A roadmap for career development: How to set your course

July 23, 2021 - 19 min read


Jump to section

What is career development?

Phases of career development

Factors of career planning

Career development for new roles

9 career development tips

Career development starts now

Career development starts young … very young!

In the imaginations of children, run thoughts of what to be when they grow up. Ideas are tried on, developed, and set aside, and new options contemplated. As we move through our teen years, these musings can become more serious with choices of:

  • Post-secondary education 
  • First real jobs 
  • Internships

And so the heart of the process of career development starts — and never really ends until retirement (perhaps not even then). 

Let’s look at how career development typically occurs and how this will impact your career planning processes.

We’ll discuss the main factors affecting professional development and how to choose a meaningful career journey.

What is career development?

Career development is a broad process. It includes:

  • Choosing a meaningful career
  • Setting and pursuing career goals
  • Learning new skills (whether through higher education such as a bachelor's degree or through on-the-job training)
  • Advancing along your career path toward your ideal job

Career development is different from the development of specific skills, though it often includes this.

For example, a career counselor might advise that you undertake some workshops particular to your chosen field. This would contribute to your career development.

However, career development requires a broader sense of growth. This starts with fostering self-awareness.

Self-awareness enables you to understand what motivates you, interests you, and drives you. These factors all contribute toward choosing a career field that you will thrive in.

Why is career development important?

Developing your career path has a number of important benefits.

For starters, many of us require constant development to drive positive emotion. The reward systems in our body are triggered by our moving toward a chosen goal.

So, setting yourself a reasonable goal or two can actually make you happier. Through goal-setting, you will experience yourself moving toward a successful career.

If you’re just starting out, look to cultivate a beginner’s mindset, being open to everything.

There is also a financial element to consider.

Employees who hold higher positions (whose careers are further developed) will typically earn more.

Sitting down with a career advisor early on in your life can help you to determine which career paths might fit best with your temperament and goals.


Phases of career development

My coaching training was done at the Hudson Institute of Coaching founded by Frederic Hudson. 

Hudson was one of the pioneers in the field of adult development. His theories propose a cyclical nature to how we develop overall. As careers are often at the core of our adult lives, it is appropriate to apply a cyclical career model as well. 

As we move up the spiral, we tend to go through phases that drive our growth. Let’s take a look at five phases of career development:

1. Experiment with options 

I love the line Jay Shetty uses in his book Think Like A Monk:

“(In my family) you could become three things - a doctor, a lawyer or a failure.”

Fortunately, that didn’t turn out to be true for him, and the challenge is more often too many possible choices and directions. 

Deciding on something to pursue requires becoming familiar with the more attractive options. Then, you need to find ways to engage with these options.

There are many ways to experiment, but there are two important principles to keep in mind. 

First, be vigilant when looking for opportunities. They appear in surprising ways and may, in fact, highlight an option you weren’t even thinking about.

Second, the path isn’t linear. It's hard to plan for a career change, so there may be steps forward followed by steps back.

2. Develop skills 

New career options generally require new skills. 

Many times, they are incremental skills that we add while working at a job. In other words, we are sufficiently skilled to enter into a new career opportunity. However, we need to develop further in order to grow within the new option. 

An example from my career is when I transitioned from the accounting side of financial services to the sales side.

I knew enough about the product to manage account situations but needed to learn and grow my sales acumen. Other times, the opportunity is different enough that we must learn the skills before entering into the new option. 

A second example from my career is my transition from corporate leader to leadership coach. I realized I needed to pursue a coaching certification before I could pursue the opportunity and learn how to fit that demand into my full schedule.

3. Pursue opportunities

In other words … “get after it!” 

When we are sufficiently skilled to enter into an opportunity, we begin to pursue competency and success. 

Competency comes first. 

We generally start each new role “unconsciously incompetent.” As we become more deeply engaged, we quickly move to “consciously incompetent,” where we know what we don’t know. 

This is a place of discomfort but also of learning to apply our new skills.

Over several months we move to a place of “conscious competence” where our contributions begin to pile up, and we start to try to be more.

4. Level up 

Leveling up can come in different forms. 

Sometimes it is taking on bigger projects. Sometimes it is seeking a promotion. Other times it may be looking for opportunities to develop others.

One way to develop others is by entering into leadership positions within your career path. This often turns us back to skill development and a new cycle through these steps.

5. Mastery (and boredom?) 

Mastery of a role or a career is something many aspire to.

