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12 Min Read

How to Set and Achieve Goals for Professional Development

Genevieve Michaels

Most of your employees want to get better. Whether it comes from an inherent need for self-improvement or the external motivation of a promotion, professional development goals allow managers to chart a course for that improvement in a way that benefits both the employee and the business.

Unlike other self-improvement goals, professional development goals are all about moving forward in your career. They make employees better collaborators and more reliable team members. They make managers better resources for their teams. Even your C-Suite can use professional development goals to become better leaders.

Professional development goals can be used as part of an official career growth plan—ending in a promotion—or for ongoing personal development.

Here’s your full guide to using these goals to build a team of star players.

What are professional development goals?

A professional development goal has one purpose: to guide a team member toward a specific improvement. You might help a marketer build up their skill set in a particular marketing channel or niche they aren’t yet proficient in. Maybe someone in HR wants to get better at those sometimes uncomfortable 1-on-1 conversations that are part of the job. 

These goals are usually framed by a manager or leader to ensure the area being developed benefits the organization as a whole—or at least the team the employee is part of. Performance is tracked over time to make sure everyone’s headed in the right direction.

What are good professional development goals?

Setting a goal can be as simple as writing a single sentence on a piece of paper that roughly describes something you want to achieve in the future, like “be a better marketer.”

But that’s not a particularly good example of a professional development goal. It’s vague, it’s not recorded in a way that can be tracked, and it’s not inherently tied to a broader business goal.

Here are some characteristics common to the best professional development goals:

  • They’re precise: “Be a better marketer” isn’t a strong goal. “Add paid advertising to my skill set and run my first paid campaign” is.
  • They can be tracked: Professional development goals need to be tracked and measured in a way accessible to every relevant party. That can be through a dedicated performance management platform like 15Five or your organization’s project management tool.
  • They contribute to the organization: A professional development goal that doesn’t make an employee a greater asset to the organization is just self-improvement. There’s nothing wrong with self-improvement, but if managers and company resources are involved, an employee’s goal needs to contribute to the business’s goals, too.
  • They’re realistic: You can’t expect an employee who already has a full workweek to take on a whole other role. But you can encourage them to work on their knowledge and skills a few hours a week by clearing up some of that work. Having realistic expectations is crucial for setting goals that can actually be accomplished.
  • They’re employee-motivated: Even if a goal makes sense from the organization’s perspective, it isn’t going to get accomplished if the employee isn’t interested. A professional development goal needs to tie directly into an employee’s broader career or personal goals to work. Even a performance improvement plan’s goals are motivated by an employee’s goal of keeping their job.

So now you know what a good professional development goal looks like. Let’s cover how you can set your own.

How to set professional development goals

By following this seven-step process, you can set professional development goals for any employee, manager, or leader. It doesn’t matter what their role is or how long they’ve been at your organization. Here’s how it’s done.

Step 1: Identify a destination

While a goal is a specific thing you want to achieve, a destination is the overall place you want to reach. So a marketer might want to get better at paid advertising (a goal) to become a more valuable member of their team (a destination).

Before you iron out that goal, you need to know why you’re doing it. For the employee, that means defining how their professional development goal moves them towards building the career they want to have. For the organization, it’s more about tying that goal to a broader business objective.

Step 2: Specify your goal with the right methodology

Once you have a broad understanding of what a particular goal is building towards, you can start working on the specifics. There are more than a few goal-setting methodologies out there. Many are flexible, and suited to any type of goal, while others might only fit some goals. Pick one of the following methodologies and use it to set your goal:

  • OKRs: Short for Objectives and Key Results, OKRs give you a two-pronged approach to setting goals. First, you pick a specific objective, like “Improve lead-generation efforts.” Then, you pick measurable results that contribute to this goal, like “Increase CTR on lead-generation forms by 5%.” OKRs are best for tying individual professional development goals to broader business objectives.
  • SMART: With this methodology, you make your goals Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Bound. It breaks down even the loftiest, vaguest goals into something actionable and achievable.
  • HARD: While SMART goals are specific and quantifiable, HARD goals are more about channeling emotion and passion into what you want to achieve. This acronym stands for Heartfelt, Animated, Required, and Difficult. It’s meant to motivate people to go after their goals by plopping down a mountain for them to climb rather than mapping things out.

Picking the right methodology is about balancing professional development goals with broader business objectives and using a method that is motivating for your employees. At 15Five, we recommend (and use!) the OKR methodology because we feel it is the best for creating goals that make priorities crystal clear and are super simple to track progress on.

Step 3: Identify potential obstacles

While you can’t prepare for every problem, you should at least spend a bit of time trying to identify some of the more likely ones. Work with your employees to find these problems, write them out, and work together to come up with simple solutions for solving them. For example, if you set a goal to close more sales deals over the next financial quarter, you might list the following obstacles and solutions:

  • Decreased close rates → Re-evaluate sales script
  • Fewer qualified deals coming in → Find ways to contribute to lead generation initiatives
  • Not enough leads showing up to initial meetings → Give feedback on or contribute to a prospecting email sequence

Note that you’ll want to avoid spending too much time on obstacles an employee has absolutely no control over. If there’s nothing they can do to change a particular situation, then there’s no point in putting pressure on them to do so. Help them focus on things they can control, instead.

