The idea of professional development can feel a little daunting – like a 6am jog to the gym. Don’t let it bring you out in a sweat. Think of it this way. When looking for a new job or a promotion or just more recognition at work, it might help to upgrade to a better version of you. Kick aside the fluffy slippers, skip the morning biscuit, march towards destiny and get down to developing You 2.0! Bigger. Smarter. Bit less fluffy maybe.
What is professional development?
Think of yourself as a brand. What are you known for? What would you like to be known for? What do you want to achieve, are you able to achieve it with the skills you have right now? Chances are there’s room for improvement. Perhaps there are ambitions you haven’t achieved yet, or potential you’ve not quite tapped into. Either way, you know you’re capable of being more than you are right now.
Be recognised as the person you know yourself to be by developing your professional skills. Professional development essentially includes whatever you might need to expand the current version of you, so that the new version can deliver a stronger future sooner than you’d imagined.
What are the core skills of professional development?
Professional development skills – also known as soft skills – support you in your everyday life at work, helping you to build stronger relationships with colleagues, be noticed by senior staff and become more of a rounded member of your team. Such things come slowly through experience. If you’re looking to fast forward the next five years, professional development skills are the way to go.
We have divided them into three groups, simply to make it easier to find what you need. The first group are the foundation skills that prop up everything else. Confidence, communication and emotional intelligence are fundamental anchors that secure your interactions with people. Without these, other professional skills are harder to master.
The second group includes the everyday skills that are part and parcel of your professional life. Motivation, personal impact and self-leadership help keep you afloat in choppy waters at work. The third group includes the key skills that set you apart. They will get you noticed in your current job and may help deliver your next one. They include critical thinking, networking and personal brand.
Which professional development skills are employers looking for?
Technological breakthroughs, particularly developments in AI, continually shift the frontier between tasks performed by people and those given to machines and algorithms. By 2025, the time spent on current tasks at work by humans and machines will be equal.
However technology lacks a beating heart. The more heart that you can bring to work – the more passion, the more empathy, the more creativity and understanding – the more you will be valued by employers. This is the value of soft skills in professional development.
The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs report (2020) found that “automation, in tandem with the COVID-19 recession, is creating a ‘double-disruption’ scenario for workers.” The report found that:
“The top skills and skill groups which employers see as rising in prominence in the lead up to 2025 include groups such as critical thinking and analysis as well as problem-solving, and skills in self-management such as active learning, resilience, stress tolerance and flexibility.”
This echoes similar findings in previous WEF Future of Jobs reports. In response, Harvard’s Division of Continuing Education lists the ten critical soft skills that employers are looking for. Given the challenges presented by the ‘double-disruption’ scenario, Harvard’s list – principally aimed at leaders – focuses on critical thinking, ie the ability to think with clarity and direction. Harvard’s top ten skills are:
- Analytical thinking and innovation “Build on your ability to use logic and reason to create inventive solutions.”
- Active learning and learning strategies “Employers are always looking for people who will continue to prioritize professional growth.
- Creativity, originality, and initiative “Creative thinking can pave the way for lucrative opportunities, such as finding untapped markets, creating efficiencies, or launching new initiatives.”
- Technology, design and programming “Learning how to design and program software is a skill that will stay in high demand.”
- Critical thinking and analysis “Of all the potential buzzwords that exist in corporate jargon, “critical thinking” is a phrase you should pay attention to.”
- Tackling complexity “According to the Harvard Business Review, thinking deeply about complex problems entails challenging your convictions, taking on the biggest problems early in the day, and paying attention to instinct.”
- Leadership and social influence “By knowing how to encourage ambition on a personal level, you’ll be able to motivate from the ground up.”
- Emotional intelligence “The value of emotional intelligence is gaining traction on a global scale. It’s about knowing how to look inward to gauge your self-perception.”
- Reasoning and problem-solving “Problem-solving is a skill that can be refined and strengthened. In doing so, you create improved efficiencies for yourself and your organization.”
- Systems analysis and evaluation “You can make your skills more marketable with a deeper understanding of operations and how they can be improved.”
Tips for leaders
Over the last two years, the mindset of employees has changed in response to the pandemic. As people develop a new relationship with work, power in the social contract has shifted from employers towards employees. Leaders have responded, listening to the demand for hybrid working. In the wake of the Great Resignation, is a switch to hybrid enough? Leaders can protect job retention by investing in their people – starting with skills in professional development. Oracle’s Yvette Cameron believes that “companies that do not proactively offer innovative and rewarding training, education, and other creative ways to keep employees engaged will see their ranks depleted even more by the Great Resignation.”
Designing your own professional development plan
So, where to start. In glancing at the list of skills and courses below, you might not need everything. Think about areas where you believe there’s room for improvement, then pick and choose the topics that are right for you. By preparing your own professional development plan, you’ll be able to identify targets and deadlines.
Confidence and self-esteem
An inner voice, whispering doubts and difficulties, can get in the way both at work and at home. Learned behaviour that disrupts confidence can be replaced with techniques such as the three circles of presence, described by author Patsy Rodenburg. The first circle is a confining place to be, without eye contact or the chance of speaking freely. In the third circle, your voice talks over others and you’re terrible at listening. Both circles are expressions of insecurity. The second circle is a stronger place to be. Here, your focus is on everything but yourself. You listen to others and notice the details of their behaviour. You develop a healthy, sturdy sense of presence, and doubts become harder to hear.