It is the place of “unconscious competence” where we instinctively know the best way to navigate through challenges. 

One possible outcome here is to become conscious of our mastery and use that to level up yet again. Another possible outcome is boredom, where we begin to seek the next career option and start the cycle anew.


Factors of career planning

I love the work of Lisa Taylor at Challenge Factory, especially her SweetSpot™ career model. SweetSpot is designed to help people find a career that creates great harmony for them across multiple dimensions.

Lisa defines a SweetSpot career as the intersection of four factors as follows.

1. Talents 

What is it that you are naturally good at?

We tend to be most energized by work that feeds into our gifts. If we can design our work so that we spend a significant portion of our time engaged in our talents, we find a multiplier effect for career satisfaction. 

2. Passions 

What kinds of things most naturally attract you to them? 

Passions are an easy place to feel what we “should” be passionate about, but “should” doesn’t help as this is highly personal.

When we are thinking about work, passions can be about the work itself. For example, a care worker can be passionate about helping the recovery of others. 

It may also be about the organization we work for. For example, an HR leader may care greatly about the health of others and focus on working for healthcare-related companies.

3. Needs 

As much as we want to focus on our talents and passions, we have to stay real.

We have needs to meet. 

Our material needs are often front of mind: making enough money, being in the right location, having a schedule that works for our lives, etc. 

But we may also pay heed to needs that are more motivated by our personalities. These needs could be to: 

4. Impact 

Impact is harder to define.

Perhaps we could redefine this as the space where we want to make a difference.

For some, this is about community. For others, it could be about more globally focused causes. Still, others are focused very locally — making a difference with those closest to them.

5. Self-identity

Our adult lives are influenced by how we see ourselves, much of which we carry forward subconsciously from our childhood.

There isn’t anything negative about this, but it is a structure in our lives that directs us in how we make career choices.

This structure has been a part of creating our strengths that have made us successful.

As we move on through our career, it is often appropriate to channel our inner Marshall Goldsmith and ask, “Will what got me here get me there?”

Then, we need to work on creating a conscious awareness of what this identity is.

6. Age and stage 

Back to Frederic Hudson’s adult development theories.

He would propose that what motivates us changes based on our age and stage of life.

What drives a person in their 20s will be very different than a 50-something individual. A long-term career person may see the future very differently than a stay-at-home parent returning to the workforce at the same age.


Career development for new roles

Many university campus students have asked this question of their career coach.

It’s a tough one to answer. How do we prepare for a future that is transforming rapidly?

There are two ways to approach this, and you should engage with both.

The first is to develop broad skills and capabilities that can be used in a variety of instances.

These include skills like:

The second strategy is to stay at the forefront of the requirements for specific, professional skills.

Consider some of the most recent, large-scale industry changes:

  • Uber disrupting the taxi industry
  • Airbnb disrupting the hotel industry
  • Netflix disrupting the movie rental industry

A bit of research into these and other high-level change-ups highlights that industry boundaries are blurring. Across industries, companies are moving toward solutions that are:

  • Peer to peer
  • Direct to consumer
  • Subscription-based
  • Environmentally friendly

Rather than focusing your job search on industries that are lucrative now, think long-term, consider taking a paid internship at a fresh, innovative, future-focused company.

Above all, recognize that your career will probably take several sharp turns as it develops. You might end up somewhere entirely different than where you started off.

9 career development tips

Often “tips” can be interpreted as “cheat codes,” which implies immediate success.

These tips aren’t of that nature … but they are designed to support enduring career satisfaction.  

1. Embrace your strengths

It is a myth that the path to growth is to address our deficiencies. 

The path forward is most effectively defined by knowing our strengths. My favorite definition of strengths is from Marcus Buckingham.

Strengths are those things that make us stronger, give us energy. Keep track of yours (and your kryptonite). 

For several weeks, keep a record of activities that leave you energized when you are finished, as well as those that make you feel drained.

Look for patterns in both so that you can design towards (and away from) what you discover.

2. Talent identification 

It is difficult to identify talents in ourselves because they are so natural that we assume everyone else is equally capable. That makes us blind to them.

Here are two ways around the issue.

First, ask others: they see your talents objectively, and those that care about you will tell you.

Second, notice when you see others struggling with tasks you think are simple. Chances are you have a talent in that area.

3. Know yourself authentically 

This idea addresses the concept of self-identity.

I love the exercise I call I AM … It involves finishing the sentence “I am …” ideally with one word that describes who you already are … not who you hope to be.

