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Use a Bottoms-Up Approach to Personal Development Goal-Setting

Use a Bottoms-Up Approach to Personal Development Goal-Setting

Free Resource

Setting clear business performance goals helps employees understand how their contributions will be measured while developmental goals have a direct impact on retention and long-term performance. Both are important, but they are set and measured differently. Business goals vary by industry and role and are typically set in a top-down fashion. For example, a sales quota is typically non-negotiable and is set by departmental leadership. When it comes to developmental goals, employees can be more involved in the process. In terms of measurement, business goals tend to be straightforward whereas developmental milestones may need more nuance. Below are some best practices and tools for inspiring and supporting employees to go beyond hitting their numbers.

Structured Career Paths

Managers and employees benefit when paths to promotion are clearly articulated. A career ladder or career path for each role in an organization is a traditional way to achieve this. In smaller or younger organizations, expectations by job level may be less explicitly defined, if at all. Flatter organizations typically emphasize lateral opportunities and mobility rather than hierarchical promotion-oriented paths. Yet regardless of the organizational structure or size, people like knowing their options whether they stay in their current team or division or venture into newer territory. Visibility to the career paths and the necessary skills for roles across the organization helps people prioritize their own development. While HR traditionally drives the development of career paths organization-wide, this requires significant time and resources. For younger or smaller companies lacking in-house HR, managers can define paths for their own teams. Having roles defined also comes in handy during the recruitment process because descriptions and necessary skills can be repurposed in job requisitions.

Bottoms Up Personal Development

Once employees can see the skills needed to perform in a desired role, they can better prioritize their development goals. However managers are still on the hook to facilitate the process by actively encouraging team members to think beyond short-term business objectives. This means establishing regular checkpoints to set and evaluate both business goals and development goals. As mentioned above, the key difference is that business goals are typically driven by leadership whereas development goals should be solicited from employees and then fine-tuned with the support of a manager. For example, an employee may start by suggesting a handful of personal development goals. Managers can coach employees through refining their goals in many ways, like editing a list that is too long and unfocused, or advising an employee to include skills that will help them better meet expectations in their current role if they are underperforming. And perhaps most important of all, managers play a critical role in defining exactly how skills will be developed by providing on-the-job opportunities to learn as well as helping employees carve out time for relevant courses or other training opportunities.

Less Is More

There are no universally accepted rules for the ideal number of business or personal development goals, but a “less is more” approach helps ensure that the most important work is prioritized. When burdened with too many competing goals, it becomes tempting to cherry-pick the ones that are most attainable rather than prioritizing the ones that matter most. To help create clarity about both business and personal objectives, keep both lists as short as possible. Ideally, managers have a say in the number and scope of both business and personal goals for their teams. Most can at least control the personal goal-setting process for their team members and ensure that a manageable number (ie, one to three) development goals have been selected by each person.


As with business goals, measurability is key to setting meaningful personal development goals.

With the skills defined in a career ladder as a guide, writing goals is fairly straightforward. For example, a junior customer service specialist seeking to advance to an outside sales role might see that skills needed for the sales role include deep product knowledge and the ability to influence decision-makers. Her manager could help her outline tangible ways that she can develop these skills, such as attending weekly product feedback sessions to act as a liaison between customers and product developers, and by taking a more client-facing role with an existing customer by leading a segment of the weekly client call. To help maintain focus and momentum, evaluation is not a one-time event but rather an ongoing process of assessment and feedback during regular check-ins, such as right after a customer phone call or product team meeting. In some cases this means that a manager attends a meeting they might not ordinarily attend in order to shadow and give feedback. This investment of time on the part of managers helps employees feel connected and supported in their career development.

Establishing the importance of personal development goals can be as rewarding for the manager as it is for the employee. Not only is it proven to drive retention and engagement, but it helps establish the manager’s reputation as a supportive and engaged ally. Wise managers know that they have nothing to fear by giving their team members wings to fly because once the word gets out, they will have a line out the door when a spot needs to be filled.