"You might be on the right road...but stand still long enough and you'll get run over."
Never a truer word said.
Do you remember leaving school or university and thinking that exams and assessments would be a thing of the past? It shouldn’t take long to realise that the workplace and running a business can be an equally intense and competitive learning environment. And if you’re honest with yourself, you’ll think that school was the better bet! (Cue lots of people imagining their parents saying, "Make the most of School. You'll miss it when your gone.")
Whether we like it or not, employees are constantly being judged on their capabilities and benchmarked against their peers. And, unlike studying for a qualification, the goalposts in the workplace keep moving, just because of the pace of the business world. This might be because of new technology, customer demand, legislation or simply because there is a new chief executive with a different vision. All these changes invariably have implications for the staff.
Some organisations are good at providing learning opportunities when they can see a direct benefit to the organisation. What’s offered, however, may not always be in line with what you really want or need for your career. So, if you want to protect your employability, you need to take charge of your personal development.
According to a recent Learning Survey by Niace, the adult learning organisation, there’s a strong correlation between learning and sustained employment. Staff who undertake learning activities are more able to adapt to the changing requirements of an organisation and gain a competitive edge in the job market. People who demonstrate that they’re conscientious about their personal development are likely to be seen as highly motivated and engaged. Their openness to learning also suggests they’re flexible, adaptable and will bring a continuous improvement ethos to the workplace – all of which is appealing to an employer.
So, with this in mind, here are some ways to start thinking about your own learning and development.
Enhancing your performance
What areas of your job do you find most difficult or want to improve? For ideas, look at past performance reviews or talk to your manager, colleagues or HR department. Seek advice from those whose skills or career you wish to emulate. Or sit down and work out why you LOVE to do. What you CAN do. And what you CAN do but it’ll take a while to get where you want to be. The later of the three is always better to farm out to others who are more experienced and educated in that filled, but the ‘What you CAN do’ element is the one you want to look at.
Improving the areas you identify may mean going on a course or workshop, or you may find that mentoring, guided reading, work-shadowing, or online study is more relevant. For instance, if you know that negotiation skills are an increasingly important part of your job, perhaps your manager could arrange for you to shadow someone with exceptional skills in this area, or even coach you themselves through your next negotiation skills project.
Benchmarking the job market
When you’re busy at work it’s easy to lose sight of the changing needs of the business market. Periodically check out adverts and person specifications for roles that are either similar to yours or are in line with the role you’re looking for next. Do you have everything they’re looking for? For instance, are your IT skills up to scratch? Could the lack of a professional qualification be an issue if every client or customer seems to be asking for it?
Some professions require a certain amount of professional development every year to retain your status. Whether this is a requirement or not, make sure you’re up-to-date with what’s happening in your field, or you could lose credibility and potentially expose your company to risks. You can keep updated by reading blogs, professional journals or trade press, attending industry events, conferences, workshops or your own research. The rise of webinars, e-newsletters and online forums means it’s easier than ever to participate in learning from your office desk or at home.
Every role requires soft skills to some degree, whether it’s communication skills or handling emotion and conflict in the workplace. If you’re looking to climb the business ladder, then developing people management skills should be an absolute priority. Practical training and coaching are particularly effective, especially if the learner is supported when they come to apply those skills, either through one-to-one coaching or via a supervised network.
Different routes to personal development
Although many people equate learning and development with professional qualifications, there are lots of other routes. For instance, voluntary work can be a great way to develop additional skills. I coached an IT technical professional who was keen to move into management. I recommended that he join the charity committee to widen his exposure to strategic and operational management activities. This experience proved to be instrumental in persuading his organisation of his ability to jump from a technical route to a management career.
Here are some other professional development ideas:
• Reading professional journals, books, research papers, articles etc
• Coaching, mentoring, training courses, academic study, conferences and webinars
• Voluntary work, fundraising and event management
• Research activities, blogging and publishing articles
• Training others and giving presentations or speaking at a conference
• Spending time with other departments, customers, suppliers, trade bodies or stakeholders
• Joining committees, professional associations, campaign groups and participating in industry forums
• Apprenticeships, internships, work shadowing and secondments
• Applying for industry awards or scholarships
Learning and development takes time and energy, and it will sometimes take you out of your comfort zone. If you can keep the learning habit throughout your career, however, you’re far more likely to extend your career longevity, mitigate any risks and improve your employability.