Career Compass Columns are reprinted with the permission of Dr. Frank Benest
In this installment of Career Compass, Dr. Benest discusses how to integrate professional
development and maintain work-life balance.
Yes, it's true. Our world is changing so quickly and unpredictably (remember life before the
economic meltdown?), that we need to constantly learn if we are to personally adapt and help
our organizations adapt. As the management consultant Gary Hamel often asks, "Are we learning
as fast as the world is changing?"
- I am a mid-level parks and recreation supervisor. I do a good job and receive positive
evaluations. However, I often hear from the city manager or speakers at professional meetings
that I need to involve myself in continuous learning if I am going to enhance my value to my
local government organization and be able to advance. Well, I have already earned my MPA but
I am tired of going to school and want a life outside of work. Yet I do want to advance.
What do I do?
You don't need to go back to school to learn. In fact, the best learning happens on the job,
not in the classroom. Classroom education may help you develop a conceptual framework about
new behavior in a new world, but it does not produce desired new behavior. Learning new behavior
results from experience from doing. Therefore, your goal is to create new or different
experiences which help you enhance your skills, competencies, and aptitudes; expand your
knowledge; and create a wider view of the organization and the world around you.
To incorporate learning into your everyday work, I suggest these seven personal learning strategies:
A key competency for advancing in local government management is one's demonstrated capacity to
learn and adapt. With accelerating change due to new technologies, demographic trends, climate
change, value shifts, and other mega-trends, technical skills and knowledge more quickly become
obsolete. Learn how becomes as important as know-how.
- Be reflective (and help others reflect)
There is no learning without reflecting on your practice. So, debrief everything. By
yourself-and better yet with colleagues-you need to conduct a debriefing of every project,
board or community meeting, or other experience. This post-action report should include:
To promote this kind of reflection, you can start any unit or division meeting with a
"learning report" about a recent work experience or professional article. Or you can simply
ask during the meeting: "What was significant about last night's Parks and Recreation Commission
meeting? What did we learn for the future?"
- What went right?
- What did not go so well?
- What did we learn for our future practice?
- Cultivate a growth mindset
Many people have a fixed mindset. They view their talents as fixed. They avoid challenges and
the possibility of failure. They like to solve the same kinds of problems over and over again,
which reinforces their sense of competence.
Those with a growth mindset see challenges and even failures as opportunities for improving
skills or acquiring new ones. In the face of adversity, they believe that talent grows with
persistence and effort and that they can learn from adversity.
To cultivate a growth mindset, you need to consciously stretch yourself.
- Stretch yourself
There is no growth without missteps and mistakes. You must find ways to stretch yourself and
encounter new and different situations. The best approach is to engage yourself in a series
of stretching job assignments. To do so, let your manager and other managers know that you are
seeking out special projects and team leadership opportunities, interim management assignments,
opportunities to interact with boards and commissions, and other new experiences, such as
learning new technologies. In terms of securing these opportunities, you can be the first to
volunteer, or you can negotiate with your manager for new assignments, obviously demonstrating
that you are on top of your current workload.
Challenging yourself with "stretch" goals is key to learning and achieving. As suggested by
Peter Bregman in the hbr.org blog, high achievers and active learners need to set goals for
themselves where they have a 50-70% chance of success. According to psychologist and Harvard
researcher David McClellan, that's the "sweet spot" for learning and achieving. Then, when you
fail half the time, you can figure out what you should do differently and try again.
- Observe others with a critical eye
To learn from others, not just in your department but throughout the organization, you need to
observe their practice with a critical eye. You should ask yourself: What kinds of challenges
are they addressing? What did they do well? Where did they stumble? Why? What could I emulate?
- Read a lot
Reading a lot of diverse literature-both work and non-work-helps one develop a different set
of lenses through which to view and analyze the world. So you should certainly read professional
articles and books in your discipline and from other disciplines in local government or
management and business. However, autobiographies, fiction, poetry, and essays all may be
provocative and generate learning if you try to apply the lessons to your work life.
To support your reading habit, you can start or participate in a book or article club that meets
once or twice a month at lunch.
- Apply lessons from outside of work
An agile learner is not only reflecting about experiences but also trying to apply any lessons
from those experiences. Therefore, you should be on the look-out for experiences involving your
parents, spouse, children, neighbors, friends, and other non-work associates that could have
some applicability to your professional life. Could a conflict with your children lead to enhancing
your people skills? Could a non-work experience, such as traveling to another country, provide some
insight into environmental management?
- Get a coach
A coach can provide valuable feedback on your practice or some problematic work situation, suggest
new resources, offer advice, and expand your network. A coaching relationship can be formal or
more likely informal. A coach can be a manager or peer inside or outside the organization. Your
regional or statewide professional association may provide a listing of managers or senior
professionals who have volunteered to coach. ICMA offers coaching resources (for example, the
Emerging Leaders Development Program provides a legacy coach to participants). Or, you can just
ask a manager or colleague to provide feedback or advice. You'd be doing a peer or manager a favor.
Coaches love to coach!
In a disruptive world, most organizations will begin to understand that we need to hire and promote
based on learning agility.
Dr. Frank Benest is ICMA's senior advisor for Next Generation Initiatives and resides in
Palo Alto, California. If you have a career question you would like addressed in a future
Career Compass, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or post it to the discussion forum.