Learnflix blog: 3 easy ways to develop confidence and self-esteem
Once you’re comfortable in yourself, the next thing is showing this to people. Your thoughts and actions have value, make sure they’re noticed by communicating with impact. Whether you’re speaking, writing or just seeking more presence in the room, all communication starts at the same place: first, know what your message is. For example, you might feel angry about something. But in expressing raw emotion, what are you trying to achieve? If you’re hoping to change an outcome, best to calmly focus on this objective. Redirect emotion, untangle confusion and take the time to find what you want to say. Then, secondly, know your audience. This shapes how you say your message, using jargon, gravitas, even humour etc. These simple guidelines hold true whether you’re delivering a presentation or just trying to get your point across in a conversation. Manage your message if you want it to be heard.
Learnflix blog: Business writing skills that will stop you getting stuck
Success at work relies on building meaningful relationships with others. People who report to you will do their best work for someone they respect. People you report to will be looking to see if you can get the best from your team. You may need to build rapport with clients, win people over, resolve tensions and overcome challenges. All of these things require the psychological agility to deal with different personalities, sometimes simultaneously. This involves a set of skills collectively known as emotional intelligence. In managing emotional behaviours at work, a mix of factors come into play, among them decisiveness, motivation, influence, adaptability, empathy, conscientiousness, stress resilience and self-awareness.
Learnflix blog: Emotional Intelligence, the best way to win hearts and minds
Motivation can be your flakiest friend. One day you feel yourself to be a reliable self-starter, ready to write the CV, organise upskilling and touch the face of the future. Other days it’s all going to hell in a handcart. It’s important to understand your own sources of motivation, and nurture them consistently, not just on the days when you need them. Motivation is like a muscle, it’s best exercised regularly. This maintains momentum, which helps to stop motivation faltering in the first place. By working to your priorities and values, setting achievable goals and being alert to the limitations of routines, you can hold on to motivation so that it’s there when you need it.
Now that homeworking has become more common, personal impact has taken on new prominence. Teams have been spread far and wide since March 2020. Offices are closing, company culture is changing. To cut through these transformations, develop your personal impact so that your identity and achievements resonate across the team no matter how far they are spread. Relying on the foundation skills of confidence, communication and emotional intelligence, use your mind, body and voice to create a memorable impression of you and your message. People who remember you come to trust you. Personal impact nurtures credibility, builds reputation and is a key part of the process of personal branding.
Self-leadership is an umbrella term for a range of skills that keep you on top of the challenges you might typically face on any given day, from decision-making and problem-solving, through to time-management and an awareness of ethics. This category also includes team-building – the set of skills that enable you to manage the equation between targets, deadlines, team members and to-do-lists. By learning to manage workplace pressure, you’ll come to know your stress triggers, learn to reframe perspectives and develop coping strategies. Mindfulness may help, as will thinking about personal effectiveness, ie nurturing your physical, mental and emotional energy levels.
Next level skills
‘Critical’ in this case is a reference to acting as your own critic, assessing your line of thought and making it as strong and robust as possible. In a world of hybrid working, employers will favour staff who can think logically and objectively. This involves recognising the limitations we are all subject to, such as biases – the ‘automatic’ quick-response thoughts which can get in the way of more careful thinking. Thought processes such as keeping an open mind, and focusing on facts, help to reduce scope for mistakes and misunderstandings.
Learnflix blog: Critical thinking superheroes untangle lines of thought
Networking has a stigma, associated with developing relationships with people purely to advance your career. It’s a concern that mixes things up. Getting to know someone in the hope that they might be able to help you progress at work is common practice, acceptable action and unlikely to ruffle feathers. Where things can go wrong is in how this is done. Connecting with someone on LinkedIn is easy enough. But when swapping messages with someone, talking to them or meeting up with them, it helps to be genuine in your actions. Sincere relationships need to be maintained over time. Nurture your network, stay in contact whether you need them at the moment or not. By building genuine rapport, you’ll be able to leverage it when you need to and reap the dividend of your hard work.
Insights article: Need to know the right people? Networking tips for the terrified
Learnflix blog: The networking skills that give your career a little extra spin
Your personal brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room. Personal brand is an objective that comes about through an ongoing process of personal branding. Professional development normally means self-improvement. Personal branding is more about self-packaging. By deliberately curating a specific image, you can become known for the attributes that are important to you. The essential thing is to keep it genuine. A good way to start is to simply identify those skills or aspects of work you already possess and that you particularly want to be identified with. Once you’re consciously aware of them, others will take their cue from you. Ultimately, you’re not trying to put on a show. In being true to yourself, you’re simply shaping perception, so that people build an image of someone that you’re proud to be
Insights article: Projecting your Personal Brand: Learning from Greta Thunberg
Think of these professional development skills as your personal tool kit. Between them, they’ll give you the ability to fix problems, cope with the everyday and reach towards your ambitions. By keeping a sincere, authentic perspective on things, you’ll strengthen your position at work and give yourself a springboard for the months and years ahead.