The 4 Questions Every Manager Struggles with Making Career Development Plans

by Jason Evanish, CEO Get Lighthouse, Inc.

"I'm giving my notice. I've accepted an offer at another company."

Devastated and unsure of what to do with this news, Joe could do nothing but accept it.

He was losing one of the best people on his team. For the past 2 years Sam had been one of the most productive and positive members of his team. And now to his surprise, she was leaving.

Sam seemed to like her coworkers, and always did quality work. She always worked to improve herself and the team. Yet, she was giving notice.

This can happen to you, too.

Too often, managers take their people for granted. They think because someone seems happy and positive in their current role, they'll be that way forever. Unfortunately, that's not how careers work. People want career growth.

career development plans are essential for everyone in your company as Reid Hoffman points out

Do you have career development plans for your people?

If you don't have career development plans for everyone on your team, you're playing with fire; eventually you're going to get burned with a surprise departure.

And sure, maybe you don't believe Hoffman's advice above, because he's just one CEO. However, all the data is on his side.

Study after study after study finds this is what employees want more than anything else:

1) PwC's study of what attracts Millennials to new jobs (and away from your team):

pwc knows people want career development plans too

2) Mary Meeker's Internet Trends Report:

career development plans are the #1 perk people want according to Mary Meeker

3) Deloitte's Study of Millennials:

career development plans are near the top on Deloitte's study

One foot out the door...

A lack of growth is a big factor in why Deloitte and Gallup both show that many are looking to see where the grass may be greener, too.

And they're far from the only companies with research that highlights this trend:

  • 1/3rd of employees quit their jobs because they are unable to pick up new skills from it, making lack of career growth among the top reasons for resigning according to Business Insider.
  • 21% of employees cite inadequate career development as their reason for quitting. (SHRM, 2019)

So what's a manager to do?

Start making career development plans for everyone on your team.


Even if you're convinced of their importance, it's easy for many questions and concerns to run through your head.

Companies rarely prioritize it, so you may never have had a career development plan of your own. Even if you did, your team may not have the same aspirations you do, so you can't always just do what worked for you.

Today, we answer the most common questions we've heard over and over as we've helped managers lay out career development plans for their team members using Lighthouse.

Table of Contents:

If you've ever wondered, "how do you manage your team's career growth?" then these answers will help you with some of the toughest challenges in doing that:

  1. How do I have a career growth conversation?
  2. What if they say, "I don't know what my career goals are"?
  3. How do I grow my people if I can't promote them?
  4. What do I do for manager career development?
career development plans start with their long term goals or strengths

The 4 Biggest Questions Managers Struggle with to make Career Development Plans

Every person you work with is a little different. They all want to grow, but not in the same way.

Some will know exactly what they want. Others will have no idea. In some cases, it won't be a priority for them in the near term, but then suddenly will be very important.

With a few of the tactics below, you'll be better prepared for these challenges in making sure everyone has career development plans no matter their situation or seniority.

1) How do I have a career growth conversation?

If you've never had a good career growth conversation with any of your managers, it's no surprise you may be unsure or nervous about having them with your team.

Be confident. We have you covered.

While there are no silver bullets to these conversations, a few of the right tactics can make all the difference.

Here's a few ways to get your career development planning conversations started off well:

Career development plans help people achieve their dreams

Talk about their dream future:

We learned this from the CEO of Next Big Sound. Ask your team member:

"Imagine it's 10 years from now and there's a party celebrating you and your accomplishments . . . Who is there? What music is playing? And what is the accomplishment everyone is there to celebrate?”

From there, work backwards to what a 5 year, 3 year, and finally 1 year goal would be to get them closer to that. Then focus on helping them reach their 1 year goal one project, learning opportunity, and task at a time.

It may seem like a major leap to go from say a marketing intern to CMO, so think about the stepping stones in between. Then, keep in mind their goal for when opportunities present themselves in your work:

  • Did someone in your network have a similar career path as they aspire to? Introduce them!
  • Would an upcoming project be helpful to their development? Make sure they get on that project in the right role.
  • Do you see certain tasks as essential to them reaching that career goal? Let them know how their work helps with that motivating purpose.
career development plans look at their heroes

Follow their heroes:

Another great approach is to look at who they admire for inspiration. Ask them:

"Who do you look at and say, ‘I want to be him/her someday?”

"Who do you admire? Why them?

Then, work backwards with them on how to get into the kinds of roles they've had, or develop the qualities they admire in that person. Check their Linkedin profile for more details, and if they're famous, searching for news profiles are great ways to find this kind of information.

