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How to Create a Five-Year Career Development Plan

Updated: May 2, 2019

Two people in job interview or meeting

Dreaming about your future can be exhilarating. Brainstorming possibilities, imagining different roles, thinking about the impact you could have…but it’s easy to get lost in the ideas.

That’s why a well-designed career development plan is such a useful tool in reaching your dreams.

It channels all that enthusiasm into practical steps that move you in the right direction. Not only that, the plan creates momentum and accountability. Two key ingredients for action!

This article has step-by-step instructions for creating a five-year career development plan, plus resources to explore and a dose of inspiration. Let’s get started.

Why is a Career Development Plan Important?

Before we dive into the nitty gritty of developing your plan, I wanted to emphasize the obvious

(and maybe not so obvious) reasons why a career development plan is so important.

You’re taking charge of your life’s direction.

You may have a career development plan at your current employer. Perhaps you work for a great company and they encourage your efforts to improve yourself. But what happens when their plan for you doesn’t match what you want for yourself? I can’t say this enough – You need to be the boss of your career. Companies change and develop much faster than in the past.

Creating your own career development plan is the best way to make sure you can weather the storms of mergers, start-ups, artificial intelligence and anything else that might disrupt the marketplace.

You’re consciously aligning your career with your values.

Know yourself. Be introspective. When you don’t take the time to assess your values, you feel uncomfortable and unsatisfied. By creating a career development plan that weaves your values into your goals, you’ll be motivated both personally and professionally.

You’re setting yourself up to be more make more money.

No doubt about it. If you’ve created a career development plan and are diligently following the steps you’ve laid out for yourself, your income potential will soar. You’ll have a clear vision, the right education and training, and a strong professional network. Taken together, they’ll position you well to jump on opportunities as they arise.

Define Your Goals

There are many career development plan templates out there but let’s keep it simple. You want this to be a living document. You’ll adjust as you learn more about yourself and your career.

My Five-Year Primary Goal

First, let’s talk about the big goal. Tell me, what’s the role that you’d be thrilled to hold in five years?

Once defined, flesh it out a bit more. What type of organization would have this role? Where would you live? What kind of work environment? Are you going to be an entrepreneur? Add all the details most important to you.

For example: My goal is to be the Director of Development at a medium-sized non-profit in my current city. I would have a fun group of coworkers and work in a modern office downtown near public transportation and lots of entertainment and dining options for after work. The non-

profit would support a cause near to my heart such as animal rescue, poverty, or

environmental protection.

The Personal Benefits to Achieving This Goal

This is the “why” section. Start this sentence with “I would love to be X because…” How does this job fulfill your career goals and your personal values? How does this job move you toward any longer-term goals?

For example:

"I would love to be a Director of Development because it suits my personality, skills and values. I’ve always wanted a career that helps people. I’m outgoing and love to make connections.

I enjoy being in the Development field because I can plan events, cultivate sponsors, and collaborate with the executive team. This position would also move me toward my longer-term goal of being an Executive Director at a non-profit."

My Short-Term Goals

Now that you know what your five-year career goal is, you need to figure out what it takes to

get there.

Start by looking at job descriptions for that role. See how closely you match the skills and requirements. Make a note of commonalities. Next, look at the LinkedIn profiles for people who currently hold your dream job. What do you notice?

  • What’s their tenure at various positions?

  • What type of degree do they have? Do they have any certifications?

  • What do their recommendations say about their skills and abilities?

  • What groups or associations are they part of?

  • Have they published any blogs or articles?

Using this information, you can create short-term goals to build certain skills, obtain advanced education, and plan networking efforts.

Identify Milestones

You may now have a laundry list of short-term goals, but to make them effective, you want to create milestones. A milestone is a significant achievement in the journey toward your five-year goal. Five years is a long time, so it’s important to cluster your short-term goals together under the umbrella of a milestone. This will keep you organized and on track.

Let’s bring it all together. Continuing with the example above, this person might currently be in a Development Associate role and have a bachelor’s degree in Communications. He/she may have noticed that many individuals in their goal position have the Certified Fund Raising Executive (CFRE) credential. They want to make this their one-year milestone in their five-year plan.

