Lots of people talk about how important it is to continue developing your skills and knowledge throughout your career, but you hear a lot less about how to do that effectively. Given that there are an infinite number of things out there you *could* learn, what *should* you learn next?
There isn’t a single right answer for everyone. Nor is there a single answer that’s always going to be right for each person throughout their career. But to help you think more deeply about your own professional development journey, I’m going to offer three strategies for thinking about your professional development and some thoughts about how to decide what’s the right approach for you today.
Strategy #1: Attack Your Weaknesses
The first option is to think about professional development as a tool for attacking your weaknesses – improving your ability to do things you don’t do well or filling gaps in your knowledge about important topics.
Everyone hates that old job interview chestnut, “What are your biggest weaknesses?” I can still make myself nervous thinking about having to answer it – but this is a safe space; we can all admit that we have plenty of “areas for improvement” that we would benefit from working on.
When I got my first job out of graduate school, for example, I had never organized a meeting, been in charge of a project, or used a daily calendar to keep track of my schedule. Since my job consisted of convening and running dozens of meetings a month and keeping multiple projects on the rails, this was a massive weakness I had to correct immediately. I’ll always be grateful for Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits training for helping me avoid drowning the first year of my employed existence!
Some organizations assume they need to teach you everything about your job, but in most cases, especially as you progress through your career, your bosses will assume that you either already know what you need to know or will learn it on the fly. For most of us, that means figuring out what it is we don’t know and filling the gaps on our own steam.
In theory it’s never a terrible idea to get better at things, but attacking your weaknesses is a particularly good approach when:
- Your ability to do your current job is jeopardized by the lack of a particular skill
- Improving a specific weakness would significantly improve your performance
- You can’t get the job you want without developing a new skill or acquiring new knowledge
Strategy #2: Extend Your Expertise
The second approach is the opposite of the first one, and that is to work on developing your strengths instead of your weaknesses. If you think about the role models, leaders, and heroes in any field, you will notice a very consistent theme: they are experts at their craft.
If you look closely you will also notice something else: they are not at the top of their field because they know how to do everything, or because they have no weaknesses or gaps in their knowledge. Attacking your weaknesses only takes you so far if it just brings you up to “average” at a wide range of skills. Computer scientists don’t have to be great public speakers. Great accountants don’t have to speak Arabic. In order to provide real value to your organization you have to be great at the core tasks of your job. If you’re an intelligence analyst, for example, most of your value lies in your knowledge of the region and issues you’re following, your analytical ability, and your communication skills, not in how good you are at math. Likewise, the leaders in your field aren’t there because they are jacks of all trades; they are there because they have built tremendous capability and deep expertise in the most important aspects of their field.
Extending your expertise is also useful because it can help you stand out within your own profession. Think of professional development as an investment in your personal brand. Yes, thinking of yourself as a brand is sort of gross on one level, but when people talk about other people at work, they inevitably use labels: She’s the Ukraine expert, he’s the military analyst, she’s the PowerPoint guru, etc.
The trick is to establish yourself as the go-to person on a specific aspect of your field, one you love working on, where you have a competitive advantage over your peers, and that complements your core expertise while setting you apart. Having an easily recognized and respected “brand” will help you build your network and open doors. When people talk about the most famous people in their fields, you will notice that their brand is very often a key part of the description.
Think how often people mention that General Petraeus reinvented counterinsurgency, for example. He took his deep military expertise and then created a powerful brand by extending it into a specific subfield. Today it’s hard to imagine a conversation about counterinsurgency that doesn’t involve his name.
Extending your expertise will benefit you throughout your career, but especially when:
- You focus on improving the knowledge and skills that will help you provide the most value in your professional role
- You focus on specific areas in which you have a competitive advantage over others in your field
- You love what you do and are comfortable investing significant time and effort building your knowledge and skills in a specific area
Strategy #3: Develop A Secondary Superpower
A final strategy is to plan for the future by developing what I call a secondary superpower. If shoring up weaknesses is what keeps you employed, and extending your expertise is what helps you earn promotions, a secondary superpower is what will help you reach the top of your profession as well as generate new career opportunities, including those outside your current field.
A secondary superpower is simply a new field of expertise outside your original area of authority. One kind of secondary superpower is something that complements your existing expertise and which will help you keep climbing the ranks within your current profession. The most common secondary superpower is management or leadership skills. If you stick around long enough, you will wind up managing and leading teams and departments. To do this well you will need to develop serious management and leadership chops on top of your functional expertise. This goes double if you want to run an organization someday.
Developing the management superpower has been a huge boon to my career. As a political scientist by training, I came into the professional world utterly lacking any management or administrative skills. But before I actually landed my first academic job I spent five years at a non-profit where I was responsible for various projects, budgets, partnerships, sales and marketing efforts, and managing a few people. Over five years I didn’t extend my expertise in political science one bit, but I learned a lot about business and about managing people and projects (sort of like getting an MBA on the fly). That business experience, in turn, made me attractive to the academic department that eventually hired me because very few professors have any experience of that kind. The additional management and administrative experience I then got at that university running a graduate program later played a key role in me getting my next job. In my case it has certainly been a gift that keeps on giving.
A less common approach, but one I also recommend, is to develop a secondary superpower that is completely different from your current responsibilities that builds on emerging areas of interest for you personally. Do you have a deep and abiding interest in something that isn’t directly related to your job? Do you find yourself “wasting time” reading about the latest developments in a field that isn’t your own? If so, don’t beat yourself up for not focusing! Instead, consider whether your passion might be a candidate for a secondary superpower.
Since it was my own experience that led me to this insight I will share it with you. I was in graduate school when the World Wide Web was born. From that time forward I was hooked – I learned to create web pages with HTML, spent time reading about virtual communities, and generally blew a ton of time learning about the Internet and the dot com economy when I was supposed to be doing other things. I complained to my wife about my lack of focus and I worried about how unproductive I was being. Little did I know I was developing a secondary superpower.
At first all my puttering amounted to nothing more than a few tidbits of new information in my lectures while I was an adjunct instructor. But a year later I wound up teaching a whole course on communication processes and technologies – something I had never even studied in school myself! Those experiences and my growing expertise in how people used the Internet then led to my first professional job at a non-profit dedicated to online education. Fast forward another twenty years, and it is that secondary superpower that led to me co-founding the company that would eventually become Proficiency1.
At this point let me emphasize three really good reasons to develop a secondary superpower. First, you’ll need to do it to become the “final boss.” At a minimum, you probably can’t avoid mastering the art of management and leadership if you want to take your place amongst your organization’s and field’s leading lights someday.
Second, secondary superpowers can help provide you adapt in a fast-changing economy. Labor economists tell us that most people will find themselves changing jobs, even career paths, more than a few times throughout their career. A secondary superpower will not only make you more valuable in your current organization, it will also give you more flexibility when you need to find a new job.
Finally, having a secondary superpower can open a whole new set of doors for you and can help you spend more time on things you really love doing.
Developing a secondary superpower is especially useful when:
- You find yourself increasingly passionate about a new topic, technology, or trend
- You aren’t sure whether you want to spend your whole career doing the same thing
- Your field is threatened with significant change thanks to technology, competition, etc.
The Best Strategy Is…
As I said up top, there is no one right answer. In reality, you will spend time throughout your career following all three approaches. In fact, the only losing strategy is to not think about your professional development at all. That said, I encourage you to think about what balance makes the most sense for you given where you are in your career and your goals, as well as the time and energy you have available for honing your skills.
In the comments, I’d love to hear from you about how you’re thinking about your professional development and how you’re figuring out the next thing to learn.