Career Development 101: A Step-by-Step Guide

By Mike Simpson

Most working-age adults have heard about the importance of career development. The thing is, a surprising number don’t know what it involves, and many more have no idea how to create a functional career development plan that can turn their dreams into a reality.

Luckily, you’ve got us. Think of us as your one-stop career development center. We’re here to go over all of the ins and outs, ensuring you can keep moving in the right direction.

So, if you want to learn more about career development goals, plans, and opportunities, you’re in the right place. Here’s what you need to know.

Basics of Career Development

Overall, 30 percent of working Americans view their job as something that just gets them by. They don’t see their role as either a career or steppingstone toward something better. Kind of sad, right? We think so.

Couple that with the fact that 41 percent of workers say their career stalled during the pandemic – and a startling 9 percent said they actually went backward – and the picture can seem pretty bleak.

Thankfully, by taking ownership of your career development, you don’t have to get trapped in a job that’s getting you nowhere.

But what is career development? Well, according to the Cambridge Dictionary, it’s “the process of learning and improving your skills so that you can do your job better and progress to better jobs.” While that’s certainly a simple definition, it’s also a really good starting point.

Usually, there is a bit more to it. Career development can also mean getting away from jobs that only let you get by and into opportunities that offer you greater fulfillment. It’s about developing a skill set that helps you get closer to your dreams, including your ideal duties, lifestyle, environment, and financial situation.

Is career development the same as career planning? No, not really. Career planning is more about creating a functional roadmap that gets you from where you are to where you want to be. Career development is actually walking that path, acquiring the skills and experience you need to progress.

Essentially, career development is more action-oriented. You aren’t just figuring out where you want to go; you’re seizing opportunities that let you get there.

So, when do you need to start thinking about career development? Well, the best answer is now; think about it now.

This is one of those things where the earlier you start, the better off you are. By beginning right away, you can achieve your goals as soon as possible.

If I’ve been working for a while, is it too late to begin? Never! If you aren’t ready to leave the workforce yet, then it isn’t too late to start.

So, whether you’re just entering the workforce or have been working for years, it’s the perfect time to start identifying and capturing career development opportunities. It’ll get you on the path toward your goals, and that’s what it’s really all about.

Alright, what’s the best way to get started with career development? Are there certain methods or strategies that you should use?

Overall, there are quite a few approaches to skill cultivation that can do the trick, offering you very similar results. Some of the most classic examples of development opportunities include:

    • Stretch Projects
    • Company-Provided Training
    • Formal Classes
    • Degree Programs
    • Certifications
    • Independent Study
    • Mentorships
    • Internships
    • Apprenticeships
    • Bootcamps
    • Job Shadowing
    • Promotions
    • Lateral Moves

All of those can be great for taking your career to the next level. What usually varies is accessibility. Essentially, some will be easier to work into your life than others, so the ones that fit best may be better options for you.

There are some situations where only specific approaches will do. While employers are largely getting more flexible, some companies are still pretty rigid about their requirements. For example, you might need a particular degree or certification to land your dream job with that employer.

Initially, that may seem like a bad thing. But it can actually be a positive, as you know precisely what you need to do to qualify.

MIKE'S TIP: If you have your eye on one role with a specific company, then you’ll need to do what they ask when it comes to degrees and certifications. But if you’re more flexible, don’t see that requirement as an obstacle. Instead, research competitor job openings for the same position to see if they are more open-minded. You may find that what’s required in one place isn’t necessary in another, allowing you to use alternate paths to get where you want to be.

Ultimately, consider what options will help you acquire the necessary skills and meet the requirements of your dream position. Then, choose from the eligible approaches, opting for the ones that work best for you.

Career Development Mistakes

As with all things in the world of work, it’s possible to career development mistakes. Usually, the biggest ones involve the goals you set.

First, vague goals won’t help you stay focused. Second, overly lofty goals can actually be discouraging.

In the end, you want your objectives to be challenging but attainable. Additionally, they need to be specific, giving you a particular target to concentrate on as you make decisions about the skills you develop.

However, those aren’t the only possible missteps. While career development can feel like a one-person show at times, it really isn’t. Cultivating strong connections with people also matters. Why? Because that’s where some career development opportunities come from.

Your network is an incredibly powerful tool. It may help you find a mentor, give you the inside track on open positions, or secure you referrals for promotional opportunities. Your network at work gets you access to the best projects, allowing you to hone your capabilities while on the job.

Make sure you focus on building meaningful connections with others. That way, when you need your network’s help to move forward, it’ll be there.

