By: Kristin Eller, MA
Senior Manager, Program Faculty, College of Business
“If we aren’t doing anything to maintain up-to-date skills and knowledge in our field, and if we aren’t doing anything to better ourselves as people, how can we expect to stay relevant in an ever-changing world and help other people excel?” Over the past several years, I have asked some version of this question multiple times during one-on-ones and meetings with my team and peers. The conversations center around everything from prioritizing job expectations in a busy organization to coaching employees and helping them find resources to fill skill gaps. Sometimes, the conversations are about how to define professional development in a way that makes it feel manageable and fresh, uncovering new possibilities for someone who has been slowly suffocated with poorly delivered, mandatory trainings (usually about topics in which they are not interested) to the point that they assume all things labeled as “development” are boring. This last one can be tricky; those types of career wounds run deep and can linger indefinitely if left unrecognized and unaddressed. They create a mindset that fosters stagnation and declining performance.
Professional development is an expectation in many organizations spanning a variety of fields and careers, but even for seasoned veterans the prospect of dedicating time and effort to continued growth and learning amidst competing priorities can feel simultaneously under- and over-whelming. This is especially true during a time when we have experienced a worldwide crisis that – we hope – is once-in-a-lifetime and that will impact our world and national economies for months, possibly years, to come.
What is the value of honing skills and learning new ones – of assimilating new information – when so much of our day is about survival and accomplishing routine tasks? Aside from the fact that many career fields require continuing education units (CEUs), contributions to bodies of research to further the field, and regular renewal of credentials, there is value in ongoing learning beyond simply fulfilling requirements.
From an organizational standpoint, the value in emphasizing regular professional development for employees is multifaceted. Employees who focus on constantly learning and applying what they have learned tend to specialize, innovate, and serve as a catalyst to increased productivity. With two-thirds or more of the workforce being reported as disengaged for the past two decades (though engagement is slowly rising), organizations that offer a variety of personal and professional growth opportunities for their employees are sure to see a positive return on their investment because fewer of those employees will be on auto-pilot. Companies with a more engaged workforce tend to thrive. They disrupt old business models and create new ones, improve processes and functions that are already in place, manage change more successfully than their competitors, and become driving forces in their chosen markets. Highly engaged employees who are growing and learning also increase positive morale, which influences productivity and can reduce turnover. Overall, ongoing, regular professional development is good for the bottom line.
For an employee, the value in dedicating time, energy, and resources to continued development also spans multiple planes. The fact is, sharpening skills related to a chosen field provides a competitive edge for individuals, which is especially important in markets that are constantly evolving or where potential job openings are scarce. Think of highly specialized surgeons; the ones at the top of their field are constantly honing their craft and learning or even creating new methods to help people. They then pour their skills and knowledge back into their field by teaching and presenting, performing surgeries, and often publishing what they learned about what works and what does not. They pave the way for the next group of skilled practitioners specializing in the same area and improve healthcare overall.
Many forms of professional development also provide opportunities to network and build a positive reputation across a broader audience than an individual might otherwise have. Ongoing learning and improvement create expertise, and expertise creates relevancy and draws notice. According to personal branding expert Bianca Miller Cole, networking helps you stand out, and “when you stand out in both your expertise and the services you offer, it creates room for partnership which in turn builds a career.”
There are also physical benefits to ongoing, regular professional development beyond increasing expertise and employability. According to one Harvard and Johns Hopkins-trained neurologist, learning new skills and practicing them to become an expert helps grow and improve the part of the brain that is “critical for our ability to keep your memories alive for a lifetime and stay sharp as we get older,” which helps guard against degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.
At all levels, being intentional about ongoing development is a win-win, high-return investment, especially considering the free and low-cost options available because of advances in technology. While mandatory trainings may always exist, think of additional outlets like TED Talks, MOOCs (massive open online courses), LinkedIn Learning, etc. There are as many opportunities to personalize growth and learning as there are avenues through which content is delivered.
Some may think this is great in theory and makes total sense. Few deny it. I have heard it repeatedly over the past month, though, and I have thought it myself a few times: how on earth are we supposed to carve out precious time for professional development on a regular basis when most of us are already locked in a vise of busyness as we balance work, family, health, friendships, and other responsibilities? Sure, professional development is important, but maybe it would be better to put it on hold until things calm down a little. Right?
The only way to ensure continuous growth and improvement is to do it on purpose. Fortune 100 companies are not successful by accident. Top-paid professional athletes do not magically wake up in peak physical condition. They dedicate time every week, often every day, to practicing and learning in order to get better. Those who play team sports rely on their teammates to do the same. The medical workers who have spent much of this year treating patients for Covid-19 and its complications were forced by necessity to spend time learning each day as new information became available. The more they learned, the better the care they could provide and the better we could all respond as needed to help even in small ways.
As UCLA coach John Wooden once said, “Success travels in the company of very hard work. There is no trick, no easy way.” For those grappling with uncertainty about whether scheduling ongoing, regular professional development is a good use of time amidst competing priorities, I would argue that it might be one of the best uses of time. Considering the rapid changes to business, economies, and everyday life we have experienced in the past year, training ourselves to continually change and adapt can only benefit us in an ever-evolving world