Career development is so important. When people develop, they become more engaged. In turn, this has an all-around positive effect on a company’s growth. Every manager and leader should be well equipped with the tools to help employees with career development.

In this article, we’ll talk about what exactly career development is and how to help employees with career development.


What is career development?

Career development is about reviewing, planning and making changes to life at work. To help employees with career development, it’s worth remembering that changing things at work often impacts people’s broader life – so consider change as holistically as possible.

Career development answers key questions about someone’s circumstances:

  • Where are they on their career journey?
  • Where do they want to go next?
  • How might they get there?
  • What will help them to transition?

Once you’ve determined the general nature of the career development desired, you can help your employee by setting some aligned goals.


How to develop career goals

To help anyone with career development, it’s worth pausing to first reflect on what goals they want to pursue. Ask ten people and you’re likely to get ten different answers! This is because people’s intrinsic and extrinsic motivators can be very different.

For example, what’s desired might be:

  • Promotion or advancement to a more senior position
  • A lateral move
  • More role complexity
  • Greater decision authority
  • Personal growth
  • Better health and wellbeing
  • Skill development
  • Knowledge acquisition
  • Developing a personal trait
  • Adding an academic qualification
  • Some other professional or personal pursuit
  • Mastery of the current role
  • A combination of any of the above

Some goals may be short-term in nature and informal. Others may be highly structured and professionalised. This will depend on what’s to be achieved and the role the organisation will play in supporting success.


Examples of career goals

So, what exactly is an example of a good career goal? People want different things out of their careers, so these will vary greatly from person to person. Here are a few examples of common career goals…

a woman hitting her career goals


Some employees will be motivated by career development that’s all about promotion. This might mean a bigger title, a company car, more pay (this is an extrinsic motivator) or more decision authority. Few promotions mean less responsibility and less money. If employees are chasing an upward trajectory, you’ll need to frame career development with these goals in mind.

Job complexity

For some, career development is about a lateral move or more job complexity. Managing that shiny new project might not equal a pay uplift, but perhaps the employee will enjoy being mentally taxed (this is an intrinsic motivator) or under the spotlight for overseeing something high profile. If you’re helping employees with their career development, it’s worth considering what might challenge them in terms of job complexity or what might be profile enhancing in terms of importance and delivery.

Personal development

Other employees may see career development as very personal. Perhaps for them, it’s about individualised growth and development that transcends what the organisation needs and wants. Be aware that an employee that wants to work on their independent thinking and decision authority might go against how the organisation wants to work. Here, the decision might be about how much assistance you want to offer.

Equally, where development is related to more personal agendas such as fitness, or community work, you’ll need to decide what’s of greatest benefit to the individual and organisation. Most companies now recognise that looking after employee health and wellbeing isn’t a ‘nice to have’. It’s essential to performance, motivation, and long-term retention. Being supportive of personal development, even if it comes with a cost, can make good mid-term economic sense.


Gaining academic or professional qualifications may be of the most importance. This may or may not relate directly to the job at hand. How far an employer can go to support these pursuits will be determined by budget, talent retention and motivation factors, as well as value add to the business.

Acquiring new skills and knowledge

Career development can of course mean working to improve specific things like learning a new skill, acquiring knowledge, or developing traits. This may be something the organisation desires i.e., you need to learn the new Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system, or it might be a joint consideration such as building confidence to speak publicly. It could be a solo pursuit, such as learning to journal to declutter and destress the mind.

And don’t forget that for some people career development means staying put in their role but continuing to develop to reach mastery of it. Not everyone is chasing something different or new and shiny!


SMART goals

Using the SMART system (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Timed) for goal setting isn’t a prerequisite but it does help structure moving forward in a focused way. When someone has a clear goal that’s measurable, realistic, and time-bound, they’re more likely to be able to see a clear route to achieving it. In fact, breaking SMART goals down into micro-goals is a sure-fire way to help people stay motivated by maintaining a sense of progression.

smart goals

Here’s an example. The mid-term SMART goal might be to build levels of confidence in presenting to large groups with a view to leading the marketing segment of this year’s Annual Conference in Q4, 2022. This goal is Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-bound.

Micro goals might include:

  • Attending media training in Q2, 2022
  • Taking responsibility for leading three marketing team meetings between now and Q4, 2022
  • Attending and presenting at one external conference before Q4, 2022
  • Reading a specific article or listening to a specific podcast on building personal confidence by Q3, 2022

Breaking big goals down into smaller manageable chunks has proved to be an easy way to stick with development, giving employees a sense of personal and professional satisfaction that they’re on course.


What impact does development have on an individual’s career?

Helping employees explore career development options can have a number of outcomes – and you might not think they are all desirable. For example, an employee may confirm their desire to stay in their current role and develop with their current employer. Or, perhaps they want to develop or pursue a new career with their current employer.

The other potential upshot is that employees focused on career development arrive at a different set of outcomes. For example, they want to pursue the same career but with a different employer, or they want to develop or pursue a new career with a different employer.

At face value, you might think that encouraging conversations that lead to the latter two scenarios is somehow short-sighted. Think again. Employees will eventually work out what they want to do. You are better off supporting them to develop and if necessary move on. If you do so supportively, not only are you likely to have an ex-employee who will advocate you as a great employer to work for, but you’ll also have space for fresh talent.


How can you support career development in the future?

So, you know the focus of career development; you’ve set SMART and micro goals – how do you continue to support employees from here?

We recommend that you find them a buddy. This might be someone going through the same training, or who is pursuing the same outcome – such as a high-profile role or greater responsibility.

a lady mentoring a colleague

While it might create a bit of healthy competition it also means the person doesn’t feel alone on their journey. If there’s no buddy steering a similar course, you might also consider someone who could act as an informal coach or mentor. You may be surprised at how mentoring can benefit personal development. A senior with experience or a peer or junior with a skillset different to the developing employee can be a great sounding board and source of wise counsel. Make sure there’s an informal contract about how people will work together and remember to remind all parties that everyone should learn something from the engagement.

Finally, if you want to help employees with career progression, you need to check in on progress regularly. Recognise success when it happens but also be willing to discuss why things might not have worked out to plan.


Sometimes when one career development path closes, another opens. Helping people be curious and alive to these possibilities will keep everyone engaged and challenged in positive ways.

Want to develop your own career? Shop Notebook Mentor career journals to help you manage, develop and be happier at work.


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