Step 4: Establish a timeline

When should this goal be accomplished? Some goals will be placed on a yearly timeline, coinciding with annual performance reviews and promotions. Others might be quarterly, to match when your organization evaluates its own performance and plans out its strategy for the next quarter. You could even create micro-goals that evolve every month, contributing to a larger professional development goal.

Establish that timeline and make it clear to your employees. Then, record it along with the goal itself.

Step 5: Create an action plan

You’ve set the goal, fleshed out potential obstacles, and know when it needs to get done. Now it’s time to actually break it down into the actions that need to be taken to reach the finish line. An action plan for a professional development goal might cover the following:

  • Daily actions: The best way to accomplish a goal is to do something that contributes to it every day. Every professional development goal can be broken down into daily actions that add up to significant progress over time.
  • Weekly priorities: When an employee looks back on their week, how should they feel about the progress they’ve made towards their goal? Is there a specific metric or micro-goal they should be shooting for every week?
  • Monthly targets: If a professional development goal has a timeline of several months to a year, you should iron out monthly milestones for it. What should an employee have accomplished after their first month working towards this goal? How much further should they be after the second month?

All goals look more achievable when they’re backed up with an action plan that provides a list of steps to take, sub-goals to accomplish, and clear guidelines for progress.

Step 6: Pick a platform for tracking progress

You could write down and track professional development goals in something like a Google Doc, but that won’t give you a holistic view of everything an employee is doing towards that goal. A project management tool like Asana or Trello is a great step up from this, allowing you to tie an employee’s tasks directly to their goal—or create specific tasks representing that goal.

However, the best way to track progress towards professional development goals is with a performance management platform like 15Five. With this platform, you can pull essential data from multiple sources throughout your organization to get a holistic view of an employee’s performance. Match that with their professional development goal and you’ll get an up-to-date report on that progress.

Whichever method you use, progress must be tracked and cataloged somewhere so both employees and leaders can use it as a reference.

Step 7: Review performance

It’s important to have frequent check-ins with employees to see how their goals are going before they’re supposed to accomplish them. As a leader, you have multiple opportunities to help employees move their goals along if they get stuck, figure out how to correct their approach if they’re going off-course, or just celebrate their wins as they come.

The frequency of these reviews will depend on your availability, the timeline for their goal, and how much assistance they need to reach that goal. Sometimes, you’ll just want to add this review as a topic to your recurring 1-on-1s. In others, you’ll want to dedicate an entire meeting just for these reviews.

3 Examples of professional development goals

Now that you know how to set professional development goals, let’s cover a few examples so you can see what it looks like in practice.

Professional development goal example #1: Being a better collaborator

This goal uses the OKR methodology to help an employee be more present when other team members need help.

Objective: By June 1st, I will have been a direct contributor to more initiatives throughout the rest of the team.

Key results:

  • Contribute to at least five initiatives led by other team members.
  • 75% increase in positive 360 reviews mentioning collaboration.
  • Answer 100% more requests for help in Slack.

Professional development goal example #2: Learning a new skill (Using SMART)

For this goal, a marketer specializing in organic marketing content wants to improve their paid ad campaign skills.

Initial goal: Become more skilled at managing paid ad campaigns.

SMART methodology:

  • Specific: Learn how to create the copy and creative assets needed for paid ad campaigns.
  • Measurable: Create copy and creative assets for a paid ad campaign resulting in a CTR 50% higher than industry benchmarks.
  • Ambitious: Go from knowing little about this to being an expert.
  • Relevant: Tie a paid campaign to a broader business goal (like launching a new product).
  • Time-bound: Accomplish this goal before the end of the current quarter.

SMART goal: Learn to create copy and creative assets for a paid ad campaign supporting the launch of a new product with a CTR 50% higher than the industry average. Do this before the end of the quarter.

Professional development goal example #5: Working on a weakness (Using HARD)

Imagine a team member who has a bad habit of being overly argumentative in a way that is affecting their work—and their ability to collaborate with the rest of the team. Here’s how you’d set this professional development goal using the HARD methodology.

Goal: Be less argumentative when working with others.

HARD methodology:

  • Heartfelt: “Being overly argumentative is making it difficult to collaborate with the team and my other goals are being affected by this.”
  • Animated: “I’m imagining a future where I can take criticism and different viewpoints without it turning into an argument, allowing me to work towards more effective solutions.”
  • Required: “It’s going to be much harder to work with the team if I don’t accomplish this goal, and that could impact our results and my career advancement.”
  • Difficult: “It’ll take significant work to learn to check myself before I get argumentative.”

Through these examples, you can see how different goal-setting frameworks can highlight different aspects of a particular goal. Again, we prefer and recommend the OKR methodolgy because we feel it is the best for creating goals that make priorities clear and that are easy to actually track progress on.

Hit the mark

Professional development goals allow leaders to push their high performers beyond the limits of what they think is possible, up-skill their teams, and even help struggling employees accomplish more. Just remember to put some time into making these goals specific and actionable, tie them into broader organizational goals, and check in often to keep things moving forward. Soon, you’ll have a superstar team that’ll make other leaders jealous.

An easy way to track OKRs 

Visibility is everything when you’re leading teams toward great things.

15Five’s centralized platform makes it easy to see how your company is progressing towards its most important objectives. You’ll be able to set company OKRs, break them down for teams and individual employees, and easily track progress. 

Our OKR tool gives you a birds-eye view of how people are progressing towards your most important objectives — and the key results that will get them there. 

Check out how you’ll see OKRs within 15Five now.