Get a list that is 30-50 items long. Now start to filter it. 

Which ones are learned or self-limiting beliefs? Which ones are rooted in who you are as a person? Which ones connect to your talents and passions?

4. Express your “edge” clearly

The outcome of the “I AM” exercise is to be able to concisely express what you were born to offer most authentically to the world. 

Sometimes we hear calls to define our niche clearly. In my opinion, it is most important to broadly know the space in which we are most effective and energized.

As an example, I define my personal “edge” as:

 “I am a dynamic listener who facilitates progress for others through taking separate ideas and concepts to help synthesize new ideas and approaches.” 

I currently choose to narrow where I offer that edge to coaching.

5. Turn around your “Yeah … but” thoughts

We often know where we want to go, but we then tell ourselves why we can’t get there. For example: “Yeah, it would be great if I were to return to school for an MBA … but I’ve got a young family who needs my time and my earnings.”

Listen to your “yeah … but” thoughts and then turn them around as they are unstated needs.

Returning to the example: 

“In order for me to return to school, I will need to seek agreement with my partner on how we will manage the time commitments and any financial impact.” 


6. Know your gaps

As your preferred career option becomes clearer, it is important to be objective about how we align with the required skills and experience.

Get clear about the competencies of the target position. Document what you have now and what you need to gain to be fully competent in the new position. 

As highlighted above, it isn’t necessary to have a “green light” on every required competency. But it is important not to have any reds and to have a plan to move through any yellows. For significant career changes, this plan may have a non-trivial timeline attached.

7. Map it out

For such timelines, build a 5-year plan and plot it over a reasonable timeline.

Life’s obligations (and a need for balance) still exist, so we need to plan for the shift.

Think of an allocation of time and energy.

  • How are you allocating it now?
  • What time and energy do you need to fit in?
  • What will you shift to make room for it?
  • What other actions will you need to begin to take as the gaps are closed?

8. Stay fluid

This post started with the idea of experimentation.

The roots of experimentation are in hypotheses. These require us to have a firm position on what the outcome will be. 

But we must still remain open to what we discover along the way, adjusting our expected outcome accordingly.

Career progressions are like that. We are better off if we are not locked into a single outcome but rather open to all outcomes that give us what we are looking for.

Success appears in surprising places.

9. Own the process

I don’t know where I heard it or saw it — perhaps a training video – but when someone said that they needed a career manager, they were informed they already had one … “you’re it!”

Don’t abdicate your career development to anyone as only you can manage your career.

However, once you’ve embraced that, be open to including others on your “board of directors.” Find mentors, job shadow, seek input, network. But above all, own the process yourself.

Career development starts now

Whether you’re a new job seeker, a college student, or a seasoned professional who has already experienced a level of career success, it’s not too late to start paying attention to your career development.

Of course, the earlier you can start, the better. But as they say, better late than never!

Consider speaking with a career counseling expert. They’ll be able to assist you in getting on the right path toward meaningful employment.

At BetterUp, we’re passionate about growth and transformation across organizations. So, if you feel like you could use a bit of guidance, check out how we can help.

New call-to-action

Published July 23, 2021

Ian Munro

BetterUp Fellow Coach, PCC

Read Next

Professional Development
18 min read | March 11, 2022

Informational interviews: How to get all the info you need

Learn what an informational interview is and why it benefits career development, as well as how to prepare for or conduct an informational interview. Read More
Professional Development
18 min read | August 19, 2021

Executive development is personalized to leaders everywhere

Learn what executive development is, its main goal, why it’s so urgent, and how to choose the right executive development program for your organization. Read More
Employee Experience
25 min read | August 18, 2021

Employee development is key to your company's success

Investing in an employee development plan should be a priority for all organizations. Learn everything about the benefits of employee development. Read More
Professional Development
16 min read | September 8, 2021

Professional development is for everyone (We’re looking at you)

Learn what professional development is and how you can use it to excel in your career. Plus, read about the components of a professional development plan. Read More
Employee Experience
18 min read | September 14, 2021

How to use workforce development to close the skills gap

Workforce development is part of talent strategy. Find out what a workforce development program entails, why it is important and when to turn to outside specialists. Read More
Leadership & Management
8 min read | April 8, 2022

7 examples for setting professional development goals at work

Here are 7 examples of SMART professional development goals to inspire and help define your personal pathway to career success. Read More

Stay connected with BetterUp

Get our newsletter, event invites, plus product insights and research.