Career Planning – Choose Your Own Adventure

There’s something about the end of the year that provokes reflection and goal-setting. In the past few weeks, I have met with several of my staff to discuss next steps in their careers. In most situations, making the move into the next level of professional practice requires some learning. Managers can be a great sounding board and advocate for staff looking for new experiences. These questions came up again and again in my conversations with staff, and may be a useful frame for other managers and employees as they work together to develop a career strategy.

What is your goal?

From my perspective, people can add to their skills in three ways – deepening their knowledge of a topic, broadening their knowledge beyond their specialty, moving into management. While each ambition may require similar responses, I think it is important for the employee to know specifically what the goal is before approaching the manager for support. Answering this question allows the manager to understand the motivation, and suggest useful alternatives and opportunities.

At this moment, I have three staff who illustrate the differences between these goals very well. One, who wishes to deepen her knowledge in her specialty, is thinking about undertaking a large writing project with a colleague. Putting together this publication will leverage her already considerable knowledge in the topic, and will give her a chance to expand upon her expertise. Because the project is likely to be useful for us, I have no trouble in supporting her learning goals.

The second person wants to go outside of the Legislative Library, and gain some experience elsewhere in the Assembly. By happy coincidence, I know of another manager who is looking to train staff in the work of his team, to build skill redundancy in case of emergency. We are working together to develop a proposal which will allow my staffer to take a six-month secondment on that team, so that he can stretch his knowledge of the Legislature, add to his skills, and contribute to the other team’s emergency response strategy. Win-win.

Finally, the Legislative Library is blessed with several ambitious and bright young professionals, who would like to become managers. The Legislature is a fairly flat organization, so there are few “assistant manager”-type roles. We need to be creative in providing these employees with opportunities to learn leadership, and to gain exposure to the practical skills of management – budgeting, performance reviews, making business cases, and so on. Some of these skills may be acquired by leading teams in their home position. The management skills may be more difficult to acquire while remaining in their home position – we may need to look for opportunities outside of the library to foster the skills needed to cultivate the next generation of managers.

What is your learning style?

Understanding the way you learn best will help you develop a strategy that works for you. If you are a visual or auditory learner, you may find that courses are your best way to add that skill you are chasing. Kinesthetic and environmental learners will likely benefit from other strategies – perhaps you can arrange a secondment or short-term internship with a professional working in the area you wish to explore.

Of course, the practical limitations of what your current employer can support will have an influence on whether you can take courses during office hours (and be financially supported), or if you can take a secondment with a different team in your organization (or with an entirely different employer). Even if your employer can’t support the particular type of development opportunity you wish to pursue, with a little creativity, you may be able to come up with your own solutions. Take a course on the weekends, or online. Look for financial support from a professional organization (both CALL and TALL offer scholarships to librarians, for example). Volunteer for an organization which will allow you to develop the skills you seek. These creative responses may prove to be especially impressive to an employer, as they prove your commitment to your own development.

What’s in it for your manager?

Many organizations have succession plans – if you have access to it, see how you can pitch your idea to fit the language/attitude in there.

If you are looking for support for a course or degree, be very clear in describing how this investment will pay off for your employer – what new skills and knowledge will you bring back to the organization? How will these skills enhance your job performance? How will your manager be able to measure this change?

Think about how your proposal will inconvenience your manager, and come up with ideas to abate it. If your development opportunity requires that you be away from your job for a while, choose a time when it will be less of a strain on your boss or your team. Give them lots of notice, and involve them in the planning – assure them that you plan to return to your home position, and point out the ways in which this learning opportunity will enhance your contributions to the team.

What do employers want?

It’s unlikely that your next promotion will just be handed to you. Think about your resumé when you’re choosing development opportunities. It seems pretty obvious, but with the array of options available, how do you know what’s going to “sell” with future employers? Should you add another degree or diploma to your existing qualifications? What has more traction with employers: classroom or e-learning; real-world experience, or courses and conferences? Be a student or be a teacher? All of these options are great ways to add to your knowledge and qualifications.

Think back to your goals – they may help you decide which strategy is likely to be effective. Those seeking to deepen their knowledge may find that courses (taking or teaching) gives them the best experience. If you want to become known as a subject-matter specialist, look for ways to gain formal recognition of your skills and knowledge. Diplomas and degrees are one way to achieve this goal. So is teaching and writing. Don’t discount teaching as an excellent learning opportunity – moving into the role of instructor forces you to codify and consolidate what you already know about a topic. And it is remarkable what you can learn from your students!

Those looking to broaden their experience have got probably the widest array of options. Doing work or attending workshops from outside of your specialization gives you a window into another career path, and helps you to decide whether X is something you’d like to do every day. This may lead to the need to acquire additional qualifications. Supplement academic learning with practical experience – employers have the luxury of being able to pick and choose right now, and a fully-rounded candidate (with academic qualifications and real-life experience) is going to grab attention. Keep your personal goals in mind, and an eye to the marketplace, when selecting opportunities which will broaden your experience. A coherent package of skills may be more comprehensible to potential employers (“I decided to leverage my experience as a reference librarian and trainer by taking a certificate in adult education”). Radical departures may provide a wealth of experience and can open many doors in your developing career, but may take a little more explaining in an interview. (“My experience in custom kitchen design has helped me refine my reference interviewing skills, and has increased my creativity.”)

For those on the management track, I would argue that nothing can replace life experience. There are lots of courses out there on topics from the managers’ world, but until you have to write a budget (and then live with it), hire a new employee (and live with it), or perform any of the dozens of tasks that comprise the manager’s job, it’s all just theory. I would argue that courses and workshops become more useful once you’re actually in the manager’s chair. Then, you can take those real problems you’re struggling with, and use them as case studies in discussion with your peers in a class.

That said, you should never choose a learning strategy based on what others may think. It’s much easier to commit to the learning if it appeals to you. If you are engaged in the activity, whatever it is, you will put in more of yourself, and get much more out of it. Be prepared to explain your choices to a possible employer, but don’t base those choices on what you think they might value. Chances are you’ll guess wrong. It’s much easier to explain a choice you made from personal commitment or passionate interest.

How committed are you?

There may be times when the only way to make that next step up is to step off a cliff. Changing employers, resigning your job to pursue your educational goals, changing countries or professions are all large steps which require careful consideration. Think about the opportunities and costs of such a decision. Can you afford (financially and professionally) to take this step? What are the possible payoffs, and how likely are they? Be deliberate, be thoughtful and be brave.

Let’s say you’ve taken the step, gained the experience and you’re now positioning yourself for the next step up. Use your resume/cover letter to show your commitment to your own learning and development, the passion that you bring to your work, and your willingness to take risks in laying out your career path. You own your story – tell it well.

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