Using IDPs to Leverage Strengths

By Don Jacobson

Individual Development Plans (IDPs) have long been used in government as a tool to help employees develop their skills, further their office's mission, and achieve their career goals. Some agencies require all employees to prepare IDPs, while others rarely use them at all. All managers, however, have the option of using IDPs--even in organizations where IDPs are not common.


IDPs are an excellent tool that supervisors can use to develop and motivate their staff. By encouraging a focused approach to each individual's training/developmental needs, managers can help their employees enhance their job skills and become more effective and productive. Managers who promote the use of IDPs also send a clear message to their charges that they view each person's professional development as a priority. If done properly (i.e. with sincerity and follow-through) this tends to be a good motivator for most employees.


Should IDPs Target Strengths or Weaknesses?

Some management experts have become critical of IDPs in recent years. For example, in their book First, Break all the Rules, Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman argue that IDPs are often ineffective because they typically focus too much on addressing employee weaknesses, with the misguided expectation that every employee can master all competencies and become perfectly well-rounded. If an employee has no talent in a given area, they argue, a training course is not going to rewire his brain to make that non-talent into a new strength.


However, far from discouraging anyone from preparing an IDP, such observations should simply help employees prepare more effective ones. The idea that training can help employees become more skilled is axiomatic. And it makes a great deal of sense to create targeted training plans that take into account the needs of each employee and their agency. The key is to identify the kinds of training and developmental opportunities that will boost each employee's performance most effectively.


The ideal IDP should primarily focus on two things: 1) leveraging each employee's strengths/talents, and 2) providing new skills and knowledge that will help the employee perform better in his job. Remedial help for addressing weaknesses should be provided only in the event that the employee has a fatal flaw that will preclude him/her from being successful.


How to Prepare an Individual Development Plan

There is a wealth of literature on how to prepare Individual Development Plans. Some organizations develop such detailed instructions that the guidance itself can actually have the unintended effect of deterring people from preparing IDPs at all. Busy managers typically lack the time to wade through a mountain of material on the subject. Consequently, we will not go into great detail here, but will include some useful links at the bottom of this page for those readers who would like more comprehensive guidance.


Each employee is responsible for developing the substance of his own IDP and then agreeing on its contents with his supervisor. There is no mandatory format or official form. Some agencies do have a recommended form, but a memo works just as well. The key is to assess the employee's training and developmental needs and commit them to paper.

The process of making an effective IDP first involves each employee asking himself the following questions:

  1. What direction is my organization going and what will the organization need from its employees in the future?
  2. What are my goals over the next five years? (This question is crucial to providing a motivational focus for everything the employee does.)
  3. What are my greatest strengths and how can I build on them more effectively? (A 360-degree evaluation or a strengths test can be helpful in this regard.)
  4. Do I have any serious weaknesses that make it difficult to do my job or will prevent me from reaching my goals?


After answering these questions, the employee should try to identify developmental opportunities that will help him build on his strengths in such a way that he can better serve the needs of the organization and reach his goals. Developmental opportunities can take many forms, and a mix of training and experiential learning should be included on the IDP. Besides formal training in a classroom setting (the most common--and costly--option), other excellent developmental opportunities include shadowing of senior executives, mentoring, distance learning through the internet or intranet, assignment to a project team, cross-training, exposure to supervisory responsibilities, involvement in outreach efforts, and temporary assignments in other offices or posts.


Once the employee has drafted his IDP, he should meet with his supervisor to discuss it. The supervisor should offer additional guidance on how to best address questions 1, 3 and 4 above, as appropriate. The supervisor should also provide guidance on the range of training resources that are available, as she may be aware of resources unfamiliar to the employee. The employee's final IDP should be realistic given the office's resources and staffing.


After the employee and supervisor have agreed on the contents of the IDP, they should both sign it. It then becomes a non-binding contract, by which the employee makes a commitment to follow through on the IDP and the supervisor acknowledges the need to make time for him to do so. The IDP should be reviewed and revised periodically to reflect the changing needs of the employee and/or office.


A note of caution: While the IDP is not binding, managers should make every effort to ensure that each employee is given time for the training and developmental opportunities listed on his IDP. Chronic failure to make time for previously agreed upon learning opportunities will breed cynicism and mistrust, completely undermining the IDP's motivational benefits.


Finally, after the employee has attended a training course, it is important to follow up and ensure that he has an opportunity to put the training to good use quickly before the new knowledge and/or skills become a distant memory. This may be a challenge given that an employee who has been out of the office for a week will usually return to find a full in-box. Nevertheless, it is necessary to ensure that the training has the intended benefits for both the employee and the organization.


Additional Information about Individual Development Plans



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