Nine secrets to successful professional development

Of all leadership responsibilities, developing our people is arguably more important than whatever the “job” is that we’re assigned.

As we progress in our careers, our views on development shift.  Early on, it’s about building practical skills that can make us better in our current role, or prepare us for the next one.

It is only later that we can start to see that it’s not about those practical skills.  It’s the cycle of learning and applying that matters.

I’ve been responsible for the development of a wide variety of people.  From interns and individuals early in their careers, to those on the sunset who are approaching retirement.

Regardless of where they are in their journey, I have similar advice when asked about their development.

It’s not a class.  Or a book.  Or a mentor.  While each of those may offer some amount of value, how many of us walk away from any specific development activity with more than one or two nuggets we can apply?

Instead, it’s a mindset.  The earlier we develop it, the further we can go and the better positioned we are to take those nuggets and turn them into action.

We can learn anything, do anything, if we break through natural limits and fears that would otherwise hold us back.  That prevent us from realizing our full abilities.

So what is the magic?  They are nine secrets that are no secret and no magic.  Just life lessons that we can master or let them master us.

1. Raise your hand.

Raise it high.  Raise it often.  Opportunities are given to those who recognize and ask for them.  Those who step up, step in, and are willing to risk trying something new.

2. Make it your job.

Step in and do things without raising a hand.  Refuse to walk by a problem or a challenge without trying to address it.  Regardless of whether something is your job, make it your responsibility to get it done or make it right.  This means ignoring those around you who ask “Why are you always trying to make things better?”

3. Fall hard.

Go after something big.  Something beyond what you think you are capable of.  Nail it? Take another big leap.  Keep going until you attempt something too big and do a face plant.

4. Get back up.  

Some people go down and stay down.  They set limits on themselves based on that first big fail.  Getting up means embracing you are not defined by one miss.

5. Work through the fear and failure.

Fear of a thing holds us back.  Embracing the falls helps us learn that the only thing that gets hurt is our ego.  If we don’t bleed or break, what is there to fear?

The more times you fall and get back up, the less your ego hurts and the less you’ll be afraid of it.  You’ll learn how to look ahead, how to prepare, or how to get the support you need (and when you’ll need it).  You won’t learn how to quit.

6. Try new things, inside and outside of work.  

The days of a career ladder are over.  There is no straight path from entry level to CEO.  Instead, it is the jungle gym – taking assignments and roles that are up, down and around – that prepares you for increasing levels of responsibility.

Not all development must happen at work or be related to our jobs.  Instead, hobbies or volunteer work may introduce you to new challenges or enable you to develop new capabilities.

By taking on a variety of challenges, and expanding your perspective beyond one team, function, organization or role, it allows you to approach your work differently.  This is the path to artistry and becoming indispensable.

7. Apply your passions to your work.  

Whether you discover things you’re passionate about at work or during outside pursuits, consider how you can integrate them into your day job.  Maybe you like to solve problems.  Maybe you enjoy being creative.  Perhaps both.  How can those be applied in your work assignments?

Finding passion in your day job is the key to longevity in your career.  We spend many hours a day working – try not to spend it doing something you hate.

8. Own your career and development.  

Engage your manager, mentors and peers when considering development plans and opportunities, but do not abdicate your growth to anyone else.  If you make it someone else’s responsibility – even in your mind – then you are ceding control of your career.  Own it and partner with those individuals to provide input and/or support for your plan.

9. Focus on continuous learning and practical application.  

If you are never done learning, you are never done growing, and expanding your potential.  Practical application is the BEST way to learn.  Grab classes if you can.  Webinars, videos, podcasts, books and articles can provide great insights.  Ultimately, push to put learnings into practice and turn that information into knowledge.

9 Secrets to Successful Professional Development

While these secrets may seem like common sense, if they were, everyone would know their aspirations and how to get there.  Alas, leaders are still needed to help their teams define and realize their goals.

Regardless of industry, role or responsibility, these nine steps can help any of us prepare for increased scale, scope and complexity of our work.  The next time someone asks “what can I do to prepare myself for x?” you have a ready list to share.


What other advice would you share with someone who is aspiring to growth?  To investing in their professional development?  Please share your thoughts and suggestions in the comments.