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How (and Why) to Create a Career Progression Plan for Your Employees

You want to keep your employees happy. So, you allow for flexible schedules. You bring in a pizza lunch once per month. You put a ping-pong table and some stocked snack cabinets in your break room.

You feel like you’re doing everything right. Yet, you’re still struggling with a surprising amount of turnover. You just can’t seem to keep your best employees around.

There’s one major piece of the puzzle you forgot about: growth and advancement.

Room for growth carries a lot of weight (yep, even more than a ping-pong table and tasty snacks). One report from Gallup explains that 59% of millennial respondents stated that opportunities to learn and grow are extremely important to them when applying for a job. 

A separate study from the staffing firm, Addison Group, found that 76% of employees will seek other job opportunities if they’re passed over for a promotion at work.

But here’s the thing: you can’t just say that you care about growth. You need to put your words into action and prove to your employees that you’re willing to support them in their career-related ambitions.

How do you do that? Collaborating with your employees on a career progression plan is a great place to start. 

What exactly is a career progression plan?

The definition of a career progression plan is pretty straightforward: it’s essentially a roadmap detailing how a specific employee will advance through your company. 

What sort of path (or paths) will they follow? What steps do they need to take in order to reach those milestones? Is there a timeline in place for achieving them? Are there resources available that they can use? Generally, this plan is created by the employee and their direct manager, and then reviewed and approved by HR.  Advancement shouldn’t be a secret. Employees should clearly know exactly what they need to do in order to achieve their growth goals within your organization, and the career progression plan is the documented strategy for doing so. 

Jotting this all down might seem like an unnecessary formality, but it’s helpful for a couple of reasons:

  • It increases accountability, as there’s a list of action steps to follow to make those goals a reality. That means employees have no excuse not to make them happen, and you have to hold up your end of the bargain. Plus, one study showed that writing down our goals makes us up to 42% more likely to achieve them.

  • It increases transparency, as leadership and the employee need to get aligned on what’s required to climb the ladder. Again, it’s not a mystery!

Plus, related to transparency, needing to collaborate on this sort of document will encourage managers and their direct reports to have the hard (and sometimes awkward) conversations about career growth and goals. Those chats are less common than you might think, with only 16% of employees in one survey stating that they regularly have ongoing conversations with their managers about their careers. 

How to create a career progression plan for your employee: 7 steps to follow

You understand the importance of these plans. But how do you go about creating one? Here’s a step-by-step strategy for pulling together a plan that truly encourages and empowers your employee. 

1. Start with an honest self-assessment

Development has a starting point, which means you need to get a handle on where any employee is now. That’s why it’s helpful to begin this process by having them complete some sort of self-assessment.

This could be an existing assessment (such as StrengthsFinder), or it could be a review template that your company creates for employees to evaluate themselves.

Regardless, you’ll want to make sure to have employees answer questions about:

  • What areas of their position they feel like they excel in

  • What areas of their position they feel like they struggle in

  • What tasks make them feel their most motivated and engaged

  • How they currently take advantage of available resources

This will give you a grasp of where this employee is starting, so you can figure out how to elevate their career and skills from there. After all, you want this progression plan to be as targeted and realistic as possible. 

2. Engage in a candid conversation about career goals

Remember that this process isn’t just about where the employee is now—it’s about where they want to be in the future.

So, after that self-assessment is completed, set a one-on-one meeting with that employee to not only discuss their answers, but also connect about their career ambitions.

Where do they see themselves in five years? What do they ultimately hope to achieve professionally? Ask thoughtful questions about their plans and their goals. That’s important information to have as you’re working together to structure a plan. 

3. Evaluate company-wide needs

Unfortunately, there are limitations on what your company can offer. That means there might not always be a clear line to draw between an employee’s ambitions and what you have available.

For example, maybe that marketing person would eventually love to head up an email marketing team. But, you’re a small office, and it’s not in your long-term strategy to have an entire department dedicated to email marketing.

The development plan needs to work for the employee, but it also needs to work for you as the employer. It doesn’t do anybody any good to make lofty promises you can’t keep. Don’t panic—even if you can’t lead the employee all the way to their final destination, there’s probably still plenty you can do to support their development and keep their engagement level up. 

So, once you know what that team member is aiming for, take the time to think through how that fits in with your company’s vision. 

4. Agree on a shared endgame

Now you know where your company stands, and you know where the employee stands. Now it’s time to meet in the middle. How can you best support each other?

Maybe you can’t guarantee that the employee will eventually clamber up the rungs to lead an email marketing department within your organization. But, could they eventually spearhead your entire email marketing strategy? Could they hire and manage an intern? Could they achieve a director title—even if they don’t have a large team reporting to them?

Connect with the employee to explain what’s possible on your end, so you can connect on a shared endgame that the employee will be working toward. 

5.  Figure out what resources you can offer

Mapping out development isn’t enough—you’ll need to clarify how you’ll support it. Your employees shouldn’t have to go it alone to achieve their goals. You’ll need to offer opportunities and resources to help them along the way.

So, think through some of the different things that you can provide. This could include (but certainly isn’t limited to): 

  • Bringing in expert speakers on the chosen topic

  • Offering courses and other training opportunities

  • Pairing them with a mentor in their field

  • Providing a budget for conferences, seminars, and other learning events

You should also plan to host regular check-in conversations (at least quarterly) to discuss their development, how they think they’re progressing, and what else you think you can do to support them. 

6. Review the plan with the employee

You don’t just want to pull together a development plan and then hand it down to your employee—remember that this is supposed to be a collaborative process.

So, before you finalize that plan or submit it to HR, set an appointment to sit down with the employee and talk through the plan in detail.

Make sure that this is a two-way conversation and that you’re leaving plenty of opportunity for the employee to offer feedback and suggestions on what’s currently detailed in the career progression plan. You might need to solicit these candid remarks by asking things like:

  • Do you think that this accurately captures your career goals?

  • Are there any development resources that aren’t here that you’d like to see included?

  • Is there anything that you would add or change?

Having this conversation reinforces the fact that you want to be a partner in your employee’s development—and you’re not just someone who’s doling out road maps and directions. 

7. Document the plan and submit it to your HR department

Have you incorporated that employee’s feedback, given them one last look, and finalized the plan? It’s time to submit it to HR so that they can keep a record on file. That sounds slightly scary, but really it’s helpful for HR to have this plan stashed away so that they can help support this employee’s growth too. They can do things like:

  • Prepare you both to have productive growth conversations

  • Monitor company-wide growth and development initiatives that could be offered

  • Collect more honest employee and manager feedback

So, don’t forget to share the plan with them! It’s important, and it also helps amp up the level of accountability for both you and the employee.  

Help your employees grow and succeed

Creating a career progression plan doesn’t need to be an overwhelming undertaking—in fact, it can be a positive (and even fun!) process to go through with your employees. And, the benefits are well worth it.

Remember that just because you have a plan documented doesn’t mean it’s set in stone. Plans (and perhaps more importantly, people) change, which means you might have to make some adjustments to the plan as your employees and your company evolve.

Rather than letting that plan collect dust in the back of a desk drawer, make sure you reconnect with employees somewhat frequently on their goals. If and when changes come up, return to their development plans to see what you can update and alter to best support them—even if their direction has shifted slightly.


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