Career Advice Part 2: Never Stop Learning

This is the second part of a 5 part career advice series.

There’s three parts to every career path: the past, present, and the future. Kind of like Dickens’s Christmas Carol.

A lot of us tend to think of these elements in terms of the results we’ve achieved (as documented on our resume), the work we’re doing, and what we want to do when we grow up (our career plans and goals).

There’s another way to think about your career path – think of your career as a learning journey.

The Past:
Most of know it’s a smart habit to update our resumes every year. It’s like paying your taxes – no one likes doing it, but it has to be done. If you really hate it and don’t want to do it yourself, then you can pay someone to do it.

Many of us are also asked to document our accomplishments for the year as input into the annual performance review. Again, not a bad idea. If you’re not asked to do this by your manager, then I’d recommend doing it anyways. It’s hard for managers to keep track of all of your accomplishments, so it’s OK to help jog their memories.

Here’s the part I’ll bet you don’t do: at the end of each year, sit back with a cup of coffee or glass of wine and ask yourself what you learned over the last year. In fact, don’t just do it at the end of the year. Make it a regular habit at the end of every big project, whether you succeed or fail.

It’s called reflection, and it’s a proven best practice that helps clarify and crystallize your learning. That’s why journals are often used as in leadership development programs – they’re a learning enhancer. Great coaches are masters at asking those million dollar reflective questions – the kind of questions that just seem to unlock our “ah-ha” moments. As a leader, make it a regular habit to ask your employees to reflect on what they’ve learned. Even better, ask them to do it after a major screw-up. It’s those hardships that build resiliency and can end up being some of our most powerful learning experiences.

The Present:
Have you ever heard of “learning agility”? It’s a key characteristic of highly successful people. Some say it’s THE #1 predictor of success.

Top leaders who rank in the upper portion of success are the more learning-agile, which Warren Bennis calls “adaptive capacity”, the hallmark of effective leadership. Lombardo and Eichinger have shown that it is associated with being a high potential learner; these learners perform much better after promotion than do the average and low learning-agile. Robert Sternberg reports that learning agility has a higher correlation to success than IQ.

What this means is that effective leaders are lifelong learners. Learners of the soft stuff. Learning agility relates to learning to think, feel, act, and believe differently based upon experience and changing circumstances.

Studies of why people fail all include some version of the lack of willingness and ability to adapt and learn from experience.

Fortunately, you can actually develop a sense of “learning agility”. Be curious, be open to new experiences, try new things, experiment, and take pride in being able to tackle the new and unknown. A mentor once told me that in order to stay fresh and motivated in a career, at least 20% of what you do each year should be new and different. I’ve tried to follow that advice, and hope I can continue to do so well beyond retirement.

The Future
A high level manager once told me he refused to have career discussions with people who came to him looking for advice on how to become an executive. To him, the more important question they should be asking themselves is “what is it I want to learn?”

Although I never liked that manager, his advice stuck with me.

I do think it’s OK to have an idea of what your next likely role might be, as well as 2-3 longer term potential roles. Once you do that, then identity what you need to learn in order to prepare myself for those roles. It’s called a development plan. Regular readers of this blog have heard me harp on the importance of having an IDP (individual development plan) on a regular basis.

You didn’t think I was going to miss an opportunity to work it into this career advice series, did you?

In summary, a good career path isn’t just a list of jobs – it’s a continuous journey of new experiences, reflection, and learning. If you do that, the rest should take care of itself.