How to Create a Personal Learning Plan
Taking Control of Your Career Development
Gracey can barely believe that her probationary period is almost over, and she's really enjoying her management role at a small software development company. But she has a nagging worry.
She really valued the support and direction that she received from Myles, her line manager during her probation. He had set clear goals and targets, and had given her regular feedback. But now, nothing.
Myles has made it clear that, while his door is always open, he expects Gracey to make her own way now. However, she isn't prepared to sit back and wait for training opportunities to just appear, and she wants to take control of her own professional development.
In this article, we'll examine how you can take a proactive approach to your development by creating a personal learning plan.
How to Manage Your Professional Development
Let's walk through some practical steps that you can take to manage your own professional development.
1. Apply a "Growth" Mindset
In her 2007 book, Mindset: Changing the Way You Think to Fulfil Your Potential, psychologist Dr Carol Dweck argues that it's not just our innate abilities that bring us success – it's whether we approach work with a "fixed" or "growth" mindset.
People with a fixed mindset tend to assume that they're born with a particular set of skills that they can't change. However, people with a growth mindset believe that intelligence and talent are just the starting point, and that success comes through attitude, effort and learning.
With a growth mindset, you'll respond to setbacks or challenges with hope and confidence. And you can prepare yourself by working to understand your development needs. This involves a process of self-reflection and self-auditing, a willingness to be open and curious about your strengths and weaknesses, and a commitment to improving your personal situation and working life.
For example, performing a personal SWOT analysis can be very helpful in assessing your strengths (for example, clear communication) and weaknesses (say, handling pressure poorly). It can also help you to identify any opportunities (such as networking events), and possible threats (technological changes) that might be on the horizon.
Cultivating a growth mindset is also about recognizing that you need to take ownership of your own career progression, whether or not your organization supports a learning culture.
You will need to assess:
- Your current skills. Are they adequate for your present role? Do they align adequately with your team or organization's priorities, mission and vision? It may be useful to revisit your job description to clarify your key responsibilities. What are the targets that you've agreed with your manager? Ask yourself, honestly, what you could you be doing better.
- Your past skills. This may sound counterintuitive, but look back, too. Are there skills you have used in the past that could help you now? Are those skills a bit rusty, or are your working practices out of date?
- Your future skills. What skills or knowledge gaps do you need to bridge? It may be helpful to test yourself with some self-assessment quizzes, or to sound out someone you trust (perhaps a mentor) for some honest feedback. Think about how you compare with your peers in terms of knowledge, skills, experience, attitude, and behavior. What does your team need that you would like to offer? Put yourself into the shoes of a customer, colleague or supplier. What would he or she want you to know, or to be able to do?
If you want a "bigger picture" approach, you can use a PEST Analysis to identify structural opportunities (such as new funding streams) and threats (for example, deregulation and more intense competition) in your business environment.
2. Design a Personal Learning Plan
Once you've carried out a thorough self-audit, and identified your goals for growth, it's time to work out how to reach them. This is where a personal learning plan (PLP) can really help.
A PLP is a tool commonly used in schools and colleges to help students to focus their learning, achieve targets (such as exam revision), and consider their wider learning objectives. But it can also be very effective in the workplace.
PLPs are an important and popular feature of the Mind Tools website, as you can see, here. You can add and remove resources as and when you need them, to create your own training program.
What you prioritize within your PLP will vary depending on your needs and aspirations. Ideally, a PLP should work to a SMART model (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound), to help you to develop the motivation you need to achieve them.
It's important to take a systematic approach to developing your skills, so they're ready when you need them. Your PLP could include:
- An "I want to learn x…" learning goal. For example, "to become confident in my public presentation and speaking skills," or "to write clearer and more concise emails."
- An "I will learn via…" strategy. This could mean watching Mind Tools videos, signing up for speaking skills training, or taking part in amateur dramatics, for instance.
- An "I will know that I've been successful when…" measurement. This could be achieving positive feedback on a presentation. Or it could be as simple as recognizing that you feel less stressed when you're speaking on the phone.
- A time-based target date, deadline or schedule. This could be your ultimate learning and development goal or mission statement, or it could be stages along the way. For example, "I will learn x new skill by August, and then focus on developing y by the end of the year." There needs to be a process of regular review, evaluation and, if necessary, a complete reset. While this is happening, you can continue to seek out the training resources you need to move your career along.
It's often helpful to break down your long-term objective into smaller steps. Following this and other golden rules of goal setting can help you to stay focused and increase your chances of success.
For example, if you want to be a senior manager within five years, ask yourself what steps you need to take, such as gaining formal management or team leading qualifications.
When you evaluate the skills that you need to make progress in your career, remember to include important – but quite general – career skills, such as team management and communication, as well as others that are directly related to your company or profession.
For more information on establishing and maintaining your own work-based goals, see our articles on Personal Goal Setting, Motivating Yourself, creating and following a To-Do List, and Backward Goal-Setting.
3. Making Connections
Be proactive about taking up any relevant continuing professional development (CPD) opportunities. This could be online, modular training, evening classes, or even occasional weekend study, whether through your employer or via membership of a relevant professional body.
Stay hungry for knowledge – subscribe to relevant publications or web resources, join forums or networks, and get involved in an employee resource group, if your organization supports them. This will help you to gain new perspectives, and to interact with people outside of your immediate circle of contacts. Remember that networking is a two-way process: what you have to offer is just as important as what you want from other people.
Consider role models – internal and external – that you admire. What is it about them and their working identities that you like? Can you learn to behave like them, and would this be right for you and your values or working style?
4. Overcoming Barriers
Developing new skills and knowledge can be an exciting and satisfying process. But, finding the time to make change a reality can be hard. So, you'll need to work with your manager to help you to prepare for any on-the-job or formal training. You'll also need to ensure that you meet your day-to-day responsibilities, and that you're not leaving it to co-workers to cover your work.
You might find self-reflection a challenge in itself. Be aware, for example, of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, which may lead you to think that you're more competent than you actually are; and of Impostor Syndrome, which can leave you feeling like a fraud who doesn't deserve success.
Look out for what's been called "miracle planning" in terms of what you can realistically achieve. And give yourself a better chance of sustaining change and growth by ensuring that your PLP is well paced, and that you nurture your resilience.
Effective personal development is about being proactive and engaged. So, take advantage of the learning culture that your organization offers – or, if there is none, create your own opportunities.
A SMART Personal Learning Plan (PLP), making full use of mentoring and networking opportunities, will help you to achieve your work-based goals.
You will need to develop a "growth mindset" in order to really benefit from a PLP.
Take yourself through a process of self-reflection and self-auditing, identify your aspirations, and gain buy-in from your manager – but ensure that you continue to meet your day-to-day responsibilities.
Finally, remember that your PLP can be as dynamic as you are, so adjust it as often as necessary to keep it current and relevant.
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