Each week members of our community pose a tough question they’re facing in their career for Valerie Sutton, our Chief of Workforce Navigation & Transformation. We post her response in our community and we then share her expert advice via our blog. Got your own career-related questions? Share your questions with us via Instagram or LinkedIn! This week’s question is: How do I Create a Professional Development Plan with my Boss? (And what is professional development anyways?)

Learning and development don’t end once you finish being a student and enter the adult workforce, but the way you go about it does. In the workplace, there’s an expectation that you will manage your own learning – professional development; in fact, learning is considered an integral part of your career. Oftentimes, organizing your professional development happens in the context of a job, via a formal plan developed in consultation with your line manager, but, it’s equally as important for you to own your learning and growth as a professional if you’re not working or working for an employer who doesn’t prioritize your development.

Uncertainty is the only certainty in the world of work, and you’ll need to adapt and learn throughout your career to achieve your – and your employer’s – goals. For those of you who are in your early careers and reading this, this is likely going to sound like one more thing that school and university didn’t teach you. But, never fear, this blog outlines four key steps you can take to manage your learning and development now that you’re in the workplace and to do so in collaboration with your boss (even if they haven’t yet asked about your learning goals).

Professional development plans are an essential tool in today’s world of work – even if you develop them outside the context of your workplace.  They can be used to focus, evaluate, and prioritize learning activities that will support you in doing well in your current role as well as develop new skills for future jobs. This means they are important for both near and long-term goals. You’ll want to keep this juxtaposition in mind while creating your development plan with your boss (or on your own if you’re not working right now). Critically, if you’re working and your line manager hasn’t asked you about or offered to support your learning and development, use the same steps below; these will help you develop a plan that you can then as a conversation starter with your boss. Remember, this isn’t a one-time process, a learning and development plan is something you’ll continuously refresh as you progress in your career.

Step 1: Define your long-term goals (this may be just one year away); doing so will help you prioritize the different areas you’ll need to build in the plan. 

To do this, you’ll think about what roles you might want to move into (lateral or promotion) and what next-level skills or experience would be required. You can do this by looking at job descriptions from within the organization you work for, or other companies that are of interest to you. What preferred skills, certifications, or other pieces of training are included in those descriptions that you can develop? Essentially you need to conduct a gap analysis; look at the skills you have today and contrast those with those required for the roles you seek in the future; the gap between the two informs your learning plan – write it down.

Step 2: Examine your current position and understand your strengths and gaps from your supervisor’s viewpoint. 

To do this, you can pull out your job description; if for some reason you don’t have one, then this is a terrific time to create one with your boss and any representatives from Human Resources. You’ll want to look at the skills required for your role and reflect on the priorities for your role, your team, business unit, or organization (or all). What skills do you need to develop or strengthen in order to truly succeed in the role? 

Once you identify those, check whether there are any synergies between the skill gaps you need to fill today and those outlined in your longer-term view above. The skills gap overlap between the near term and the long term are the skills you’ll want to focus on in your conversation regarding a plan, as well as the plan itself – write those down. This is because your employer will certainly want to support you in developing skills to do well in your current position; they may or may not be as supportive today about prioritizing your longer-term development. That said, in healthy work cultures and relationships, it is best practice for a supervisor to ask about, understand, and support you in developing yourself in the near and longer term.

Step 3: Find out whether there are employer-paid resources readily available to support your learning needs or whether you will need to negotiate for resources. 

Once you’ve identified your priority development areas, you will need to figure out how/where/when you’re going to actually learn them! One of the best places to start is at work; many workplaces have deep learning and development resources that are sometimes not very well understood. So, do some research on your company intranet, talk to colleagues about how they achieved their learning goals, and even connect with your human resources representative. By doing advanced research into the options, you’re solving a problem for your boss and, as workplace benefits are already provided to you, they’re important to build into your plan, as well as any asks.

On the other hand, if you need to develop a skill or require a resource that the company does not readily offer, you’ll need to use your negotiation skills. Again, your first step is to understand your benefits; is there a policy in place for tuition remission or individual annual learning and development budgets? Many organizations have such policies. Being informed about this will enable you to understand whether your request fits the policy or requires an exception or additional resources. For instance, if your organization offers $1000 in professional development funds and a certification you require is $1500, you can ask and try to negotiate so that they consider bending the policy. In the case where your employer doesn’t provide professional development funds, for example, or doesn’t offer the program or certification you require, you will need to negotiate for the funds to support your plan.

If you need to negotiate in some way, you’ll need to create a pitch based on what you need.  This is why getting a solid understanding of available resources is so important. Because your pitch can then focus on the aspects of your plan that are an ask that requires bending policy or additional resources. When you go to negotiate, it is vital to show appreciation to your boss for collaborating with you and supporting your development thus far. Then you’ll want to highlight the affiliation, or connection, between your goals and the organisation’s goals (see Step 2 above). Finally, create a story that shows the learning activities that will help you be more effective in your current job and future projects. Once you agree, be sure to write it down and get moving on it!

Step 4: Share what you learn with your colleagues and your boss. 

One of the most important steps is reporting back on your professional development plan.  Sometimes organizations have requirements around this, but, in any case, it’s best practice to share what you’ve learned with your immediate team and your boss.  You might write up what you learned and share resources via email or in a blog post on your intranet, for example, or bring new learnings visibly to the work at hand.  Always thank your boss and your team for supporting your learning and development. And, remember, this isn’t a one-time process, a learning and development plan is something you’ll continuously refresh as you progress in your career.