Q: Everyone tells me to be a lifelong learner in order to have a successful career. Now that I’ve been out of college a while, learning has been spotty, just what is needed for my next job or task.
What should I do to actively guide my ongoing professional development? — Celia, 35, project manager
A: Part of your path can be planned and some will depend on serendipity. Be open to both to get the most new learning opportunities.
Start by taking a look around you. What seems most interesting? Whose job do you wish you had? Questions like these can help you form a vision for the future that you can work toward.
Getting more specific, think about what you like about those roles. Learn what you can about how people got where they are now and think about what you’d need to do to get there.
Consider this at multiple levels: experiences and skills, credentials and other personal characteristics.
It appears that your learning and development have been at the experiences and skills level. This is necessary, and is a thread that you can actively manage rather than leaving it to others.
For example, you may have noticed that people in roles you would like need to do a lot of presentations, and you might not be comfortable with that yet.
You can get this experience through volunteering to be the presenter on teams you are on or by getting more experience through a group like Toastmasters.
There may also be technical skills you need. Your actions here should be driven by your learning style and your specific interests. Self-learning through an online platform or even YouTube videos may fill the gaps. Or you may want to take formal courses if you are looking at a more extensive need.
Credentials can provide a useful shorthand to indicate your skills, and may be necessary for some roles. Most disciplines within a company (HR, project management, etc.) have unique credentials, so learn about those that would be valuable for your desired new direction.
This can be especially helpful if you are considering a lateral move and need additional credibility to sell yourself as a strong candidate.
Grow as a professional in less tangible ways, too. It’s a truism that leaders can be found at all levels. However, if you are not behaving as a leader in your current role, you won’t be perceived as leadership material.
This means that, if you are uncomfortable making decisions, managing conflict or demonstrating other important leadership characteristics, you will want to address these deficits. The good news is that this will also help you in other aspects of life.
Finally, take advantages of the surprise opportunities that come along. You might be asked to join a team, take on a project or attend a meeting. Rather than holding back, say yes to these invitations. Let the unforeseen take you in new directions; have a vision, but don’t lock it down.
And stay curious. The more you are inquiring, asking people interesting questions and showing a desire for growth, the more the people around you will recognize your potential and give you the opportunities to learn and grow that you crave.