Workforce & Workplace
Create Your Own Professional Development Road Map
Lorna Donatone
Lorna Donatone
CEO, Sodexo Schools Worldwide President, Sodexo North America

We all arrive in the workplace with our own unique set of skills and strengths. To develop your career, you have to develop those skillsets and add new ones. But because each person’s background is different, there’s no single path for professional development that’s right for everyone. What you need to focus on to get to the next level in your career may not be the same thing your colleague needs. You have to develop a unique strategy that’s right for you.

I believe we all should take personal ownership of our professional development. That means it’s your job to determine what skills you need to work on and seek out ways to hone them. Though your plan will be unique, here are a few ideas to keep in mind as you develop it.


One of the most important things you can do to grow in your career is to challenge yourself as much as possible. The simplest way to do this is to seek out projects or assignments that feel like a stretch. Of course, stretching means different things for different people, based on their experiences and skills. The key thing is to find positions, roles or teams that you’re interested in, but that feel a little bit outside of your comfort zone. Raise your hand and volunteer for those roles. I know I’m a better leader now because of the times I’ve done this in my career.

I see some employees hold themselves back from doing this because they’re not sure they’re ready for that next step. But I tell people, “If you think you’re ready, you’re probably ready. Raise your hand.”

I didn’t do enough of this until later in my career, and I wish I’d done it earlier. That’s why I’m such an advocate for it now. I often sit back and I think, “Wow, what If I had figured this out a long time ago.”

Develop soft skills

Don’t think of professional growth only as accumulating more degrees, certificates or technical skills. It’s the soft skills that you need to put effort into developing.

After all, you most likely arrived at your job with a certain set of technical skills already – that’s why you were hired. I started my career as a finance professional, and had the basic skills that come with that. As I progressed in my career, I learned technical things that I didn’t know, mostly on the job. But in my professional development, I focused on learning, “How do I communicate? How do I get others to hear what I’m saying?” The further in your career that you go, the more critically important these skills are.

As you progress, you will learn many more of the hard skills you need for your day to day work. But in addition to those, you need to make sure you learn to communicate effectively and to interact with people. Acquiring and honing those soft skills should make up 75 percent of your career development plan.

Find a mentor

I strongly believe in the value of mentoring. In my experience, mentors are key advocates who can be on your side and in your corner when you need them. For example, they can help you find and secure those stretch assignments that are so crucial to helping you grow as a leader.

Mentors can also serve as an outside voice who can give you an honest assessment of your strengths and weaknesses, and where your skills and interests lie. That means they can help you come up with your professional development plan and see what holes in your skillset you need to fill in.

And if you ever find yourself in a place where you want to go down a different career path or reshape the one you’re on, that outside perspective on your strengths – and where else they could be applied — can be extremely helpful. Because I believe that sometimes we have blinders on to our own skills.

I’d love to hear what career development strategies have worked for you or your employees. Please share your thoughts and ideas in the comments.

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Lorna Donatone is the CEO of Sodexo Schools Worldwide and President of Sodexo North America. Ms. Donatone was honored with the 2015 Trailblazer Award from the Women’s Foodservice Forum and Chairs the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation.  She is on the Board of Directors of Jamba Juice, is a trustee of the Culinary Institute of America, serves on the Tulane Business School Council and Chairs the TCU Business School Board.

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