Defining your role and development objectives

This article considers the importance of setting personal development objectives. We highlight the significance of aligning your team's and your personal aims to your organisation’s goals and examine ways to ensure every objective you pursue gives valuable personal growth.

Organisations change and so does the law. This means you need to be continually developing personally to meet ever-evolving challenges. If you are not consciously learning all the time, then you are probably going backwards. Successful personal growth starts with the setting of relevant and achievable objectives which allow you both to keep up with change and then to grow.

What success looks like – and how to achieve it

Whatever your role, you’ll want to know what success looks like.

In most cases, success comes from a combination of how you use your skills and knowledge and the behaviours and attitudes you adopt. Although your organisation’s competencies and the SRA’s Statement of Solicitor Competence will provide a broad indication of what is expected of you, you should focus on discussing your role with your manager and your internal clients. This will help you to identify what constitutes success in your role and define the benchmark for your performance.

Have regular performance discussions

Regular performance conversations are a great way to keep your development on track. Traditionally these conversations have taken the form of the annual appraisal. However, in recent years, we’ve seen increasing movement away from this approach. Instead, organisations are having regular or ongoing conversations with their employees about their performance. And the results have been positive. Because people are discussing their performance in the moment, or very close to it, they’re able to use that conversation to move forward. Note, the focus here is on future performance, not on dwelling on the past. This approach has improved motivation, enhanced engagement and proved good for business.

Your performance discussions can include work in progress as well as longer-term objectives, career aspirations, new challenges and conversations about your strengths and development areas.

Setting your objectives

As an in-house lawyer, you’ll no doubt pursue a multitude of objectives as you strive to develop your individual abilities and expertise.

You can divide these objectives into three areas of focus:

  • Career development;
  • Skills or knowledge development; and
  • Behaviour change.

It’s also helpful to have a mix of short-term and long-term objectives. While it’s natural to focus on your perceived weaknesses, it’s equally important to build on your existing strengths - because it is a balanced and accurate self-view - neither an inflated one nor an inaccurately depressed one that matters.

A strengths-based approach recognises that we all have various strengths that we can use in the workplace. It also acknowledges that we should have the opportunity to use those strengths in our day-to-day roles. This motivates us and helps us perform at our best possible level. It doesn’t mean there won’t be aspects of our role we don’t enjoy, but it brings balance to the role.

When setting your objectives, you may find it helpful to have a "growth focus" (see below) as this will enable you to make your learning explicit.

Commercial organisations have, for many years now, used SMART objectives. These are goals that are:

  • Specific;
  • Measurable;
  • Achievable;
  • Realistic; and
  • Time bound.

Too often though, people have treated outcome-focused objectives as a box-ticking exercise. Although, they may have achieved the objective, they’ve not received the real benefit because the learning that underpinned the success has not been articulated or celebrated because the real value of the achievement has not been recognised.

By adopting a growth objective, you can achieve both the desired outcome and personal development. To make this as valuable as possible, aim to align your growth objective to the organisation’s wider strategy.

Here’s an example of how you can build a growth objective into a SMART objective.

The SMART objective

By the end of September, I will have presented on xyz topic at three conferences.

The growth objective

By the end of September , I will have presented on xyz topic at three conferences. By doing this I will have:

  • Developed my research skills and my understanding of the xyz topic;
  • Developed my presentation skills to large audiences of professionals;
  • Learned how to boost my confidence when presenting;
  • Raised my profile among my wider peer group; and
  • Raised awareness about my organisation and its brand.

The key to developing your growth objectives is to define your learning needs and align them to the organisation’s goals. To get started, ask yourself these questions:

  • How will I grow if I set and work towards this objective?
  • What are the steps I need to achieve this objective?
  • What have I learned?
  • What competencies does this learning align with?
  • What will I need to do to reinforce this learning?
  • What will this learning let me do next?
  • How am I going to recognise and be recognised (not necessarily financially rewarded) for successfully achieving this objective?

And don’t stop when you’ve achieved the objective. Maximise your learning by considering the 70:20:10 model.

Learning and development: the 70:20:10 model

Training and learning are essential if we are to continually build our skills, further our knowledge and develop our behaviours. In our complex and busy work environments, finding the time to attend training courses on a regular basis can be impossible. One approach that recognises this is the 70:20:10 model. This was developed by the Centre for Creative Leadership, which, in its research, found that:

  • 70% of learning takes place on the job;
  • 20% takes place socially through mentors, coaches, role models and discussions;
  • 10% is gained through formal events like workshops, courses and formal education.

Of course, the exact percentages will vary depending on your organisation and your role. However, when considering your development, you may find useful to think of how you can achieve specific objectives through 70:20:10. In our growth objective example above, you might develop your presentation skills in a number of ways, such as:

  •  Shadowing someone (20%);
  • Watching online videos (10%);
  • Practicing at team meetings and asking for feedback (70%).

Develop your own mix of 70:20:10 to find the combination that works for you.

Develop a growth mindset

Carol S. Dweck, the Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, is noted for her work on the mindset psychological trait. Through her research, Professor Dweck has found that a growth mindset has a big impact on our potential to achieve our goals.

A growth mindset is based on a simple premise: that our abilities and intelligence are not fixed and that our performance is based on hard work and continuous learning.

Having a growth mindset, means continuously challenging yourself and learning from your mistakes. This means not being afraid of making mistakes and being honest with yourself and others when you have made them so that you can learn lessons, correct the mistake and move on. It’ll be visible to your colleagues through your approach to your work, your perseverance in the face of frustration and the effort you put in to get the job done and your objectives met.

In this context it is worth remembering three things:

  • Most successful companies only remain successful by experimenting and evolving. This means that they make mistakes and learn from them. This is part of "business risk appetite" - if you do not evolve, you will ultimately fail - but evolving is not risk free. So businesses understand experiments, learning, risks and mistakes and should not be surprised or afraid if, occasionally, things go wrong for you and/or for your team as part of your learning and evolution. However businesses can be less tolerant if you have conditioned their expectations of what you and your team can do unrealistically or created a lack of empathy for your position through your team's own prior intolerance or attitude over non-negligent mistakes and errors in other parts of the business.
  • Learning is like the practice tightrope in the circus. There has to be a clear focused challenge, a direction, an understandable need for identified skills and enough unique personal endeavour required for the trainee tightrope walker to know that the learning matters. But the safety net needs to be far enough below that it matters not to fall off, but not so far below that it hurts them, their manager, the team or the company. It is rarely wise to get someone to learn new skills (rather than extend existing ones) on a project where failures will matter a lot to the company.
  • It may help to think of the three corners of the "development triangle".  The first corner is your role. This informs the second corner  - the objectives that you must carry out this year to do that role properly. Both your role and your objectives inform the third corner - what training and development needs you have this year in order to perform your role well and to fulfil your specific objectives.

So take control of your career! Work with your boss and with learning and development colleagues in your business to shape and then to help you to deliver and demonstrate SMART success in your personal development plans each year.


The key to realising your full potential begins with your objectives. Factor in your strengths, weaknesses, aspirations and your organisation’s goals when thinking about your personal development. Consider growth objectives alongside SMART objectives to ensure you get long-term benefits from your successes. Also, have regular performance discussions to keep your development on track and develop a growth mindset.