I was asked the question this past week. . . .”Is lifelong learning essential to maintaining a career?”
On the face of it, the easy response is an automatic and resounding “YES!”
Now, before delving deeper into the question, you must understand something about me. A few years ago I participated in the Strengths Assessment through a corporate organization I was part of at the time.
The assessment resulted in my Number One strength being “Learner” which basically means, to me anyway, that I like to learn for the sake of learning.
Strengthsfinder is a program administered by the Gallup Organization and is the subject of the book by Tom Rath. There are free versions available on the web but they typically only will give you a scaled down version of the real thing.
To take the official assessment, you need to either have a corporate sponsored program or you can purchase the book. Only the new books will guarantee that you get the access code necessary to get full access to all 34 of your strengths. I got my copy from Amazon.
Again. . .full disclosure. My top strength is Learner.
I would also maintain that we are always learning every day. But does all that learning serve to further your career? To that I would answer, it depends.
For instance, I am learning to blog about Leadership and Career items as I go. Will that further my career of my “day job”? Not in my present position but for everything I learn, a new door may open and it may become something that does enhance my career.
There are other types of learning as well that will directly influence the growth of your career. I’m sure most anyone who handles sensitive material such as HIPAA protected health information, financial data or a customer database must go through some type of data security training on an annual basis. Much of that seems common sense but there will almost always be a snippet of information in the training that is new, including new methods of hacking and phishing that can get you to inadvertently breach that data.
Your CPA may have one of the toughest jobs of all. As we all know, the tax code is constantly changing. If your accountant is worth her salt, she is staying abreast of the changes and constantly learning. If not, you may want to rethink who does your taxes.
All of this is employer or government mandated learning. Another aspect is voluntary learning.
A case in point here is the person who goes on after college to earn an advanced degree. Nobody is mandating that they go on to higher education. Each and every potential grad student must look in the mirror and make an individual decision as to whether or not the benefit will outweigh the cost.
Another example is the person who, while employed full time, wants to grow in his career or explore another department or division of his company. Many times this person will not be qualified to just make the move and be successful. He may have transferable skills but not know the day to day work of the department. In situations like this, the person has a couple choices to learn. They can (maybe) arrange for a temporary assignment to the desired department. Or, he can have an open discussion with his current manager and the targeted department manager about his desires and what he would need to do to set himself up for success.
The same holds true for a potential career change. An old colleague of mine (we’ll call her Susan) was a long time veteran of a travel organization in their call center environment. Susan was a superb leader of people and had been in travel and hospitality for so long, it was really all she knew. Due to an unexpected downsizing on the horizon, she knew there wasn’t long to find another employer. The trouble was, she worked for the only game in town and was not in a position to relocate. She did, however, work in a city with several large banks and banking call centers.
What to do? Susan knew nothing about the intricacies of the banking system. Her financial experience was her checking account and her investment accounts. But she did know people management and leadership. She came in with the mentality that leading was a transferable skill and she could learn the product(s).
Susan was ultimately was hired by the bank to run their call center operations. She was especially welcomed since the call center operations were less than optimal. The focus was not on actual customer service but more on cross selling and upselling. And while those are important parts of the success of an operation, the right to enter that dialogue with a client has to be earned.
While she was very comfortable taking on this area, Susan also realized she could not back herself into a corner from a skill set perspective. She would need to become more knowledgeable with banking products or her career would stagnate.
Since Susan was hired for her call center expertise, did she have to seek out more knowledge? In all likelihood she did not. She could have carved out a successful tenure at the bank simply managing the numbers like Average Handle Time and Average Speed of Answer. But she knew that would only take her so far and would essentially become a ceiling on her career.
Her request to attend seminars and classes to study the banking and financial system were met with resistance since her manager didn’t see the need for Susan to have that knowledge. Susan disheartened but decided to learn on her own time. She started with the basics and formed a network of other people within the organization she could rely on.
The moral of the story here is that what she learned cannot be unlearned. It may or may not ultimately help her progress in this organization. But she did acquire additional skills and knowledge. And her team is noticing the change too as Susan can now jump in and help will calls when necessary. That’s not part of her job description. . .that says she manages people. Susan feels that she will be a more effective manager and leader if she puts her skills to use.
The alternative is to choose to not learn anything new, to just learn enough to maintain the status quo. Ultimately, your career is in no one’s control but yours. Obviously events can take place along the way that can alter your course. But how far you progress is really up to you. Maybe it isn’t in the organization where you are currently employed.
Failure to learn new skills will definitely be an anchor on career advancement. I’ve used this phrase before and I’m sure I will again:
If you aren’t moving forward, you’re standing still. And if you’re standing still, you’re falling behind.
I would maintain that people who don’t want to learn new skills aren’t in a career at all. They are in a job and are just collecting a paycheck. I see people like this every day. I had a colleague state once that these people seemed like they were “retired on active duty”. It’s true. They are coming in to work, punching the clock and just doing enough to get by until the 5 o’clock whistle blows.
These are the people who are frustrations to managers everywhere. They feel like the job is unfair and that all the good opportunities go to other people.
When discussing career growth, the old cliché “You get out of it what you put into it” really does apply. It’s funny. I’ve despised that phrase for so long because I’ve heard it so many times. But it really is true. If you aren’t willing to be a lifelong learner, you can’t really expect your career to continue to advance.
Thanks for reading my inaugural blog post. I’d love your thoughts.