If they have a few heroes that have a variety of backgrounds, use that as an opportunity to help them explore:

  • See opportunities for them to get exposure into roles like different heroes? Get them on the right projects and invest more in what they show passion in.
  • See a book or news article on one of their heroes? Score major points the easy way by sending it to them.
  • Can they be more like that person they admire in their work? Discuss how it applies to their work with them so they see it, too.
career development plans sheryl sandberg knows to focus on strenghts

Focus on their strengths:

Studies by Gallup show that focusing on your team's strengths is one of the best ways to boost engagement. According to Gallup's book, "First, Break All the Rules":

"People who focus on their strengths every day are 6 times more likely to be engaged in their jobs, more productive and more likely to say they have an excellent quality of life.”

When you think about someone's career, getting to do what you do best is a great path.  As their manager, you should be able to identify some of their strengths. Talk about them and see what they think by asking things like:

  • "What are your super powers? Which powers would you like to develop?”
  • "What work do you enjoy doing that others seem to not like as much?"
  • "What parts of your job do you say, 'If I could do this all day, every day, I'd be very happy?' "

With these answers, and your own knowledge of their strengths, you can start looking at career development plans that put them to good use:

  • See an opportunity that would let their strengths shine? Help them seize it.
  • Do they ask about a role that doesn't use their strengths at all? Help them understand what the job is really like.
  • Did they just do something awesome for your team? Discuss this strength with them. They may not realize it.

Once you've identified their goals, the key is to help them make regular progress on them.  This is how a goal becomes a career development plan, and they feel like there's a path at your company.

You can learn more ways to talk about their goals and how to help them achieve their goals here.

career development plans what do you do when they don't know

2) What if they say, "I don't know what my career goals are"?

Unfortunately, not everyone will know their career goals the first time you ask. They could be early in their career, recently changed jobs and still feeling things out, or personally distracted temporarily so not thinking about it.

Just because their first answer is, "I don't know" does not mean you should stop. You can still help them. It's just a challenge to you to be more creative as a leader.

Here's a few ways you can help the less certain on your team with their career development plans:

career development plans - nassim taleb knows trial and error is a key part of it

Use trial and error:

Sometimes indecision or fear of not liking what they tell you can block people. Don't let that stop you and them from making progress. Instead, have them try small projects and tasks that expose them to different things.

When they take on tasks they like, feed their interests. If they don't like something, use that to narrow the focus of future explorations.

No matter if the enjoyed a new task or not, take time to ask why. This will help you get better and better at finding them opportunities they like and uncovering hidden strengths.

With a little effort and experimentation, you'll have them on a great path to growth.

lateral moves can be great career development plans

Look at lateral moves:

Moving up into management is not the only path to growth. Especially for those unsure of what they want, putting them in charge of a bunch of other people is a recipe for disaster.

Instead, you can create a win-win by helping them consider interesting lateral moves. Where could they leverage their strengths, and get a fresh experience?

With today's rapidly changing technology environment, this becomes an even greater asset; future jobs and changing markets depend on flexible employees who can adapt. If you develop the ability to help people be flexible as company needs and challenges change, you and your team will both thrive.

if they're not sure of their career development plans, fomo can help

Leverage FOMO:

No matter what, your efforts to create career development plans should be a two-way conversation. If they're not responding despite multiple efforts by you, it's okay to pause.

Sometimes the best way to get someone to act is seeing others and feeling left out.

If people aren't sure what they want, then helping the others on your team grow can make the difference. When they see others on the team growing, and how you're investing in them, they may change their tune.

However, don't give up on them. It's important to periodically check in with them. You want to be there when they're ready to harness their energy and effort.

No matter why they're not sure of their goals, there are many things you can do to help them find their path.

You can learn more detailed approaches you can take to help your team members that aren't sure about their goals here.

career development plans - dilbert's office doesn't have them

3) How do I grow my people if I can't promote them?

In an ideal world there would be unlimited budgets for raises and bonuses, and plenty of promotions for everyone deserving. Unfortunately, that's rarely the case.

Because of this, a common excuse we hear from managers is that there's no growth paths they can offer their team members. Their refrains generally fit one of these forms:

  • "We're a really flat organization, so there's no way to promote them.”
  • "There is no career path in this kind of role.”
  • "I can only promote 1 or 2 to manager like me, so I can't do anything for the other team members.”

Those are real problems, and they definitely prevent you from promoting everyone.  However, that still leaves plenty of options for creating career development plans and growth for your people.

Here's two of those ways you can grow your people without promotions:

career development plans can include leveling up skills

Focus on skills growth:

New challenges take many forms. Some of the best are going deeper in their existing role by providing new kinds of work and learning opportunities.

As you observe their work in your day to day job as their manager, ask yourself:

  • What skill could they add to become even more valuable to the company and future roles? Work with them to learn and develop it.
  • Is a weakness potentially going to hold them back in their career? Help them learn how to mitigate it.
  • Are they excited about an aspect of their work? Help them become a subject matter expert in that area through books, conferences, blog posts, and networking with experts.

