Characteristics of Effective Professional Development Goals

Professional development goals are essential to success, both for employees and organizations. But in order for professional development goals to be effective — and for employees to follow through and hit those goals — they need to be crafted with intention and have certain characteristics.

“The most common and easily understood way of making sure goals are accomplished is to make them SMART — Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound,” said Bailey. “It’s important to follow this system because it gives individuals clarity, focus, and accountability for the goals they set.”

In addition to the SMART criteria, “a professional development goal should have meaning and feel motivating,” Jacoby said.

For example, say you have an employee who wants to become more tech savvy. Setting a vague, general goal like “Improve computer skills” isn’t going to give them the framework they need to achieve that goal. Instead, something like “Complete one software course in the next 90 days so I can better support my team during Q2’s product launch” would be more effective. Phrased this way, this goal hits all the markers for effectiveness:

  • It gives the employee specific details about what they need to do to achieve the goal.
  • It’s measurable (the employee either completes the course or they don’t).
  • It’s achievable (90 days is plenty of time to complete a course).
  • It’s relevant (gaining mastery over an applicable software program will help the employee perform better in their role).
  • It’s time-bound (the goal has a 90-day deadline).
  • There’s a purpose/meaning behind the goal (completing the course and improving their skills with the software will put the employee in a position to better support their team during an upcoming product launch).

5 Tips for Helping Your Team Set Professional Development Goals

Knowing what makes a professional development goal effective is one part of the equation. But you also need to understand the nuts and bolts of how to help your employees create professional development goals that make sense for them and their career goals and trajectory, and also work in the context of your team and the organization as a whole.

Here are a few tips to ensure that you — and your employees — get the most out of the professional development goal-setting process.

1. Help employees gain clarity on their goals.

Some employees will have a clear sense of what they want out of their professional development and what goals they need to set to get there. But others will require more input and guidance.

“Many people don’t even know where to start when it comes to development,” said Cabot Jaffee, PhD, CEO and President of hiring software company AlignMark. “The more the organization can do to provide assistance in formulating and creating [professional development goals]...the more likely the person will be to engage [with the process and achieve their goals]. ”

When you have an employee who isn’t clear on how they want to grow professionally or what goals they want to set, it’s your job to help them find the clarity they need. Do this by having an employee development conversation with them in your next one-on-one, or scheduling a separate meeting if necessary, where you ask them specific, guided questions to help them discover, articulate, and craft their goals.

“Ask employees to describe what being 10% more effective at their jobs might look and feel like. What skills or behaviors would they need to improve? If they’re working toward a promotion, what competencies would enable them to be successful in that new role?” advised Jacoby. “Build the vision together.”

2. Define the “why.”

When you’re setting professional development goals with your employees, you need to have a clear understanding of what they’re working toward. But if you want to help them set goals that they’ll be motivated to achieve, you have to think past the what and clearly define the why.

“Tie professional development goals back to the organizational purpose,” Jacoby advised. “Ask [them], ‘How might making these improvements accelerate the mission of the company as well as your personal mission?’”

Helping your employee define a strong “why” behind their professional development goals will keep them engaged and motivated through the process — and increase their chances of reaching these goals.

3. Make a plan.

Helping your employees set goals is important. But if you want them to actually achieve their professional development goals, you need to take things a step further and work with them to make a plan.

“A plan needs to be put in place that breaks down the steps and activities needed to accomplish the goal,” said Jaffee.

Your employee’s professional development goal outlines what they’re trying to accomplish, while their professional development plan outlines how, exactly, to get there. And the more specific you can be, the better.

“By writing down goals and specific activities [that will allow you to reach those goals], the plan is much more likely to be executed and completed successfully,” Jaffee said.

4. Break down large goals into smaller ones.

Yes, you want your employees to have big goals — but if a goal is too large or takes too long to achieve, you run the risk of your team member getting burned out before they reach the finish line.

“Rather than set annual — or even quarterly — goals, break down bigger goals into smaller, achievable micro-goals,” Jacoby recommended. “This creates discipline for tracking progress and measuring results. It also helps avoid the feeling of being overwhelmed.”

For instance, say your employee’s ultimate goal is to get a promotion and move into a management position. Depending on where they are in their career, this could take some time. But if you break down that larger goal into a set of smaller micro-goals, it will make your employee’s goal feel more achievable while also preparing them for their desired promotion.

