Making Personal Development Plans Work in SMBs

In an ever changing world it is important to develop, maintain and gain relevant skills. This becomes especially important when you work in an industry where best practices can be outdated in the timespan of 6 months. Above all, professionals themselves are responsible for their own development, but there is no denying that an employer should play an active role, too. But how do you ensure your team keeps developing when you don’t have systems in place when working in a small business?

Every manager knows that finding and hiring talent is a major cost for all businesses, but this process is especially taxing on smaller ones. A great reason to cherish and nourish every good hire you make. Unless a company is extremely lucky, they won’t be able to make the perfect hire. Even if this were the case, from a hard-skills perspective, how long will this perfect employee remain perfect? Depending on the industry, knowledge and skills can be outdated within months and certainly needs to be brushed up after a few years, even in the most conversative industries. At some point during the employee’s career, you need to invest in their knowledge and skills.

While managers and employees at small businesses might be familiar with a Personal Improvement Plan (PIP) – these are typically writing up when an employee is not performing – the Personal Development Plan (PDP) is seen less often in businesses who have not fully professionalized their systems. While PIPs are often treated as a last resort before an employee is fired, PDPs focus on proactively developing skills that make team members even better at their job. It facilitates the development of additional skills that allow them to grow – professionally and as a person in general. A win-win for both the employee and employer.

DPDs in smaller businesses can seem complicated. Without formalized systems such as HR officers (or even well-defined job description) it is less straightforward to formulate "development plans". This is one of the reasons why small businesses suck at hiring and retaining talent. Why should an employee work at a company that does not invest and has the same priorities as she?

In the ideal world each SMB would have someone dedicated to Learning & Development that is able to formulate curriculum for every role, but let's get real here: there is no way you can create such a position when your headcount is below 20. So what can you do when you manage a team in a small business?

Bootstrapping the system

There is very little point in discussing whether spending time on improving relevant skills is worth the investment. The next step is actually assigning time and resources to make personal development a priority and anchor this in your organization. While it is great to have internal budgets for this, we decided to make this part of our employment contracts. This serves multiple purposes: it shows future and current employees we take this seriously and there is a legal binding agreement to allocate these resources at the same time. Our contract included a yearly stipend and a number of days employees can spend on learning and development.

While this ensures that budgets are set when the employee is on the clock, what happened to “as a professional you are responsible for your own development”? This can be quite a difficult discussion and is definitely influenced by your socio-economy environment. This means there is no cookie-cutter answer to this question, but here are some guidelines I follow.

These certainly aren’t perfect, as they heavily discount team members that want to grow within your organization, but are unable to devote their own time due to other commitments (for instance, being a parent, caregiver or a long commute). As a small business it is quite hard to accommodate this type of career development, due to high upfront costs and uncertain outcomes. Unlike bigger co’s, you can not play the numbers game in which you hire 10 young potentials, assuming two will make up for the overall investment.

Writing the Personal Development Plan

Now that the parameters are set, it is time to actually construct a personal development plan. Depending on the employee and their role, I like sitting down with a team member at least once a year to refresh the PDP. Either by restating existing goals, or coming up with new goals and evaluating progress in general. I would not recommend combining performance reviews and personal development plans. During performance reviews you can certainly outline certain skills that can be worked into a PDP, but actually constructing the plan should be a separate activity.

While a personal development plan may sound as an extensive document, I’ve drastically reduced its size over the past years. I do not maintain a specific template, but it generally contains the following structure.

  1. High level areas of improvement (e.g. "Professional communication skills")

  2. Concrete goal(s) for each area (e.g. "Improve how to present to a group")

  3. Actionable tasks linked to each goal that can be ticked off from a todo list (e.g. "Ask x for resources to structure a presentation" and "Give an internal presentation on x before June 1st." 

Drafting and actually providing guidance on how specific areas can be improved on through small, actionable tasks is the most important task when drafting a PDP with a team member. Most employees are well aware of the areas they can improve in, but often have a hard time to define actionable tasks. It is great to formulate SMART goals, I like to sidestep this jargon and instead aim to define actions that won’t stand out on a typical todo list. By subsequently adding these tasks to the team member’s todo list, you ensure that these tasks do not end up in the bottom drawer, never to be seen again.

Formulating a PDP is also a matter of prioritization. The amount of goals that can be achieved during a PDP cycle depends on the amount of time your business can allocate to learning and development. This means you will have to acknowledge which goals will be front and center during the current cycle, and which will be temporarily on hold. Even if there are little constraints, you’re better off focusing on one or two areas of development at the same time.

You will not always walk away with a fully crystallized PDP after the meeting. The meeting will be mostly about prioritizing areas of improvement and coming up with concrete goals. Formulating the actual tasks often requires additional work done by the team member. This may seem obvious, but writing up and maintaining the PDP is done by each team member individually. Remember that development is the primary responsibility of each professional and your role is merely to provide guidance and advice. While team members typically share their PDPs with me, I do not require this and keep my own notes.

What you should be doing as a manager is to immediately schedule time and arrange resources so your team member can start working towards their goals. This can mean connecting a team member to somebody else, purchasing a book or signing them up for a course. It is vital to get this out of the way as soon as possible so you are not the bottleneck when your team member is working on their development.

Evaluate and regroup 

When you evaluate the PDP during the next cycle you might look at a long list of unfinished todo’s and some that are ticked off. Don’t worry about the amount of tasks that aren’t done; focus on those that are. How many of these tasks would have been completed if you never sat down to create a DPD in the first place? While it would have been great to complete every task on the list, remember the constraints in which you operate. While learning and development should be a high priority, it will never be the primary priority in a commercial setting.

Before the evaluation I ask team members to have a look and think about their current and future goals themselves. During the meeting, I recommend going through every area of improvement first, reflect, and formulate different or follow-up goals for each area, while discussing which areas will be in focus for the next cycle. Circle back to actionable tasks if required and rinse and repeat.

Wrap up

I previously covered that formalizing these types of systems is difficult when your organization's size does not allow for dedicated roles to support this process. Yet, learning development is of primary importance as a business, both to maintain your competitiveness and from a human capital perspective.

You will never be able to match big corporations that have fully developed curricula, but you should be able to match and surpass your direct competitors. Team members are typically very grateful for employers that invest in their development–especially since very few have experienced this while working at other smaller firms. Personal development is not a one-time effort, but a continued process that will pay off across an entire career. There simply isn’t a good reason to not to.