How to develop a personal growth plan for technical experts – including a free downloadable template

Why do experts need a personal growth plan?

Are you a technical expert or individual contributor who’s not sure to know where your career should go next? Or an HR and organisational development strategist who is struggling to motivate and retain their specialist departments?

By experts, we mean roles that often don’t manage teams, but have significant influence over the technical direction of their organisation: accountants, actuaries, chemists, coders, consultants, economists, engineers, financial experts, hardware makers, heads of compliance, individual contributors, information architects, lawyers, risk managers, subject matter experts – and more.

Experts have different needs to people managers. So much so that we say leadership is for those who lead people, and expertship is the skills and toolkit needed to lead the the introduction and adoption of new ideas, efficiencies, and competitive advantage.

In 2019, we released the Expertship Growth Guide – 102 ideas for experts to increase their value. Here’s the introduction, which explains:

How Do Experts Build A Personal Growth Plan?

Here’s our Personal Growth Plan (PGP) template (download here).An example Personal Growth Plan A PGP helps you:

  • Determine the target outcomes you’d like to achieve: the “desired situation”
  • Identify current challenges and issues that you’d like to address: the “current situation”
  • Identify specific steps (“activities”) you plan to take, tracking progress and keeping yourself accountable.

To keep focus, we recommend you focus on a maximum of three growth opportunities, and pick the most advantageous to you and your organisation. And once you have defined your growth opportunities, complete the Growth Plan Template for the first capability area and then move onto the next ones.

STEP 1: DEFINE YOUR GROWTH OPPORTUNITIES

Personal Growth Plan 1 - Growth areas

 

Questions you to consider: What non-technical, future-focused skills are most advantageous across my industry? What feedback have I had around my non-technical skills – what are my strengths to leverage/ challenges? If I could become a master in one area and it would make a huge difference, what would it be?

Consider which three growth areas will provide you and the business the biggest positive impact (you may find it useful to browse the guide to seek ideas)

  • Consider your strengths, not just areas which may be a challenge for you
  • Consider feedback you have received from leaders and stakeholders about your non-technical skills, as well as
    measurable feedback you may have received from 360 surveys, project and team reviews, and any Expertship programs you’ve attended.
  • “Lean in” to the capability areas that you find yourself avoiding. Is that because it’s an area you know requires growth?

 

STEP 2: DEFINE YOUR CURRENT SITUATION

Personal Growth Plan - Step 2 - current situation

  Questions to consider: What behaviors of mine contribute toward those impacts? What do I need to consider acting differently?

  • Describe your current behaviors and the impact they have
  • Identify gaps between what you are doing and “getting” now and what you would like to be doing and “getting” in the future. Consider why.
  • The Expertship Growth Guide contains a lot of detail about “issues you’re hoping to prevent or address” 

STEP 3: DEFINE THE DESIRED SITUATION

Personal Growth Plan 3 - Behaviours and Impacts

 

The next two boxes on the Personal Growth Plan are to do with the “desired situation” – the future you want to achieve.

Questions to ask: What impact and outcomes would you like to have in this area? What would you see, hear, experience? What new behaviors do you want to adopt? What impact do you think these new behaviors will have?

  • Consider the “results you can expect” section of the development guide which may help you identify some positive impacts. Work your way back to identifying new behaviors that in turn will produce those positive outcomes.
  • Consider whether impact “new” behaviors will bring – are they just more more of the same behaviors?

STEP 4: ACTIVITIES

Personal Growth Plan 4 - Activities

 

This stage refers to the committed steps you will take to achieve your goal.

  • List all the actions you will take to progress from current behaviors (and impacts) to desired behaviors (and impacts).
  • Identify concrete, specific measures, or signs and symbols of progress, that describe the achievement of your goals. Customer satisfaction measures? Completed projects? Something else?
  • If you don’t currently have ways  to monitor your progress, consider creating some. Some ideas include regular project tracking meetings or stakeholder engagement questionnaires.
  • You may wish to seek feedback from a trusted colleague, third parties or stakeholders directly about what is working better, and where you potentially still need to focus
  • It’s vital that you work out each steps in enough detail to be able to subsequently review how to bring to life the actions. Ideally, they will each end up as tasks on your To-Do list or appointments in your calendar
  • You may find the “actions to take” section in the development guide helpful. We can’t guarantee the suggestions listed there perfectly and comprehensively apply to your situation, but it should give you ideas for the right sort of steps to help you progress towards mastery.

STEP 5: ACCOUNTABILITY STRATEGY

Personal Growth Plan 5 - Accountability

This section is designed to help you put in place systems and relationships that assist you in staying on track – holding you accountable to take the actions you are describing above.

