If one of your resolutions for 2016 was aimed at professional development, there’s still hope.
Even though the so-called “Blue Monday” slump comes this time in January, when punishing winter weather and low light combined with holiday credit card bills conspire to shake the resolve to improve, there is a way to gain new skills that will boost your career. And it isn’t tied to traditional classroom-style programs or seminars. In fact, Liane Davey contends, it’s better to incorporate your professional development education into your regular workday.
Writing in Harvard Business Review, Davey, the author of New York Times best-seller You First, believes that while we often equate this kind of learning with teacher-led structured lessons, it’s better to think of those as a supplement to your professional development.
“You take three risks when you depend on formal courses for nourishment,” she writes. For example, what if your request to take formal leadership training is rejected because there isn’t enough money in your department’s budget this year? On a related note, such training could cost your team. If you take yourself away from the day-to-day duties of your job, others have to pitch in for you. “Finally, focusing on formal development can reinforce a passive mind-set and leave you with the false impression that your development is in someone else’s hands,” Davey writes.
That’s why Davey recommends taking your professional development “on the job,” literally by taking your daily tasks and using them to hone new skills. It’s a mind-set, Davey says. “A team meeting can become a chance to strengthen your communication skills. A morning of returning email can become a chance to apply a new organization system. An afternoon of customer interactions can become a chance to hone your business development pitch,” she explains.
Let’s break it down:
First, pick a skill. This is easier said than done. The biggest reason why people fail to keep their resolutions or build positive new habits is because they aren’t specific. Decades of research shows that simply saying, “I want to do my best,” isn’t a recipe for success. Clearly defining a goal not only serves up a measure of excitement, it crystallizes the end result in our minds, making it easier to work toward.
Davey builds on that by suggesting identifying a skill that’s valued in your organization. Ask HR for a competency model or career ladder that outlines the skills and attributes that are necessary to rise through the ranks. If there isn’t one, she recommends soliciting ideas from your manager or coworkers. “I highly recommend choosing only one—make it a meaty one—and then using it as a theme that will carry you through the year,” she says.
Second, do your homework. There’s no need for a formal classroom when experts abound online. From YouTube videos to blogs, Davey believes, “You have a lifetime of learning at your fingertips.”
In addition to reading up on your selected skill, it’s important to sort the information you’re gathering into bite-sized components for ease of learning. Davey uses the example of improving communication skills by breaking it down to lessons like clarifying writing or improving your listening skills. It doesn’t matter what method you use to keep tabs on everything, but she says keep in mind that “once you zero in on one component, new distinctions will be revealed.”
Third, set benchmarks for progress. It’s important to break down the end goal into bite-sized lessons, and one way to do this is by working backwards, says Davey, “to create a series of small, but meaningful, steps.”
If you are working on improving communication skills, for example, start with email. Could your written correspondence be clearer and more to the point? Then make it a point to keep your total message to just a few sentences by eliminating useless phrases. Build on this achievement by tracking words or phrases that undermine your message. Make a checklist so you can keep track of your progress.
Fourth, ask for feedback. It’s true that we hold ourselves to achievements better once we’ve made them public. Science has shown us that we want our words to match our actions. But it’s also harder to cheat if others know we are working toward something specific.
That said, Davey believes that engaging a colleague can also help push you to meet your goals faster. “Don’t make this formal or cumbersome,” she says, “just a quick check-in.” If you want to work on speaking with clarity and brevity, ask them to note how you did in a meeting by providing a report immediately afterward. “Occasionally, have a lengthier discussion about what your colleague is observing, and what he would recommend you work on next,” she says. Telling your manager what you’re working on is also a good plan, so they too can support your efforts at professional development.
Once you’ve done all you can with the free resources available and applied them to build new skills, Davey advises taking another step. “You’ve earned access to a formal learning program, and you shouldn’t be sheepish about asking for it,” she says. “The good news is that with the investment you’ve already made, you’ll be in a great position to benefit from what you learn.”