Also, when you’re creating a career development plan, try not to be too rigid. As we mentioned above, a number of paths can potentially lead to success. Don’t get stuck on the idea that there’s only one way to get where you want. If you do, you may miss out on development opportunities because they didn’t fit in the mold you created.

Step-by-Step Guide to Career Development

1. Figure Out Where You Are Right Now

Before you do anything else, spend some time figuring out where you are today. Reflect on your skills, identify your strengths and weakness, and define your values.

Additionally, spend some time deciding what you do and don’t need from your job. Outlining your requirements and preferences can give you a ton of useful insights.

Finally, consider what you are and aren’t able to do to keep your career moving forward. For example, is going back to school something you’re willing to take on, both commitment-wise and financially? Are you okay with taking a lower-paying position if it would help you get where you want to be?

Be painfully honest with yourself during this step. That way, you can get a real picture before you move forward.

2. Create a Career Plan

Your career plan gives you direction, allowing you to figure out the kind of career development opportunities you need to pursue. We’ve taken a deep dive into the world of career planning before, giving you a full overview of how to complete this crucial step.

Here’s a quick overview of what you’ll need to do at this point:

    • Investigate Career Options
    • Narrow Down the List
    • Define Your Goals
    • Create a Timeline

There are other steps that you’ll want to do to finish up your career plan. However, they cross over a bit with what’ll you’re doing here to complete your career development plan, so you really only need to focus on the four above before you can move forward with this.

3. Figure Out How to Acquire the First Skill You Need

After you get the foundation of your career plan handled, it’s time to focus on the first skill on the timeline. You’re not going to worry about learning it just yet. Instead, you want to see what options are available for acquiring it.

Refer to our list above as a starting point and decide which ones may do the trick. Next, take a deeper dive into those options. Figure out if there is a cost involved, whether accessing that option is easy or difficult, how much time that route would take, and whether you would have to do the work on the job or during your off-duty time.

Once you’ve done that, see which options fit best into your life. If a few could work, then take time to consider your learning preferences. Not everyone learns best using the same methods, so reflect on how you acquire new knowledge best and see if you can get the list pared down further.

At this point, you should know which path is a better fit. When you do, dig into it even deeper, ensuring you are prepared to take action.

4. Go Get That Skill

Thanks to the step above, you now have a plan for that specific skill. So, put it into action. Go get that skill using the method you chose.

As you do, make sure you take notes whenever you have a new achievement. That way, you’re building a list of accomplishments that you can add to your resume later, making it easier once it’s time for a new job search.

5. Evaluate Your Progress

Once you’ve acquired that new skill, it’s time to evaluate your progress. Essentially, you’re repeating step one of this guide, taking stock of where you are now since your situation has changed.

However, this usually won’t require the same deep dive. Instead, it’s just a quick assessment, allowing you to take stock in the progress you’ve made.

6. Update Your Resume

Okay, this step may seem a bit odd if you aren’t ready to go after a new job yet. However, it’s best to view your resume as a living document. By updating it every time you acquire a new skill, your resume will always be ready to go.

Whether it’s time for a job hunt or an amazing opportunity crosses your path, with just a few tweaks, your application will be ready. It’s a much more efficient way to do it, so why not make it a habit today?

7. Move onto the Next Goal

At this point, you can look back to your career plan for guidance. Figure out what step comes next. If it’s time for another new skill, then repeat part of this process, beginning with step three. If it’s time for something else, like a new job, then launch your search.

8. Go Back to Step One Yearly (or After a Big Step Forward)

Career development is a continuous process for a few reasons. One, you’ll make progress over time, and you need to factor that in. Two, your needs, preferences, or goals may chance, making an update necessary.

Each year, go back to step one. That way, you can make sure your career development goals are still a good fit. If they aren’t, then update them accordingly.

Additionally, if you take a big step forward – planned or otherwise – it isn’t a bad idea to repeat the process. Again, it lets you ensure you have everything in order, allowing you to stay on target.

Putting It All Together

Ultimately, career development is crucial if you want to succeed professionally. Use the tips above to figure out where you are and how to get to where you want to be. That way, you won’t spend time working in something that’s just a job. Instead, you’ll have your dream career.

Good luck!

About The Author

Mike Simpson

Co-Founder and CEO of Mike is a job interview and career expert and the head writer at His advice and insights have been shared and featured by publications such as Forbes, Entrepreneur, CNBC and more as well as educational institutions such as the University of Michigan, Penn State, Northeastern and others. Learn more about The Interview Guys on our About Us page.