Taking control of your professional development

The sad truth is that many companies don’t take professional development seriously, rare are those companies that make it a priority and don’t just say “it will happen on the job”. It is a shame, because without training, there is no growth for the employees and the business.  

Most employees are pretty much at the mercy of their company’s budget for professional development, and the willingness of their leader to help them grow. This might work for some, but for designers that are eager to develop new skills, this sort of situation is a serious setback. 

What are the options for designers that want to grow? 

A first step, is to stop outsourcing growth and professional development to the company you work for. Relying solely on your employer is like putting all your eggs in the same basket and hope that everything will go well. Here is the catch; you need to diversify your options when it comes to career.

Taking charge of your professional development will remove most of the frustrations. This means sometimes covering all the expenses for your growth. The possibilities will be limited by your budget, but this is a reality you will also face in your company. The only difference when you are taking charge, is that; there is no red tape, no delay, and no-one to convince. Everything is now under your control.

The cost of professional development can be high, and to bring clarity on how much to invest in your growth, you can start by seeing yourself as a business. Think about it this way, if you reinvest a portion of what you earn in your professional development, you will acquire new skills that will enable you to become more valuable to companies or clients. This will also give you the possibility to charge more for your work; more expertise, bigger fees. It is a win-win situation.

You can also circumvent the need to spend your own money in professional development by working for amazing leaders or companies that will sponsor your training, but this is easier said than done. So far, I have worked with some amazing leaders that transformed my life, and gave me the kick in the butt I needed. They took the time to find a budget for my growth and send me to workshops and training sessions that were very useful. Sadly these people are rare, and they are themselves at the mercy of their company’s budget for training.

What is even rarer, is to be constantly surrounded by great leaders covering the entire lifespan of your career. Having a career where you had only leaders that did everything they could to help you grow, is not an easy goal to achieve. Even if have leaders that are willing to help you for half of your career, that still leaves you with another half where nothing happens. Again this might work for some, but for others it is a missed opportunity. Considering that a career can span over 30 years, that’s 15 years where no one really looked into your growth. Hence the point; take control of your personal growth as soon as you can.

What are the strategies you can use to take control of your professional development?

First embrace the fact that you, and only you, is in charge of your growth. Taking control of that aspect of your career can make a serious difference. 

Here are some professional development strategies that you can control: 

  • If you are not finding anyone that inspires you in your company, hire a coach or a mentor, and don’t be shy to pay for their services. These people are truly interested in you, and they will give you a lot more than you think.
  • Go to a workshop run by the best in your industry. I recall the time when I met Jeff Patton, his workshop was probably 10 times more valuable than his book because I could experience first hand all the tools and techniques he talked about in his book.
  • Meet people that you admire, it might sound crazy, but try. You will be surprised by who you can access and how they can inspire you.
  • If you like reading, buy books about the skill you want to learn, and set time aside to read. This also works with magazines or podcasts.
  • Attend Meetup and ask questions to those attending about how they develop their knowledge. 

These are all strategies that you can control without the intervention of your employer.

Now let’s look at approaches that you can influence: 

  • Assess if your company offer a professional development program, or funding that you can access. A company that has a friendly approach to professional development will make it visible. They will also remind you to take the time to develop your skills, and give you that time.
  • If you are not sure about your company’s professional development strategy for employees, proactively go to your leader and propose a course or workshop you would like to attend. There is nothing wrong in asking. 

How can you measure the effectiveness of your profesional development? 

Start by setting yourself a goal, and attach an achievable timeline to it. A timeline will ensure that you are not spending too much time on acquiring a new skills, because you can’t know everything and it is very easy to think that it will takes years before mastering something new. It is true that it takes time to master your craft, but there is nothing wrong to set yourself a deadline when learning something new and refine that new skill throughout your career. Here is an example of a professional development goal with a timeline:

I want to learn about running a card sorting, and make good use of the results. So I will start by talking to a senior UX researcher, and read a book about it. I will also need to practice with someone that has more experience than me, and then practice on my own. I am giving myself one month to accomplish all of this.

A key element to your growth, is to make sure you are progressing in your career, and that your investment in professional development gives you returns that align with your goals. If there are no returns, you might want to reassess how you went about acquiring and using new knowledge.

To make sure you are putting enough effort in your professional growth, track the time you are investing on a yearly or quarterly basis. You can also set aside a yearly budget at the beginning of the year, and track the spending of that budget. This sort of tracking will also simplify your tax return, because professional development is tax deductible in most cases.

How can you detect an ineffective professional development strategy? 

A while back I worked with Mark (name changed), a fantastic colleague that loves learning new things and that was also an avid reader. When I first met Mark, he was enthusiastically reading books about his trade, business, and leadership. Every single day on his commute, he was reading something.

A couple of years later I saw Mark again, I naturally asked him what he was reading, and something unexpected happened. After hearing my question, the look on his face changed and he sighed. He told me that he was taking a break from reading. At first I was really surprised, so I asked him why he was taking a break. The reason was simple, he told me that reading all these books was great, but that didn’t bring him any value. He felt that reading was becoming a waste of time.

I felt for Mark, because he spent all that time reading without getting the results he was expecting. Interested, I asked him questions, and what I realised is that Mark didn’t have any professional development goals nor the canvas to practice what he was learning. Instead, he was passively acquiring knowledge without making use of it. He was reading all these books, without actually taking the time to pause, practice, and assess if the results of his practice were aligned with his goals. Having no goals inevitably led him to feel depleted.

Without clear professional development goals, the time to practice, and ability to measure what you are trying to achieve, you can end up wasting a great deal of time, and money.

To conclude

Take control of your professional development and become accountable for your own growth. Investing in your own growth might mean stopping to exclusively rely on the company you work for, and start diversifying by personally investing in your development. To become accountable for your own growth, set yourself a goal with an achievable timeline. You will also need to pause, practice what you have learnt, measure your progress, and make sure that it remains aligned with your goal.

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