Some examples of what micro-goals could look like in this situation might be: “Compile a list of 10 professional achievements and reasons why I should be promoted before our next one-on-one,” “Lead a team meeting before the end of the month,” and “Reach out to three managers within the organization before the end of the quarter to schedule coffee meetings or Zoom calls to discuss how they moved into management.” These smaller actions will help your employee incrementally move toward their big-picture goal in a consistent and manageable way, without being overwhelmed in the process.

Taking the micro-goal approach also provides employees with more frequent positive reinforcement. And every time they reach one of their smaller goals, it can give them the boost of motivation they need to keep moving forward. This, according to Jacoby, creates positive momentum — which can keep them on track for hitting their larger goal.

5. Be flexible — and adapt as necessary.

When you set a professional development goal with your employee, you want them to follow through and achieve it. But just because a goal makes sense for them today doesn’t mean it will make sense for them in the long run.

“Things change,” Jacoby noted. And if you want your employees to continue to grow professionally — and grow in a way that makes sense for the organization and their own careers and development — you need to be flexible and help them adapt their goals when necessary.

For example, at the onset of the COVID crisis, “it would have been demotivating for most people to stick to their original goals set in January 2020,” said Jacoby. “Instead, having the flexibility to adapt and modify goals to meet the current business circumstances gives us a much-needed reality check.” Taking all circumstances into consideration like this helps ensure that goals remain realistic and achievable, and in alignment with what’s happening within the organization and the world at large.

In order for a professional development goal to be effective, it also needs to be flexible. So when you’re setting professional development goals with your employees, make sure to review and revisit those goals frequently — and if a goal no longer makes sense for your team member, adjust and adapt it as necessary.

Examples of Effective Professional Development Goals

If you need a little inspiration to help your employees set effective professional development goals that meet all the criteria we’ve highlighted so far, here are a few examples to get you started — and why they work.

If you need a little inspiration to help your employees set effective professional development goals that meet all the criteria we’ve highlighted so far, here are a few examples to get you started — and why they work.

Goal: Read three articles on effective business communication before next month’s all-hands meeting. Then present my top three learnings during the meeting.

Why It Works:
This goal hits all the SMART criteria: It’s specific; measurable (if you read three articles, you accomplish the goal, but any less and you fall short); achievable (reading three articles is a lot easier and less time-consuming than, for example, reading an entire book); relevant (if the employee is expected to present at the all-hands meeting, reading those communication articles will not only give them content to present, it may also improve their delivery and presentation skills); and time-based (the goal needs to be completed during the all-hands meeting).

This is also an effective professional development goal because it has longer-term benefits outside of the immediate goal: While reading the three articles will help the employee with their presentation at the all-hands meeting, it will also help improve their business communication skills in
general, which will benefit their career in the long run.

Goal: Reach out to one person within the organization whose role interests me before the end of the week. Invite them for a coffee/phone call/Zoom meeting to discuss how they got to this point in their career.

Why It Works: Again, this goal ticks all the boxes for the SMART goal framework. But going a step further, it is especially effective for an employee who isn’t 100% certain about their career trajectory. By having the employee set a goal of connecting with someone within the organization who holds a role or job title they find interesting, they can gain more information and insight about that career path and determine whether it’s something they want to pursue. If it is, great! This gives them helpful information about what type of professional development goals they should set moving forward. And if it’s not, no problem — they can just repeat the goal with another person and job title until they find a person/role that sparks a real interest.

Goal: Take a professional writing course at the local college next semester. Before the course is over, ask my supervisor for at least two work-related writing assignments.

Why It Works: This goal not only fits within the SMART framework, but also has an added layer of motivation: While the core goal is to take the writing course, tying it back to the employee’s role can help keep them engaged with the coursework. And setting an additional goal to take on more writing-related assignments at work gives them a clear way to apply the skills they learn during their studies.

Prioritizing professional development goals, and helping your team members set them, can result in far-reaching benefits for both your employees and the organization. But in order for these goals to be effective and lead to individual and team success, this process has to be done with more thought and intention than just a rote, check-the-box exercise. These tips will help you avoid common pitfalls and collaborate with your staff to set professional development goals that help them reach their full potential — while contributing to the overall success of your company.