One of my absolute favorite parts of working for larger companies was the privilege of leading teams and developing people. There was just something about seeing potential in an individual or in a group and fostering a culture and environment where they could turn that potential into a reality. It continues to remain one of my passions and a pillar of who I try to be as a member of the foodservice community.
You might be saying to yourself – so what? What does this have to do with me if I’m in R&D at a brand, or if I’m in sales? I have a good job, I’m doing well, I’m headed in the right direction! Why do I need to work more on professional development?
Well the short answer is there are two futures – the ones you create and the ones you let happen to you. If you’re not working to improve yourself and create your future, you’re not just “staying where you are”, you’re actually moving backwards compared to your top end peers. You might not realize this, but people who sign up for self-improvement courses, read business and strategy books, learn from brilliant minds outside their own industry and spend time thinking about their career already happen to be considered high achievers or top performers. Top performers are always seeking ways to get better, that’s why they’re top performers and tend to remain that way.
Who really owns your professional development?
One major theme I saw throughout my career was the dichotomy of two ways of thinking – one in which the company was viewed as responsible for employee development and another where the employee was responsible for their professional development. I think now, more than ever, individuals need to stand up and take responsibility for their professional development. Ask yourself – even if the company you work for says they’re responsible for your development, do you really think they can do a better job at it than you can?
I’ll share a short anecdote about two different team members. One wonderful and talented member of my team had stagnated in their development and advancement. When pressed, they said they were waiting for me to tell them they were ready for the next step. As flattered as I was, this person should have been pushing and sharing their desire to grow and lead. You cannot wait around for someone to “tap you on the shoulder” magically telling you you’re ready. Another team member was constantly looking to grow, and was in my ear about how to grow themselves to get to the next step. They led their own plan, networked, educated themselves and had the drive to succeed. When the best opportunity for a promotion came up, they got it; albeit outside of my department. That didn’t matter to me because that high performer deserved everything they achieved and made my team better along the way. They owned their future.
Another story – a veteran salesperson I know with over 30 years of experience recently paid for their own self-evaluation with an independent professional company and, in addition, they took an online sales course (Ok, yes, it was my course…). When I say this person is an expert, I mean they are a high-earning-top-of-their-game expert! And even with all of their success they took steps to better themselves and improve their performance.
Occasionally I’ll hear from industry folks that they don’t want to appear too hungry to climb the ladder, that they don’t want to alienate people or appear to be “kissing up.” Honestly, I think that is nonsense. If your desire for growth is genuine, anyone labelling you in that manner is simply jealous or scared. Trying to better yourself in a positive manner, creating relationships with leaders and mentors, expanding your network, speaking at industry events, seeking out volunteer positions, and volunteering for challenging projects all are great ways to broaden knowledge and improve your personal brand within a company or an industry.
Readiness and Availability
So, if you’re starting to agree that you should own your own professional development, you have to next understand the difference between readiness and availability, and what you can control. If you’re a sports fan, you may occasionally hear a professional athlete say something to the effect of “I don’t worry about that, I just focus on what I can control.” That is a good attitude to have about professional development as well. Just because you do all of the right things, doesn’t mean you will automatically get promoted, or get the coveted position you’re looking for. There is readiness, which is what you can focus on, and there is availability, which can be very much out of your control. If you spend time focusing on readiness, believe me, your name will be at the top of the list when an advancement or other opportunity becomes available. Also – all of that readiness might mean your next best move is actually outside your current company, and you are better prepared for all of those opportunities when they present themselves.
What if I’m the leader?
My advice in this area is simple – spend your time with your best people. They deserve it. On a recent conversation with a newly promoted VP friend, they spent 80% of the call talking about 2 people who were problems. I politely pointed this out to them. They were honestly shocked when they realized it and changed tactics to growing their top people who were already – you guessed it – owning their own development. The second thing you can do as a leader is to foster a culture of personal and professional growth. Do what you can to set aside budget for individuals. Challenge your team to own their development and have them share their plans with you. Guide them where you can!
What does the pandemic mean for all of this?
As I mentioned above, there is readiness, and there is availability. Our industry has been hit hard. It’s more important than ever to focus on growing your skills and owning your own professional development. Availability may be uncertain, but when it comes, will you be ready?