  • Consider who to make yourself accountable to and how regularly they will be updated
  • Commit to what you can practically manage
  • Consider the level of support you require.

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What next after you’ve created your Personal Growth Plan?

Making it happen

Now you’ve built your plan, you need to ensure it works and it’s followed. A PGP is most likely to help you realise your aspirations when:

  • There’s a compelling reason why it’s been created. You can see how you’ll benefit from the payoff from growing from your current situation to the plan’s desired impact.
  • The steps are specific enough, comprehensive, realistically timed and measurable
  • There is a sense of accountability, with progress checks to keep you on track.

Manager Support

Once you have developed a draft, we’d recommend you share your action plan with your manager, inviting their input. That feedback will allow you to finalise your plan and start the process of putting it into action – and it also secures their support and sponsorship to the implementation of your plan. Otherwise you run the risk of any progress that you’re making being invisible or seen as a possible unauthorized departure from preferred ways of working – or merely a distraction. Ask your manager:

  • Do they share your view of the value of the items you’ve chosen to work on?
  • What would they modify? Would they recommend any additional steps?
  • Are you at risk of over-extending yourself?
  • Is your timeline realistic and aggressive enough?
  • Are there other measures you might consider?

Once you have completed your PGP and presuming that you have shared it (and revised if required) with your manager, we recommend regular check-ins with them to review your progress, and seek their support and feedback on key areas.

Your Commitment

As you grow your skills, it’s important to stay focused on why you wanted to grow is your skills. It’s easy to revert to old patterns and behaviors, or be pulled into old styles of working.

It will take time to reach Master Expertship level. The trick is to keep reviewing your PGP progress regularly, and continue to keep honing your skills and new behaviors until they become more natural.

Over time, you will see the positive impacts both for your organisation – and for your own personal career.

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What career growth should you aspire to?

Using the Expertship model

We use the Expertship model to evaluate expert ambition. It’s a new way of thinking about the role of the expert. Technically, it’s what HR teams call a capability framework: a description of the skills, knowledge and behaviours that individuals and organizations need to get their jobs done. Capability frameworks have existed for people leaders for decades. Technical experts have had their own competency frameworks as well, but typically they were only used to evaluate technical competence. In fact, when we undertook a global search for a capability framework for experts that included more than technical competence, much to our surprise, we couldn’t find one. So the Expertship Model was born. What we’ll discuss now is our third iteration. Thank you the experts and organisational development folk who have helped us refine the model over the last few years. They have been immensely helpful, and we look forward to your suggestions as well.

The three levels of Expertship

Everyone, whatever their line of work, needs a description of what ‘good’ looks like. This is as true of experts as it is of people leaders. We might argue even more needed.

In sports, there are many statistics, quoted constantly, that describe how well one player performed against another. In many sports there are also different levels of play. In Association Football (soccer, for those outside Europe), typically teams are organized into different leagues. The highest performing teams are grouped together in the Premiere League, with less well performing teams relegated to the Championship and League One (in the UK, at least). Divisions provide an indication of the level of quality at which you play.

Professionals armed with a guide to the capabilities they need to be successful at different levels of performance are able to self-assess or get feedback from colleagues or their manager on the level at which they currently operate. They can then strategically plan to acquire further knowledge and skills that will advance them up the levels to mastery at the highest level.

The Expertship Model has three levels of capability. These describe the levels at which experts typically operate, and the fourth describes derailing behaviors that can get in the way of experts performing well.

 

Expertship level one: The specialist

The lowest performance level in the Expertship Model is Specialist. Those we have worked with who profile at this level are often starting out in their expert career or have possibly recently switched roles into a new or adjacent technical domain. They perform very transactional work, usually work that is directed to them by others.

Acquiring knowledge, skills and experience is often the main focus of their attention, learning from mistakes, and shadowing more experienced experts to understand how and why they operate in the way they do. Specialists tend to work with a strong internal focus. Many specialists work in backroom roles, with little external contact either outside their department or the organization. Specialists are typically learning their trade.

There is nothing inherently wrong with operating at the Specialist level of Expertship – it is simply a stage on the way to greater mastery of domain expertise.

Most experts operating at the Specialist level have a burning ambition to attain a higher level of capability as quickly as possible. It is important to note that traditionally these experts have imagined that this will be achieved purely by the acquisition of more technical expertise. But a scan of the Expertship Model shows them that broader enterprise skills also need to be acquired. This is an insight that usually accelerates their career for reasons we will discuss throughout the piece.

Expertship level two: the Expert

The second level of Expertship is the Expert level.

At the expert level, we describe very capable experts, typically with a great deal of experience, skills and knowledge. The work done by experts at this level is very varied. Plenty of tactical and transactional work still needs to be, but occasionally this will be supplemented with some strategic or long-range work.

