How Many Ways Can You Grow?

By Caitlin Williams, Ph.D.

How do you make certain you’re on your cutting edge? How do you convince a prospective employer that you’re the candidate of choice, or to assure your current boss that you’re the “go-to” person who should be promoted into a leadership role? In most instances, you do so by demonstrating your expertise or thought leadership in the areas that your employer most needs – and you most enjoy. One the best ways to do that is professional development.

The reality of our hypercompetitive, ever-changing workplace is that, as a professional, you need to keep growing and pushing yourself to know what’s new and what’s next in your field.

While it’s true that your MLIS/MS degree may have provided you with the latest skills, the most current technologies and a specialization that you’re really good at – these days, that’s not enough.

Your ongoing commitment to building your professional portfolio through strategic professional development activities will help you distinguish yourself and your career. Professional development – done right – will pump up your resume, boost your online profiles and make you a sought-after expert who garners the attention of influencers in your field. Who wouldn’t want that kind of attention?

So, the next time you’re wondering how to best position yourself for a new job or for career advancement, consider professional development activities as a way to get you there.

But perhaps you are wondering how you can possibly keep stretching yourself to be seen as a top candidate. Maybe you think you’ve run out of ideas for catching an employer’s attention. Perhaps money is tight and advanced training or another master’s degree does not seem feasible. It could be that you can’t figure a way to move ahead because you aren’t learning anything new in your current job. 

That’s OK. You still have a huge number of options for continuing to grow yourself and your skills. However you choose to enhance yourself professionally, pursue opportunities that are positively challenging to you – not opportunities that you dread even thinking about, or ones that fail to motivate or excite you.

The term positively challenging refers to activities that push you beyond what you know now, cause you to rethink the way you currently go about your work and stretch you to take your expertise or skills up a notch. Positively challenging also suggests that these activities are ones you’re ready to jump into with both feet because they engage and energize you.

If you accept the challenge to be the go-to person in an area (or areas) you’re passionate about, you are likely to see dozens of payoffs. You may be seen as more indispensable in your current job or you may be more quickly re-employed if your position is downsized. Further, if you keep pushing yourself to grow, it’s more likely you’ll be perceived as someone with leadership potential. Enhance your resume with some targeted professional development and there’s a good chance you’ll feel more confident in your work and more able to communicate the nuances of your area of expertise to others. You’ll probably enjoy the work you do even more.

So what’s stopping you? You may believe there’s not enough time in your schedule or that it’s hard to find the right opportunities for yourself. The steps below can help you find a way to grow that is manageable, enjoyable and likely to position you for career advancement.

Remember, these steps can work whether you’re currently employed or actively seeking new employment. Just adapt them to fit your situation. For instance, if you’re currently working, you’ll want to find opportunities that can accommodate your schedule and keep you energized rather than drained. If you’re looking for work right now, incorporate your professional development activities into your job search strategy.

Steps to keep growing:

Before you go any further, take the time, right now, to reflect on and write down what you most enjoy about your current position or field. If you’ve just graduated, write down the courses or areas of specialization or internships that most grabbed your interest.

Next, put your area of interest to the “So what?” test. Ask yourself questions like these: How important is your area of interest to your current employer? Or to a prospective new boss? What value can your chosen area of expertise bring to your library? How can you leverage your skill in your favorite technology or area of specialization to bring in more patrons? Or add to your organization’s bottom line? Or better respond to the needs of a new audience? Or add a new service to your employer’s current offerings?

It’s likely you’ll need to do some further research to answer these questions; but don’t skip this important step. The more value you can offer through growing professionally in an area that really interests you and has market value, the more likely your increased expertise will be “valued” by an employer.

If, after doing your research, you’re still not sure if your chosen area represents a solution to an employer’s pressing needs or adds an amazing new way to serve patrons or students – talk to a trusted colleague or two. If you’re just out of school, visit your former advisor or a favorite professor. Tell them what you’re up to and get their feedback on how valuable and marketable your area of interest is. Ask them for suggestions on how to take an area you’re passionate about and match it up with your employer’s or your field’s emerging needs.

Once you’ve confirmed that your chosen area (or areas) is relevant, cutting edge or represents a sought-after skill, you’re ready to consider how to strategize your professional development plan. Setting out to grow professionally in this very purposeful way is much more productive than taking random classes, answering random questions in online discussions or showing up sporadically at networking and learning events without a clear purpose for being there.

Now comes the challenging and fun part. Ask yourself how you learn best – how you grow best – and how you motivate yourself best. Do you like participating in webinars? Do you most enjoy reading? Do you find it fun and enriching to sign up for volunteer positions? Choose a venue for learning that you truly enjoy. Then decide how to maximize your learning and how to leverage it afterward.

Here are some examples:

If you love to learn through reading, do some research to find out what is truly cutting edge in your chosen area. Scan what thought leaders are saying about your area, check book reviews, review recent journal issues to see what’s being highlighted in your area – do what you already do so well – dig deep to see what’s new and what’s next. Then, read all you can in the area. But don’t stop there. Locate places online where you can write a book review on the topic. Blog about it. Contact the authors of the books/articles you’ve read and ask some insightful questions or comment on what you found most intriguing. Send them an invitation to connect on LinkedIn. Offer to present on the topic at an association meeting – or at your next staff meeting. In other words, make sure others know of your interest and growing expertise.

If you enjoy learning through webinars, investigate the continuing education offerings of various associations in your chosen area of interest – the place where you really want to grow. Check out distance learning opportunities in that area through colleges and universities. Many are no cost or low cost. Once you’ve signed up, participate actively. Comment. Post to the discussion board. Get to know your fellow participants. If you really enjoy interacting with some, explore ways you can connect offline or after the course is over. Offer to be an ongoing learning partner with them. Invite them to join you on LinkedIn, Facebook or any other social network you use.

If you learn through active participation, volunteer to chair a committee to hone your leadership skills – it could be an association committee, a task force, a community group, a church group or a neighborhood event. Whatever you choose, take notes on how you’ve grown and what you’ve discovered about your leadership skills in the process.

Continue to leverage your growing area of expertise. Write articles about your newly acquired skills or knowledge. Make certain you’ve updated your online profiles and your resume to include your new learning. And most of all, look for opportunities to demonstrate the value of your expertise so you can stay on your own cutting edge and so that your employer (or future employer) can understand the value you bring. As a friend and colleague of mine, Sam Horn, says: “No one can get on your bandwagon if you keep it parked in the garage!”

There are dozens of ways to grow – choose ones that will let you shine and increase your value as a professional, as well. Best of luck to you on your journey!