For example: My first-year milestone is to obtain the Certified Fund Raising Executive (CFRE).

To do this, I need to:

  • Speak to three CFRE certified professionals to gain advice on preparation

  • Obtain the CFRE materials

  • Schedule one-hour study sessions each week for the year leading up to being eligible

  • Apply for the program

  • Schedule written exam

  • Attend study sessions offered by CFRE

  • Take final exam

Each short-term goal should be SMART. You may already be familiar with this term. It means: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely. Each goal should have a due date working backwards from taking the final exam.

You could create five annual milestones or base it on another time period, such as semester,

if you’ve decided to pursue an advanced degree. What matters is that the milestone clusters goals together logically and it represents significant progress toward your bigger goal.

Find Mentors

A business mentor can provide invaluable input into your career development plan. You’ve done your research to build a series of steps toward your career goal, but an experienced mentor can quickly advise you on what you may have missed – or persuade you that some of the steps

are unnecessary.

So how do you find a mentor? Mentoring doesn’t have to be a formal arrangement. By adopting the perspective that everyone you meet has something to teach, you'll collect a lot of informal mentors along the way. However, if you want to identify a reliable source of guidance during your five-year plan, here are a few places to look:

  • Your Organization – Obviously this will depend on the size of your workplace and whether it’s part of a larger national or international organization. Many mentoring relationships strike up naturally in the course of work. If you have the advantage of a larger organization, find individuals with your goal position on the company intranet or LinkedIn and see if they’d be willing to talk over your career development plan.

  • Your Industry – This gives you a broader source of mentors. You can connect at association conferences, local meet-ups, or LinkedIn. Don’t be afraid to ask if they’d chat with you – most individuals are flattered and enjoy the opportunity to mentor. It reflects well on them too.

  • LinkedIn Career Advice – LinkedIn recently unveiled a new feature where you can request mentoring on specific topics or fields and be matched with individuals who are willing to mentor. Although mentors are extremely valuable, you ultimately must make your own decisions. Having their advice and perspective can give you confidence in whatever you decide.

Pursue Professional Training and Education

To be successful in any career, you never stop learning and growing.

Sometimes it’s necessary to get an advanced degree to reach the role you want. Since it can be an expensive and time-consuming choice, be sure to discuss with your mentor and investigate several schools. Top considerations would be:

• Can you manage college with a full-time job?

• What types of online options do they have for more flexibility?

• Do they consider life experience toward your credits?

• Does your employer offer to pay some or all your advanced education?

• How long would the program take if you were part-time?

• Does the school cater to returning adult students who work?

• Do they offer grants as well as loans?

Fortunately, you don’t always have to get another degree to prove your skills and abilities. Specialized certifications can give you the edge needed to land the job, without making a big monetary investment in education. Here are a few tips for finding professional training opportunities:

Industry Associations – If you’re not already a member of your industry’s associations, stop what you’re doing and go join them. They often have member’s only sections with a wealth of information. Many have certifications that can give you more stature in your field.

Coursera - Taught by top instructors from the world’s best universities and educational institutions, courses include recorded video lectures, auto-graded and peer-reviewed assignments, and community discussion forums. When you complete a course, you receive a sharable electronic Course Certificate.

Linkedin Learning - With a Premium membership, you gain access to over 12,000 expert-led, on demand eLearning courses in the areas of business, technology, and creative. Upon completion,

you can add them to your LinkedIn profile.

Local Colleges and Universities – If you’re not prepared to get a degree, don’t overlook their post- graduate certifications and continuing education options.


I hope this blog has given you the confidence to build your own five-year career development plan. And now, to throw a little monkey wrench into everything I’ve just said!

We don’t know what the future holds. The world is changing faster than ever. The goal of career planning is not to have a set-in-stone plan, but to maximize your possibilities and be ready to leap when they come along. A career development plan should change as you change. It’s a reflection of your dreams and aspirations. Best of luck!

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