Much of the work is still reactive rather than proactive, but greater exposure to colleagues outside the technical department and possibly outside the organization takes place. At the Expert level there will be a focus on continuous improvement and productivity outcomes but the main focus will remain at the departmental rather than what we call the ‘Enterprise’ level.

The vast majority of experts we have worked with over the last few years have profiled at the Expert level of the Expertship Model. And the vast majority of them felt they were operating at the highest level of Expertship that they could be. For many, it was a rude shock that we had defined a level of Expertship beyond that.

Expertship: the master expert

The Master Expert works on tasks and projects that are strategic rather than tactical, transformational rather than transactional, and far horizon rather than near.

Master Experts are proactive. They tend to be able to determine their own priorities and work, because they’ve consistently demonstrated the value they add to the rest of the organisation. Master Experts operate across the enterprise, with stakeholders at senior levels in the organization and outside of it. They are focused on internal and external customers.

Given this description, it will be no surprise to read that they are often at the center of innovation projects, and often play the role of catalyst for change. They dream up the future and get buy-in from the rest of the organisation to fund and create it.

What are derailing behaviours?

A derailer is an expert behavior that gets in the way of our progress. We call them derailers because they are like a train coming off a railway track. We don’t call them weaknesses, because weaknesses are often structural and unchangeable. And by comparison, once an expert is aware of the impact a derailing behavior has on their ability to get things done and deliver value, they can quickly adjust that behavior.

Derailers develop for a range of reasons. They can be a manifestation of a particular skill or talent that is deployed too often. Experts like to remind people of how expert they are, and they tend to do this too often. This can be because they lack awareness or don’t understand the negative impact a particular behavior has on their colleagues and other stakeholders. Experts are renowned for ‘knowing best’ because they are, after all, the experts. This means they often stop listening to alternative points of view, particularly if that point of view is expressed by someone who is not perceived to be an expert in their domain.

Many experts do this unconsciously. In the Expertship Model, we have called out a range of behaviors or habits we see as derailers. We do this at a granular level chapter by chapter throughout this book, but in overview, they can be broadly described as having a closed mindset, being unresponsive to client requests, being focused on the past (what worked before), a lack of connection with critical stakeholders, a blame focus, and being very much focused on their own needs rather than the needs of their department, the wider organization, or external stakeholders such as customers.

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How should you evaluate your own performance?

At which level to YOU operate?

The work of experts is highly complex. As you might expect, determining what level you operate at as an expert is complex as well.

The level you operate at is an average of nine different ratings across the nine capabilities of the Expertship Model. By way of an example, one expert we worked with, Tony, was without doubt operating at Master Expert level in two areas of the Expertship Model. When it came to the capability of Expert Knowledge (in the Technical Domain) he had more knowledge, skills and experience in his domain (a specialized field of information technology) than most others, and was applying this knowledge strategically and innovatively on a daily basis. He was the go-to person for the enterprise, and no new technology projects were advanced without getting his input and advice.

This is the mark of a Master Expert.

The same could be said for the capability of Solutioning. Whenever there was a problem that was out of the ordinary or difficult to solve, Tony was the person everyone went to for solutions. Similarly, when the business was trying to predict future challenges and problems, Tony’s input into future solutions was sought out enthusiastically. Tony was known for able to see round corners when it came to predicting future problems with applications and infrastructure.

Again, the mark of a Master Expert.

While it appeared that Tony was on track to be rated Master Expert, it turned out things weren’t quite so rosy in the Relationship Domain. Tony took a close look at the behaviors described at Master Expert level under Stakeholder Engagement and considered that he operated at Expert level. He also noted that he was probably guilty of several derailers when it came to stakeholder engagement (poor external networks and ‘difficult to deal with’).

Derailing behaviors act as negative marks and if you are deploying two of these derailing behaviors occasionally, then in our assessment tool we would drop you down a level of Expertship performance – which is what Tony did. He concluded that he was operating only at Specialist level when it came to the Stakeholder Engagement capability.

You can see from Tony’s example that experts operate at different expert levels in different Expertship capabilities. Your overall rating is an average of all nine capabilities, and most experts need to be operating at Master Expert level in five or more capabilities to achieve the status of being a Master Expert – being the very best expert you can be.

Tony was in many ways quite typical of what we often see. In the past few years we have conducted hundreds of 360 degree multi-rater assessments using the Expertship Model (the feedback tool is called the Expertship360), and many of those assessed score strongly in the technical domain capabilities, but less well in the relationship domain.

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Download your free Personal Growth Guide template for Individual Contributors and Technical Experts