Make Professional Development Less Work and More Fun
People like to learn and grow. This is generally true from our earliest days through our last days.
In the workplace, however, this desire for learning gets lost. It isn’t generally due to a lack of opportunity. Companies spend large amounts to create training options for employees, from online classes to extensive leadership development programs. Studies consistently show that growth is the most important variable in employee retention. Younger generations are even more likely to value personal growth over increased pay at work.
So, if we like to learn and learning is available, why is corporate training so often seen as ineffective – and even unwelcome? HR leaders can tell you they are dinged if they offer programs and dinged if they don’t. People say they want skills training then don’t show up to programs or complain about the extra commitment.
Many programs aren’t set up to work with how adults want to learn. Adult learning theories show that internally motivated, self-directed learning is the most successful and rewarding. If something feels forced or arbitrary, people rebel, often in passive-aggressive ways.
Yet, people also get so locked into negative impressions about the value of a program that they don’t come in with an open mind and thus, get what they expect. You can be exposed to the best opportunities and not take advantage of them.
If you want to grow professionally and truly expand your capacity, then take the reins. Most professionals have both opportunity and motivation, they just need to adjust how they orient themselves to learning so it becomes energizing. Consider these guidelines:
Determine what skills you’re excited (versus supposed) to learn.
Work life is full of “shoulds.” People have many ideas about what someone in their role should be learning, whether it’s a new software package or how to motivate a team. Too often, what you feel like you have to learn isn’t what you want to learn, and this makes growth exponentially harder.
Do the upfront thinking work to determine what you’re excited to develop. Adults typically enjoy learning what’s immediately relevant, practical and applicable, so that may be a good place to start. Make a list, notice how you feel about the options, and rank them accordingly. Start with the areas that seem exciting, interesting or fun. This doesn’t mean that you won’t ever have to learn any of the “shoulds” but if you start in a topic that intrigues you, you’re more likely to gain context that makes other skills more interesting.
Find out what’s available from your company, and also consider alternatives.
Most professionals don’t see how much their company actually supports in the training and development areas. Whether from lack of marketing from HR or overwhelm from the employee base, there tends to be a gaping hole of information around learning. If you have a skill you’d like to pursue, start by going to your company and asking if they support any related programs. You may be surprised at your options.
Additionally, there are countless options outside your company if you want to go in a different direction or there’s nothing internal that fits. There are free and paid independent training programs, leadership coaches, university sponsored sessions, and public access Ivy-league classes. There are so many options it can be overwhelming. Do some crowdsourcing by asking around to see what your peers have found interesting. Whether it’s inside or outside of your company, your time is valuable so choose what appeals to you.
Be honest with yourself about how you prefer to learn.
We all have ideas for what we’d love to do if only time and money were no object. But they are likely big objects! Be realistic about how you prefer to learn given your current situation. Sure, devoting one week a month to attend a leafy college campus’s leadership program might seem like just what you need, but if you never find the right time then it stays an idea. The same is true for online learning – it’s easy to sign up and just as easy to blow off.
Do you learn best in-person or virtually? Are you a reader or do you prefer experiential learning? How much time can you devote without feeling resentful? Will you embrace homework or never do it? What type of learning cohort would you find most valuable?
Make the barrier to commitment, and growth, as low as possible for yourself by selecting learning options that work with your learning style. This doesn’t mean that you can’t try new things, just that you’re honest about what’s likely to work and what’s a stretch.
Adopt the attitude that you can always learn something new.
Having spent time in programs with thousands of leaders from their 20s to their 70s, I’ve seen how genuine curiosity and an openness to learning greatly impacts growth. Some people, regardless of their expertise or success, take a posture that they can always learn something new. They show up to learn, and the funny thing is that everyone learns the most from them. They ask questions, share, interact with others and contribute to the greater learning environment. They take responsibility for their own learning, and seek out what’s relevant. They expect to grow, and they give themselves the space to do it.
You never know what you can learn when you begin a development opportunity. It might be from the instructor or the person sitting next to you. It could be a new tool (i.e. a delegation model), or an epiphany due to your reaction against that new tool (i.e. I no longer enjoy management). You may not know walking in the door, and that’s the opportunity. Because when we put ourselves in environments that are conducive to learning, and we look for places to expand ourselves, we exponentially increase our chances of growth. If you believe that process is valuable, it will be.
This post also appears on Forbes.com.
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