Careers advice

Achievable ambition: setting professional development goals

Want to get ahead in your career, but not sure how? It’s time to set some professional development goals.

From Ed Hilary to Valerie Adams, Kiwis have never lacked ambition, or the desire to push themselves.

However, neither of these people went from zero to hero overnight, and if you’re looking to take your career to new heights (get it? Heights ... Ed Hilary …), it’s time to create professional development goals.

To help with this, we’re going to talk you through their importance, how to set them effectively and give you some examples to get you started.

Onwards and upwards.

Planning is key when setting your career goals.

The benefits of professional development goals

Professional development goals are for everyone, no matter if you’re happy in your role, or looking to move on soon. But what do they offer?

1. Keeping you relevant

No industry is static. New technologies, regulations or employer demands mean there are always reasons for upskilling.

What’s more, being on the pulse of the latest trends in your sector can help you rise through the ranks in your current organisation, or stand out when applying for jobs.

2. Keeping you moving

Having a goal is a powerful motivator. This is particularly important if you’re feeling stuck in a rut, but aren’t quite ready to start looking for a new job.

Importantly, professional development goals also give you a path to follow. It’s one thing to want to grow your skills, and another to know where to start. The framework we’ll share below makes this planning stage a walk in the park.

3. Keeping you satisfied

Job satisfaction is crucial to Kiwis. In fact, 48% of job hunters listed day-to-day duties as 'very important' to their idea of an ideal job, according to a 2020 Trade Me Jobs survey. 

As a result of the previous two outcomes, by setting (and meeting) professional development goals, you’ll get greater satisfaction from your job – contributing to your overall quality of life.

How to set professional development goals

‘I want to gain leadership skills’. Goal set, next? Not quite.

To make your professional development goals meaningful, you’ll have to put some thought into them. ‘I want to gain leadership skills’ is fine as a top level aim, but gives no clues to how you’ll get there.

The answer: think SMART.

SMART goals are:

  • Specific: be clear with what it is you want to accomplish. Use the five ‘W’s to help you do this – who, what, when, why and where.
  • Measurable: this is how you tell if you’re succeeding. For example, if you were taking a course, you could aim to complete one module per week.
  • Achievable: aiming high is great, but be realistic. Do you have the time and resources to get where you want? If not, try lowering expectations for this goal, and make it a step on the way to your overall target.
  • Relevant: it can be easy to get carried away and only later realise your objective is fun but isn’t getting you where you want. Make sure it’s in tune with your personal and career goals.
  • Timely: without a firm deadline for completion, you’ll lose urgency to get on and do it.

If you want a second opinion on your SMART goals, talk to your manager. Most organisations are keen to help employees grow and learn new skills – after all, it’s in their interests for you to be on top of your game and content in your career.

SMART goals help you break down your objectives into manageable milestones.

Examples of professional development goals

Professional development goals can be either long or short term, and it’s a good idea to have a mixture of both in mind. For each of the below examples, we’ll show how you can make them SMART.

Short term professional development goals

Get better at public speaking

Soft skills are a big deal for employers, so working on communication is an excellent choice.

  • Specific: I want to improve my public speaking in front of groups of 10 people or more, by leading training sessions.
  • Measurable: I’ll measure success by the number of people returning to the optional training sessions – this will indicate how engaging my presentations are. I will also ask for feedback following individual presentations.
  • Achievable: training sessions are weekly, so I should be able to secure at least one of these a month. I can prepare my presentations in the evenings.
  • Relevant: training sessions are usually well attended, so I should have a minimum of 10 people to speak to.
  • Timely: To get a good idea of how I’m tracking, I’ll review my progress after three months. I’ll review attendance numbers and feedback, and whether I’m feeling more confident.

Your manager might have ideas for how you can work towards your goals.

Long term professional development goals

Gain promotion to team leader

Getting that big promotion usually takes careful planning, here’s how you could lay the groundwork:

  • Specific: I want to be promoted to team leader within 12 months.
  • Measurable: I’ll measure success here by whether or not I’m promoted in this time frame.
  • Achievable: I’m consistently beating my key performance indicators (KPIs), and have taken courses to improve both my hard and soft skills. My tenure at the company also means this is a realistic objective.
  • Relevant: making team leader fits my longer-term objectives of gaining more senior management roles.
  • Timely: The 12 month timeframe is a good balance between achievability and realism in terms of the departmental changes that need to happen.

These are just two ideas to show how the process works, but your professional goals can be just about anything. Other popular examples include:

  • Growing your network.
  • Taking courses.
  • Improving your work-life balance.
  • Working on a specific KPIs.
  • Gaining project management experience.
  • Learning to use a specific software package or new technology.
  • Learning to manage your time better.


Even if you’re not actively hunting for a new job right now, remember to add any new skills, qualifications or experiences to your Trade Me Jobs Profile as you go. This means you won’t forget to do so when it matters, and enables recruiters to approach you with opportunities for that next step you never knew existed.