Professional development has become a topic of great interest to HR professionals. You might even say it’s become a buzzword in certain fast growth industries like SaaS. One of the driving forces behind this trend in learning and development is that millennials now form the largest majority of the workforce, and they crave more constant feedback than ever before. Every millennial was subjected to leadership development programs and lunch and learns from their elementary school days. Can we really blame them for wanting to learn, adapt and grow in a purposeful way? And they’re not the only ones who crave feedback. At a time when unemployment is low, it’s natural for employees of all ages to hit the throttle on their career and seek opportunities for growth.
There’s a lot of myth surrounding what professional development is and what it does for employees. Professional development takes on the shape of its unique organization, which could account for some of the confusion. A highly structured company may have a manager track and corresponding training program, whereas a more diverse, flexible organization may have a simple feedback system and a highly specialized workforce may have trainers who provide in-depth learning solutions for teams directed at compliance or industry trends. What all professional development programs have in common though, is their purpose.
Individuals with a growth mindset are more productive, more engaged, better problem solvers and take more worthwhile risks. The companies who foster these individuals see the most growth and long-term health. Professional development takes a proactive approach to attracting, growing and retaining the best people. By bringing employees’ personal goals and the organization’s goals into alignment, you have a recipe for success.
Whether it’s lack of resources, changing infrastructure or another roadblock, if your employer doesn’t currently offer formal professional development initiatives, fear not. There are several things you can do right now to learn, grow and move towards a fulfilling career.
Be hungry, not hangry
How you approach opportunities and position yourself is just as impactful as how hard you work or what technical skills you develop. Most of us follow one of two instincts once we feel “stuck” in our job. We either look for an opportunity outside our current company or we stay and begin blaming the people and circumstances around us for limiting our ability to grow. But what if there’s a third way? What if instead of leaving or becoming bitter, you could unstick yourself?
When you take on a learning and supportive posture, you become an asset to everyone around you. By gathering and implementing feedback, you can position yourself to naturally grow your role, hone your current skills and even ask for a raise. When you submit a project, pitch a new idea at work, request resources or broach a difficult conversation, ask the people you’re working with for feedback on how you’re doing.
Getting feedback should only take five minutes and doesn’t need to be formal. Get feedback from your peers and other departments, not just your supervisor. Take notes to reflect on as immediately as possible. Ask open-ended questions (e.g. “How do you think that went?” and “What could I do better in the future?”) and if you need more clarity, ask follow-up questions.
When interpreting the feedback, ask yourself: Do I communicate in a clear and compelling way? Are there areas of my job where I need to improve my skills? Do I need to slow down (be more thorough), speed up (be more proactive) or keep a consistent pace? Do I have all the information I need to effectively tackle what I’m trying to do or do I need to do more research?
You can track your own competencies and the progress you need to make even if your organization doesn’t have a formal performance management process. Give yourself achievement markers and dates for completion. When you’ve reached all the goals you’ve set for yourself and feel that the majority of your feedback is positive, ask your manager for a meeting to discuss the next challenge (i.e. promotion, new project, etc.). By asking for feedback and seeking constant improvement, you demonstrate humility, adaptability and the ability to advance the organization by owning your own growth and development.
Practice your talk show host skills
Take everyone you possibly can out to coffee or lunch, including senior leaders. If someone responds to an invite saying that they don’t have time to meet with you, tell them you understand and respect their time and ask when a better time would be to meet them for 15–20 minutes. Perhaps they can spare a minute in the early morning (especially if you’re nice enough to bring in their favorite drink order first-thing), or maybe they’re open to you shadowing them even if they’re not a big talker.
Ask people out from different departments who look different than you or do work that you don’t understand or don’t think you’re interested in. You may be shocked by how much you can learn and relate to them and you may even find inspiration or direction that you’ve been looking for.
The point is to learn from absolutely everyone. Don’t expect the people around you to make a priority of teaching you. While it’s reasonable that your teammates collaborate and offer help when necessary, not everyone in the organization has the same responsibility to you. It’s up to you to create a network of mentors and to soak up everything that you can by being bold, curious and engaging.
Network like your net worth depends on it
Networking is not about using people. Let’s start there. If your philosophy around networking is just doing someone a favor so they owe you one or getting as many business cards at happy hours as possible, then you’re going to be out of luck when you try to cash in your chips.
People can see when you’re being disingenuous and that causes immediate distrust. If your network doesn’t know the quality of your work or your character, they’re no good to you—now—or in the future.
You have to build true, two-way relationships. So how do you do that? Pay attention to people. Ask them about their weekend plans, what’s stressing them or how you can help them during the week. Find ways to go above and beyond for others (even when you just met them). Think about how you could advance someone else or make their day a little brighter, before thinking about your own desires and career goals.
Let your work speak for itself. If it’s not your direct supervisor or department head, don’t bring up your accomplishments. It doesn’t matter how humble you think your brag is; it’s tacky. You can, however, explain the nature of your role and what you hope to do as your next career move. Focus on the next step you’d like to take—something feasible in the short term—not your ultimate goal. This opens the door for people to connect you to current opportunities that they know of. And if you’ve shown your true character, they’ll have more confidence to recommend you.
Don’t let comparison derail you
Remember that there is room for everyone at the table. Someone else’s success has nothing to do with you. While tempting, it’s unhelpful and inaccurate to believe that someone else’s win means your loss.
We have a tendency to take on a “poverty mentality,” which suggests that we have to “fight” or compete for the opportunities we want. With this kind of perspective, it’s a zero-sum game, resulting in a constant and full tilt of the justice scale. Either you win or they win; no win-win can exist.
Not only does this increase cut-throat behavior and unhealthy work environments, it can also promote self-pity and destroy your motivation. Though it may feel like your journey is longer or harder than the person’s you’re comparing yourself to, remember that everyone has put in effort that you’re not aware of. And just because your peer got a promotion or an accolade doesn’t mean that you don’t also deserve it. Your opportunity could be just around the corner and a sour attitude will only get in your way.
Prioritize your own professional development
Your career success is your responsibility and no one else’s. Don’t expect someone to prioritize your development—even your manager. If you don’t, no one else will.
Remember that focused effort and learning from your mistakes is more valuable than talent or “innate” intelligence. Tracking your own projects, results and lessons learned in a work journal can help you learn and improve. Whatever tool or process you choose, carve out time each week to reflect on your performance so that you can increase your self-awareness and take appropriate steps to self-manage.
Great performers may have coaches and trainers, but the best players don’t improve their performance just by showing up and receiving instruction. They set their goals, intentionally learn from their own experience and that of others, develop a support network and stay relentlessly positive. Adjust your behavior accordingly until you achieve your desired results. And then repeat.