Career Development 101: A Quick Guide to Professional Growth

Learn about the importance of career development and find out how you can promote your professional career with the help of our step-by-step guide.

Reviewed by Melina Theodorou

Career development and growth concept

Whether you’re after a promotion, a new position or better job satisfaction, it’s important to be proactive about your professional growth. Gone are the days where we could rely on our employer to look after our career development. If we want to be happy and grow professionally, then we need to take our career development into our own hands.

Having a proper career plan is important, regardless of what stage of your professional journey you are at. But what exactly does it involve and what are the different strategies you could follow to ensure professional growth? Our guide is here to answer all your questions and help you grow our professional career.

What is career development?

Career development is something we do consciously and continuously throughout our life and all its transition points. It involves taking steps to develop our self-awareness so we can set meaningful career goals and creating a targeted plan for professional growth.

This can mean undertaking activities like networking, job shadowing and volunteering, lifelong learning and continuing professional development, so that we enjoy our careers, remain highly employable and can pivot in times of change.

Why is career development important?

There are many benefits to having a career development plan and undertaking targeted professional growth activities. Not only can it increase your chances of a promotion, but it can also make you more employable and enhance your career mobility.

Advances in technology mean the world of work is changing at a rapid pace; to remain employed, workers have shifted industries, changed their working styles and locations, and have grappled with new technologies. Those who were already focused on their career development had the skills and confidence to navigate these changes quickly.

Being focused on your professional growth can also enhance your overall wellbeing. We spend most of our waking hours at work, so it stands to reason that we should expect to be happy there. According to a Gallup study, career wellbeing is one of the most essential elements of our overall wellbeing. Indeed, people who have career wellbeing are more likely to be happy in their lives overall. As for those that do not, this can negatively affect other parts of their lives as well.  

If you’re serious about your career growth, you need to develop an actionable plan. But before you put pen to paper, there are some important elements to planning that you shouldn’t skip.

Career development planning

1. Self-reflection

In many ways, self-reflection is the most important element of professional growth. So many of us race through life and work without taking the time to assess whether what we are doing is working, or what we want.

Self-reflection is crucial if you are thinking about making a career change or you are fresh out of school and trying to decide on a career path. It is also important if you want to advance within your current job or industry as it helps you become aware of your strengths and weaknesses.

By reflecting on ourselves, our skills, interests, values, what we want out of life, you can determine how your career fits in with your vision. There are many personality tests that can help you develop self-awareness and improve this process.

However, reflection is not something you do once and then move on. To be successful in your career you need to revisit your career goals on a regular basis and update them based on the new insights you might have gained.

2. Set short and long-term goals

Now that you have reflected on your professional growth, it’s the perfect time to set short and long-term career development goals. Your goals will help you stay motivated and prioritise your actions. They will also help you make career decisions like whether to accept a new job or commit to your current role.

Make your goals SMART - specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and timely - and give some consideration as to how your short-term aspirations will help you achieve your long-term goals. Also, make sure you write your goals down in a place where you will see them often. The process of writing them down and the visual reminder will make you more likely to achieve them.

3. Write your plan

Now that you have reflected on your career and life and have written down your goals, you are ready to develop a plan for achieving them.

Your plan should lay out the concrete steps that you need to take to achieve your goals. So, start with your goals and work backwards, thinking about all the things you could do to get there. You should also consider what resources you may need.

Inevitably, you will end up with a very long list of actions and this is where prioritisation and time management come in. Some actions may also be more achievable than others due to personal circumstance. For example, if you have a limited budget and time, you may decide that a micro credential course is the best way to get the skills you need for a new job, rather than a full-time undergraduate degree.

Once you have a plan in place you should set a deadline for certain milestones to keep you focussed and motivated. You can do this by using a calendar app, or a simple wall calendar.

Some people are nervous about making plans because they feel this gives them limited flexibility to respond to life events. Remember, plans can change, and it is important to review your career development goals and adapt them on a regular basis.

Career development strategies

Career development strategies are the various tactics you could take for growing your career. We have assembled some suggestions that you can build into your career development plan below.

1. Develop your personal brand

If you want to advance your career, then it’s important to develop your personal brand. A solid personal brand helps people understand who you are, your skills, values, and the quality of work they can expect from you. By taking the time to define this you will have more control over the way you are perceived professionally.

Think about what define you and your unique skillset, then make sure this is reflected in your online professional presence like your LinkedIn profile. Practise talking about yourself and develop your elevator pitch.

2. Network, network, network

Make networking a key feature of your career development plan and commit to developing mutually beneficial relationships all the time, not just when you’re jobhunting. There are many benefits to networking, including staying up to date with trends, having a presence in your industry, building a support network and helping others.

