Many organizations promote the use of professional development plans (PDPs) for leaders to continue to grow over time. Formulating a good professional development plan requires a great deal of self-awareness, and there are a number of important action steps to follow when building a plan that makes sense. There are also a few mistakes people often make when developing their plan. Here are a few important ones to watch out for.

Mistakes to Avoid in a Professional Development PlanClinging to a Rigid Career Path

When putting professional development plan ideas together, it’s easy to imagine that people will follow a linear path that’s easy to predict. It could be a simple matter of following an organizational chart to plan advancement or looking at the basic qualifications for a specific dream job. Locking into a rigid career path, however, might make it difficult to identify unexpected opportunities, making it one of the career mistakes to avoid. It also fails to account for the uncertainty of the future. For instance, if a leader develops a plan early in their career, they should keep in mind that the ideal job or position might not even exist in ten years. This is especially true in the technology sector, where industry roles and responsibilities can change very quickly.

By viewing future goals as checkpoints for reassessing a plan, leaders can account for flexible career growth. It also helps to have goals that are not overly dependent upon context. Planning to take on a leadership role in a specific company, for instance, could be a recipe for disappointment if the company goes out of business before that happens. Focusing instead on ascending to leadership in an industry, however, leaves the door open to many possibilities that could accomplish this goal.

A Lack of Focus

At the other extreme, aspiring leaders often make the mistake of not being focused enough when formulating their professional development plan. They may list too many things to work and fail to prioritize anything. Choosing a few specific goals with clear steps for achieving them is a good best practice to avoid this problem. When goals are not clearly identified, it can be hard to determine when they’re close to being achieved. A good professional development plan should always have mechanisms in place to assess progress, whether through quantifiable or observable methods. Working with a supervisor or mentor to implement 360 degree reviews or other tools to measure progress over time is another good strategy for keeping focused on goals.

Over-Idealizing Goals

There is a difference between identifying professional development plan goals that will be fulfilling professionally and fantasizing about the “perfect” job. It’s important to have a realistic view of what a future position will be like ahead of time; otherwise, leaders could be setting themselves up for disappointment and frustration. The world will not stop just because they’ve reached their goal, so they need to be sure to focus on the implications of the goal and not simply on achieving it.

Researching career goals can help to dispel any misconceptions about roles or positions, keeping development focused on skills, competencies, and experience that will help leaders to succeed when they actually reach those milestones. This is one area where working with mentors can be extremely beneficial since they can provide a more realistic picture of what it might be like to actually step into a position.

Failing to Emphasize Soft Skills

While technical skills and experience are often prerequisites to step into many positions, at a certain point career advancement becomes less about specific competencies and more about soft skills, such as one’s ability to influence others, manage conflict, and communicate effectively. Developing emotional intelligence and active listening skills is crucial to becoming a successful leader, but it’s easy to forget about these qualities when looking at the technical skills that might be expected of more senior leadership positions.

The truth of the matter, however, is that soft skills become much more important as leaders advance in their career. Leadership assessments that seek to identify high-potential leaders often focus less on technical know-how and more on qualities like a willingness to learn or a desire to take on new challenges. For that reason, it might make sense to accept a position or take on a role that feels like a lateral career move or even a step back if it means getting the opportunity to develop those vital soft skills.

Forgetting to Involve Other People

Mentors and similar advisors are one of the most valuable resources leaders have when plotting their career development. Unfortunately, people sometimes take a solitary approach, believing they’re better off charting their “own way” or falling into the trap of thinking their goals are so unique that no one could possibly provide useful assistance. But failing to reach out to people who could offer advice and guidance can make pursuing goals much more difficult. In the first place, these potential mentors can help to avoid making time-wasting mistakes in development. They might know, for instance, that an aspiring leader would be better off spending a year or two in a junior position that provides practical experience rather than going back to school for an advanced degree. More importantly, building a relationship with a mentor can put leaders in contact with other people and resources that could help further their development.

A good professional development plan should place special emphasis on identifying potential mentors and coaches in a chosen field. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking these people won’t want to help or don’t have the time to provide guidance, but in reality, many of them will be eager to devote attention to someone who is interested in knowing more about how they reached their position and is seeking advice on career development. Building a relationship with a mentor can also help to reinforce the soft skills that are so essential to leadership success.

While a professional development plan needs to focus on specific steps and provide a blueprint for advancing an aspiring leader’s career, it’s easy to forget a few key factors that are critical to success. By identifying and avoiding these mistakes, leaders can build a plan that provides a comprehensive approach to development and highlights areas of need in both their current and future situations.