The best part about skills growth is so much of it can be self directed; it's up to them to learn, while you can focus on a few quick, high impact actions like buying a book, making an introduction, or getting approval to send them to a conference.

career development plans - amy pressman knows to tap into employee passion

Tap into their passions:

Career growth can come in many forms. One of the best ones is when you can give them a project that becomes a unique bullet point for their resume or story for future interviews.

If they're fired up about something on your team, give them some time to explore and work on it. It's a great way to fix long-standing issues, and keep them engaged.

You may be surprised what you'd consider "work" that they're dying to get the okay to work on. Here's a few such examples that could be done as side projects:

  • Designer: Start or update your style guide, design on brand 404 pages, or identify design quick wins for engineering.
  • Engineer: Clean up old code, help build out new best practices, improve the process of onboarding new engineers, or create/improve internal admin tools.
  • Marketer: Organize and improve your analytics reporting, start a program to interview influencers in your industry, or write a guest post for the blog (or start one).

The key to any of these is ownership. Find something they're fired up about and give them the chance to run with it.

By providing what freedom you can, you'll unleash their creativity and passion.  They may just surprise you with the energy they bring to the project, and the results they can deliver.

With a little thought and creativity, you can grow your people in their existing roles. If you need more ideas, this post on Lighthouse on growth without promotions, and this one from engineering manager Tom Bartel can help.

how do you manage your team's career growth? create career development plan for managers

4) “What should I do for a career development plan for managers?”

Truly great managers don’t just excel in making their teams better. They also develop other leaders. When your team grows too big or your organization wants to take things to the next level, your success will be defined by the managers you develop. 

One example of this is Bill Walsh, one of the greatest coaches in NFL history. Walsh took over the San Francisco 49ers, when they were the worst team in the league. Within 2 years, they were the best team in football.

What makes Bill Walsh's career even more impressive is that he developed a huge network of future head coaches while leading the 49ers.

Unfortunately, if you want to do something similar, you can’t make things up as you go. You need to plan for the skills you’re going to be teaching waves of managers under you. Here’s what you need to focus on.

5 skills for creating a great career development plan for your managers

When figuring out a career development plan for your managers, consider the following skills:

1. Having effective 1:1s

Do your managers use 1:1s for status updates? Are they unsure of what 1:1 meeting questions to ask to uncover hidden issues? Do they cancel check-ins often? These are all habits you’ll have to help them change. You’ll need to teach them how often to have 1:1s, how to structure and prepare for them, and how to follow up on what they discuss in them.

2. Being a more effective listener

Are your new managers good listeners? Being a good listener can help them unlock valuable insights and improve their team's performance. If they’re focused on what the other person is saying to them, they will give them time to express their opinion fully, and ask follow-up questions to understand their point. In doing so, they make their team member feel heard and get more good ideas and feedback from their team.

3. Learning how to get buy-in

The biggest mistake that managers make is to make a decision on their own and then broadcast that decision to the entire team without giving them any time to offer their own input. To help them get buy-in, you’ll need to teach them to focus on getting their first follower. Once the first follower is on board, they’ll find others will quickly start to join in, too. They also need to learn how to evolve their ideas by listening to their team's suggestions and concerns.

4. Becoming a multiplier

The combined productivity of a team is significantly higher than that of one person. Despite this, new managers can easily fall into the trap of focusing on their personal productivity. To counter this, challenge them to figure out how to spend most of their time thinking about how to make others productive. This includes things like removing blockers for multiple team members and delegating more effectively.

5. Learning to manage their energy and stay positive

Your managers’ mood will reflect on their team and impact their work. If your manager is upset or disengaged, their entire team will pick up on that and can become unhappy and disengaged, too. That’s why it’s so important to teach your leaders how to handle their emotions and stay positive throughout their day. Since they’re likely to face many challenges in their role, mental resilience can really help them become a better leader and set a better example for their team.

Of course, these aren’t the only skills you’ll need to work on with your managers. We’ve prepared a further reading section to help you set more goals with them, as well as teach you about the skills above in more detail:

career development plans is a key part of being a good manager

Are you ready to make career development plans with your team and focus on career development for managers?

In today's workplace, a new job is one click away on Linkedin, one reply to a recruiter email, or one evening surfing job board sites.  If you want to retain your people, you need to invest in career development plans for all of them.

These are a few of the most common questions we've heard from managers. What questions do you have about creating career development plans with your team?

Jason Evanish

Jason Evanish

As the founder and CEO of Get Lighthouse, Inc, Jason and the Lighthouse team have helped managers grow their leadership skills in dozens of countries around the world. They’ve worked with a variety of companies from non-profits to high growth startups, and government organizations to well known, publicly traded companies. Jason has also been featured in publications including NPR, the Wall Street Journal, and Fast Company.

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