A friend of mine, consultant and blogger Michele Martin, writes often about the challenges of personal career management and decision-making. I bet many of us who work in learning and development can relate to her recent blog post: Managing Your Career When You Have More Than One. Those who have more than one job are said to have slash careers.
If you work in L&D, you no doubt take on a lot of different roles, among them potentially: designer, facilitator, consultant, project manager, developer, learning strategist, team manager, senior learning leader, business person, employee advocate, needs assessor, evaluator, writer, videographer, audio technician, and on it goes. Each of those roles could be a full-time job in itself, but whether you are in a leadership role in the organization or one of the worker bees, you seldom do just one thing. In a slash-career world, you may be a consultant/designer, or a designer/developer, or a facilitator/coach or a leader/learning strategist or some other combination of roles, with more than one slash needed to list them.
There’s a lot of joy and excitement in that reality – the days are never boring, and you can market yourself as being highly flexible and multi-talented. One of the downsides, as Michele points out, is managing your skill development and personal growth in the field. We have perfected the art of learning by doing, but it’s also trial by fire – we don’t often get enough time in some areas of practice to hone our skills to their highest levels. And we often don’t get a lot of choice in the kinds of projects we are assigned so we wind up developing skills as necessary instead of as part of a deliberate development plan. We become – as the old saying goes – Jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none.
But the work that we do in organizations is too important for us to be “master of none.” If you’re in this profession, how do you develop mastery? How do we find a better balance between having flexible skill sets and developing deep expertise?
Workable development strategies
I’ve noticed a few strategies that work…
Pick one. Find a way to specialize – work hard to develop a skill and position yourself as the go-to person for a specific need. Often, development of the skill begins in a work project, but you can then go out and get further development on the skill that excites you. Your are then in a position to negotiate to work on more projects that need the skill, finally being recognized as a specialist.
Aim for continuous development. You may not want to choose, but nor do you want to feel like you are not developing yourself. If that is the case, you might apply a continuous learning strategy. With each new project, stop for a moment to consider what you might learn in the project. Then, take action to supplement the on-the-job learning with other enrichment activities that amplify the learning potential of the project. In that way, you’ll always feel like you are advancing their skills.
Limit the context of application. In addition to skill variety, we often have context variety – we design for a wide range of audiences on a wide range of topics. That can put additional strain on our learning capacity. If you are one of those people who relish the skill variety, you might consider trying to limit audience and context rather than the L&D skill set. You can focus on technical training, or sales, or manager development. Or you can focus on work in a particular industry, which can be especially useful when your selected industry has a lot of compliance or regulatory issues to be considered.
In my own career, I’ve cycled through all of these strategies, and I find them all to be successful in their own ways. There are times, too, when it seems I was able to employ all of them simultaneously. I see myself as having a “portfolio career,” which sounds much gentler than a “slash career.” Envisioning my choices as a portfolio career also helps me to recognize self-development efforts as a real tangible investment in that portfolio.
Regardless of our career aspirations, our development needs and desires, or our work situations, it’s critical that we work to deepen our skill sets. Without learning and development expertise of one kind or another, it’s hard for us to have impact in organizations, to be recognized as business partners, and to be true workplace learning professionals.
How are you working out the challenges of professional development in your career? How do you develop mastery?