Careers advice

How to improve your career development: a guide

Your guide to getting ahead.

What you’ll learn:

  • What is meant by career development? 
  • Key career development activities 
  • How to develop your career path

Boosting your career is a lot easier said than done, and it’s not always obvious where to start. To give you some inspiration, we’ll look at seven tried and tested tactics that you can use to your advantage.

What is career development?

Generally speaking, career development refers to steps taken by a professional to increase their employability and gain expertise in their area or sector of interest. 

However, this can mean different things to different people. Some people may chase career development because they want to move into leadership roles, while others aren’t interested in such positions and want to become subject matter experts. Other motivations include gaining a higher salary or eventually making the move to another company that requires certain skills or experiences. 

So, you need to consider, what does career development mean for you? Ultimately, this process is all about getting where you want to go, so your destination needs to be well defined.

Key career development activities

1. Know your objectives and identify your milestones

We recommend making yourself a personal career development plan. The best way to do this? Create SMART goals.

SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Timely, and is a great methodology to follow if you want to break down your career development objectives into more bite size chunks.

For example, if you’re eyeing promotion to a management position, think about the hoops you need to jump through in order to get there – these can be your SMART goals. Some might be easy to tick off, while others might require a longer timeframe to complete. But, as long as you’ve mapped the milestones along the way, you know that each is getting you closer to your overall aim.

A SMART goal for this promotion objective might look like this:

  • 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: Becoming 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.

SMART goals help you define your objectives, and a path to reaching them.

2. Talk to your manager

Don’t be shy about your desire to improve your career – managers and people leaders love ambitious staff. After all, if you’re eager to grow, you’ll be of more use to the organisation.

Your manager can help by:

  • Pointing you in the direction of resources that can help you upskill
  • Letting you take on projects that will give you new or more advanced experience
  • Helping you work on your personal career development plan

A good tactic when working with your manager is asking them to give you a SWOT analysis. SWOT stands for: Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats, and helps you find things to improve on.

‘Strengths and weaknesses’ is straightforward, ‘opportunities’ refers to potential options you have for career development (e.g. training courses) and ‘threats’ means obstacles to progress (e.g. lack of time). Ideally, both you and your manager will do a SWOT analysis (of you!), come together to talk about the results, then come up with 3-5 action items you can work on.

3. Take upskilling courses

A great way to work on any weaknesses that come out of your SWOT analysis is by taking upskilling courses. There are heaps of ways to do this, with online courses really coming to the fore in NZ during the Covid-19 crisis.

Online courses are just one example of how you can expand your skillset.

4. Work on your soft skills

Among the most important steps in any career development plan is working on your soft skills. Sometimes referred to as transferable skills, this category of capabilities includes attributes such as:

  • Communication.
  • Adaptability.
  • Resilience.
  • Problem solving.
  • Cultural awareness.
  • Leadership.
  • Innovation.
  • Emotional intelligence.
  • Growth mindset.

These are important from Day One in a job, and only become more so if you’re looking to advance your career prospects or move up the promotion ladder.

Great ways to grow your soft skills include:

  • Taking courses.
  • Working on projects that involve multiple stakeholders and collaborators.
  • Taking the lead on projects.
  • Offering to train or mentor colleagues on subjects/tools you’re an expert in.

Don't ignore the importance of soft skills when creating a professional development plan.

5. Leverage your network

You can learn a lot by talking to your peers. They will be able to advise you on everything from great upskilling courses they’ve taken to openings and opportunities they’ve heard about that might form the next logical step in your career progression.

However, it’s important you give as well as take, so make sure to nurture your networking skills and take a proactive approach to staying in touch. For example, by contributing to industry discussions online, or celebrating their successes.

6. Maintain a strong, professional online presence

Sometimes, the opportunities can seek you out. But only if you’re there to be found.

Creating a Trade Me Jobs Profile means that employers and recruiters can match the skills and interests you list with opportunities they have, and reach out to see if you’re interested. This is a great way to find out about roles that suit your career trajectory, even if you’re not actively hunting for a job.

7. Find a career mentor

A career mentor can be an invaluable resource for someone looking to grow and develop. These people once stood where you stood, and have taken their careers forward, meaning they can offer you specific, targeted advice about how you too can make progress. Of course, you need to choose your career mentor carefully. Don’t just pick any senior person in your organisation, look for someone who has skills you want to learn, a great leadership style that you’d seek to emulate or works in a role you’d like to be in one day. 

From there, you need to approach them and see if they’d be willing to coach you, and then work together to determine how this relationship will work in practice.

How to develop a career path

As we’ve discussed, a good career development plan involves both long and short term goals. You want to have a desired destination in mind, but you also need to be realistic about the steps you need to take to get there. 

But how do you go about mapping out your career path? Well, the best way to start is by looking at the opportunities available at your current employment, and how these could align with where you want to go. 

For example, you could sit down with your manager, and determine, through a SWOT analysis, what areas of the business you need exposure to in order to build out your skillset. From here, it might be a question of working with different departments in your current role, or even making sideways moves within the company to help you become a more rounded professional. 

It’s also a good idea to keep an eye on ads for vacant roles within your company when they’re listed on Trade Me Jobs. As well as the opportunities themselves, reading the ‘desired skills’ sections of roles you’re interested in can inspire you in new upskilling areas. Companies generally love to fill roles using personnel from within their own ranks, because it tends to be cheaper, so, even if you think that you don’t quite tick all the boxes, it can be a good idea to throw your hat into the ring when such opportunities arise.