If you’re thinking about making a career change, networking is vital. Building connections in your target industry will help you find out more about the work you want to do and inside tips on how to tap in. This is known as information interviewing. Building contacts within that industry may also help you overcome your lack of experience. Once people know about you, your personal brand and what you can offer in terms of transferable skills and life experience, they will be more likely to give you a chance.

Don’t assume that networking is only for extroverts. With their great listening skills and emphasis on quality connections, introverts can be expert networkers too.

3. Enlist support from others

Build a support team that you can share your career goals and plans with. Talking with friends and family is great but they may not understand the dynamics of your workplace or industry and, therefore, may not be able to offer valuable advice.

Seek out an experienced mentor that can help with your professional growth. There are benefits to having a mentor both inside and outside of your organisation; consider what will align more closely to your goals.

You could also consider working with a career counsellor or coach as they will help you reflect on your career, and develop realistic goals and plans for yourself. They will also hold you accountable to the milestones you set and may be able to assist you in searching for a new job.

4. Seek job shadowing, internships and volunteering opportunities

Job shadowing, internships and volunteering can benefit all professionals, not just those who are starting out in their careers.

For new graduates and school leavers, job shadowing, internships and volunteering provide an opportunity to gain work experience and expand professional skills. Apart from looking good on your résumé, they also help you understand what the career path you have chosen entails and understand which areas are better suited for you.

Internships are also an excellent way to find a job and expand your network. Some interns are offered permanent roles with their employers or, at least, create connections that can help them with their career development goals.

If you’re looking for an internship, then you should browse relevant job sites or attend careers fairs hosted by your university or school. Alternatively, if there’s an organisation you’d really like to work for, contact them directly via their site or through LinkedIn and enquire for openings.

Meanwhile, if you are an experienced worker who is contemplating a change in career direction, job shadowing and volunteering offer vital insights and opportunities to gain experience in a new industry.

Volunteering also provides an outlet for workers to explore other interests or passions outside of work. Sometimes, this may be all they need to fill a void in their professional life and help them feel more engaged at work.

If you find yourself unemployed you should consider volunteering to hone skills and bridge experience gaps. This will also demonstrate to potential employers that you used this time productively.

There are numerous volunteering opportunities available, but before enrolling in any, determine what you want to get out of it and how much time you have to give and seek for organisations that meet the criteria. You can approach organisations directly and ask them if they have any available roles or check out some job boards such as:

5. Commit to lifelong learning

The world is constantly evolving, and with it, the economy and the demands of the labour market. To remain current and up to date, you need to invest in lifelong learning throughout your career.

You must also take part in your, continuing professional development (CPD), as this will allow you to stay on top of industry developments.

There are multiple benefits of CPD. For instance, it helps you home in your skills and expertise and it gets you points with your employer whilst helping you grow your professional network. For some professions, CPD is a must to maintain your certified status, so commit to keeping your skills up to date by incorporating CPD activities into your career development plan.

Further studies also allow you to further your skills or make a career change. It may also be necessary to gain certain qualifications and expertise required by your target industry. It also demonstrates your professional commitment, which could win you points with potential employers.

Nowadays, there are many ways to commit to lifelong learning in an easy and affordable way. You may opt for a traditional on-campus university course, or undertake an online course, alongside work or family commitments. There are numerous sites available at your fingertips, such as:

  • Coursera
  • Open University
  • Udemy

You may even be able to get funding from your employer if you can make a good case for your study.

6. Sharpen your résumé and interview skills

Even if you’re not looking for a job, updating your résumé and sharpening your interview skills is still wise - you never know what unexpected opportunities may come your way.

For instance, you could give your document a spruce by using a new résumé template. There are many designs available depending on your level of experience and industry. Another important detail for creating a good résumé is ensuring that the content is tailored to the job you are applying for. Employers receive hundreds of applications for a single role, so make sure that yours adequately addresses their key selection criteria.

If you are selected for an interview, then rest assured that you look good on paper! Now is the time to articulate your suitability for the role orally. There are many different interview formats so make sure you are well-prepared. Will you be interviewed over video, telephone or in person? Will it be a panel interview or a one-to-one meeting?

Interviews can be a nerve-wracking experience, but also a necessary step when it comes to career development, so master some techniques to help you stay relax and make sure to practise before the big day!

7. Become more adaptable

The final strategy for your career development is learning how to adapt. The world of work is changing at a rapid pace and employers are more willing to hire and promote workers who demonstrate adaptability. Change isn’t easy for most but by becoming more flexible, developing a positive mindset and taking steps to become more adaptable, like ongoing professional development and taking on new responsibilities, you will find it gets easier with time.

As you can see, there is a lot to consider when planning your career and professional growth. The important thing is to establish career goals and strategies that are right for you. It is easy to be swept along by what everyone else is doing in their career, so remember, reflection is key.

Can you share any other career development tips? Join the conversation in the comments section below!

This article is an updated version of an earlier article originally published on 29 September 2016.