Most large organizations have professional development budgets, be it to attend conferences, take an online course, or semi-regular internal workshops taught by external experts.
When I worked for Fleishman-Hillard, we had quarterly professional development including business development, writing skills, and more.
They always relied on internal experts for most things, but also occasionally brought in experts.
I remember taking Ann Wylie’s writing workshops back in the day.
She still teaches them—and still gets rave reviews.
But when you work for a smaller organization, are the boss, or are a solopreneur, the professional development budgets are often zilch, zero, nada, none.
So you have to get creative in how you’ll stay up-to-date on the latest trends and industry developments, improve your skills, and make sure you’re always learning.
The Benefits of Professional Development
You know it’s important, but it can also be time-consuming and expensive.
My very first boss after I graduated from college would sit at her desk every morning and read.
It used to make us all mad. We didn’t get paid to read! Why did she get to?
It wasn’t until I had some experience under my belt that I realized all the reading she did benefited our clients in huge ways.
She knew everything about everything—and she always had crazy creative ideas that weren’t the same as what everyone else was doing.
That’s one example of the benefits of professional development, even as small as reading trade magazines, the newspaper, or business books.
The Costs of Not Investing In Professional Development
But what are the costs of NOT doing it?
Well, for one, your competition will eat your lunch over and over again.
And maybe that’s OK with you (it’s not for me, but I’m also highly competitive), but in business, the goal is always to stay ahead, maintain or grow market share, and continue to grow.
It’s impossible for you to help an organization do that if you aren’t growing.
Not to bring politics into this discussion, but I’m totally going to bring politics into this discussion.
One of the things that drives me batty, and truly makes people look ignorant, is when they spout off about how so-and-so politician is evil but they can’t tell you why.
I’m totally cool with you having opinions that differ from mine, but you have to be able to tell me why.
And saying, “Because she or he is” is not a reason.
The same goes for business.
If you are with an executive or a client and they ask you about something happening in the news and you can’t answer them intelligently, that doesn’t bode well for you.
At the very least, swipe right on your iPhone each morning and read the day’s news.
That’s the start of your professional development journey.
80% of Your Non-Work Time Should Be Spent Learning
Just like anything else, it’s challenging to fit professional development into your life, especially if it’s not a priority.
Making it a priority is one of the first things you should do, just as Benjamin Hardy, the author of Willpower Doesn’t Work recommends. He says, among other things, that you spend 80% of your non-work time learning and improving yourself.
That means, while there are plenty of evenings and weekends we’d all love to Netflix and chill, it doesn’t take much effort to read one chapter in a business book (and I’m happy to recommend a few) every day and let your reward be Netflix and chilling.
Or just Netflix. Or just chilling.
(And yes, I know what that means!)
While that may not be totally possible in all cases, it highlights the importance of learning and expanding your abilities.
Here are some other ways you can add in professional development during work hours.
Conferences—virtual and in-person—can be great opportunities to get a lot of learning into a short timeframe—if you’re really good about taking what you learn and implementing it when you get back to the office versus keeping it all in your notebook and never going back to it.
There are conferences for just about every aspect of marketing, communications, advertising, and beyond.
Deciding which conferences are worth the time (and investment!) can be a challenge.
You have to figure out what your priorities are before deciding on the conference(s) you’ll attend.
I can certainly give you a list of my favorites, but I’ll do so after you decide on your priorities.
- Going back to basics?
- Adding a new skillset?
If it’s learning, you want to choose conferences with excellent speakers.
Of course, you want to find the conferences that have industry influencers and the people you follow and respect. But also look for new voices.
If that’s important to you, find the conferences that fit your learning priorities.
There is always a cost/benefit question when it comes to conferences, so make sure you have clear goals for what you want to get out of the event, and follow up on your networking, and take action on what you learned from the talks and workshops.
Take Online Courses
Online courses are another fantastic way to get professional development, particularly when you want to learn something specific or do a deep dive into a larger topic.
In terms of time and money investment, they’re a great middle-ground for most professionals.
We’re fans of online courses.
We launched the Modern Blogging Masterclass nearly five years ago and have never looked back.
From there, we added The Content Secret to Closing More Clients, then Close More Clients, which helps agency owners add passive income to their revenue streams, and then Agency Jumpstart, which helps agency owners exceed their goals, be it growth, adding staff, making more money, or paying themselves a living wage.
We’re not the only online course provider, of course, and you can get online training either from individuals and organizations or through big platforms such as LinkedIn Learning, Coursera, and Masterclass.
I’m a big fan of Masterclass because I can combine my personal and professional development in one site.
I can take writing from Malcolm Gladwell and cooking from Thomas Keller.
You can, of course, take online courses around things that are specifically related to your work, and it’s a good idea to make sure that you’re well-rounded as a professional.
Think speaking and presentation skills, researching, writing, technology, media production, graphics, video or photo editing, and more.
It’s not only the skills you personally use every day that you want to develop.
Focus on anything that can help you communicate with clients and colleagues more effectively, or that inspires and motivates you.
Invest In Coaching
Coaching is the powerhouse when it comes to professional development.
It’s personal, and it’s usually for a specific purpose, timeframe, or outcome.
Coaching is not just great for growth and adding new skillsets, it helps you make money, too.
And, let’s be real, most of us work to make money so why not make it easier on yourself to do that?
Early, early in my own agency’s life, I hired a coach who taught me the basics of running a P&L.
To this day, I’m mad at myself for not getting more on-the-job experience with that side of running an agency, but Brad Farris was amazing in teaching me what I needed to learn.
Then, as I started to add employees, Randy Hall taught me what I needed to know about leadership—most of the tools he gave me, I still use today.
He also helped me break some very bad habits I learned from working for poor managers.
Then Danny Iny taught me how to let go of perfection and just launch online courses as beta products to see what happened.
He was integral in everything you see come out of Spin Sucks today.
I’ve worked with Vistage and YPO and I’ve hired coaches for very specific reasons and coaches for more broad counsel.
Every one of those experiences has helped us get where we are today–and will continue to help us grow.
Of course, individual coaching can also be the most expensive professional development you can give yourself, and it’s not in the cards at all times for all professionals.
Happily. there are other ways to keep your skills sharp, and your body of knowledge growing.
Read Books and Do Some Independent Study
Not all professional development has to be expensive—or intense!
Today, the number of books, blogs, and free webinars and courses are widely available on pretty much every topic you can imagine.
If you’re going to go the independent professional development route and use books and free resources for your learning, consider adding structure to your study.
Reading for work is something that’s often really easy to put off. You can always get to it later. And then later happens and you realize your to-read pile is gigantic.
Here are some strategies to make sure you’re taking advantage of it instead.
Set aside work time for work-related study.
How you do this depends on you and what fits into your life.
The moment we say, “Ug, I have an entire book to read,” the longer it sits on our desk or nightstand.
But, if you break it up as I mentioned earlier—one chapter a night and your reward is to watch Netflix or listen to a podcast, or drink wine, or whatever it happens to be.
After about 10 days, you’ll have read an entire business book and your life will have changed for the better.
Use the learning you do to help train your colleagues, or make changes to how you work.
If you want to learn and apply something specific from each book you read, then going into it with the mindset that you will learn at least one thing means you will.
I do that with breakout sessions at conferences too, by the way.
If I can learn one to three new things from each session I attend, I consider it a win.
If you have a work book club, provide reading notes or a summary to your team, or, if you’re on your own, make specific changes or try new activities based on what you learn.
This takes reading from being passive to action-oriented, which can help with motivation.
For example, if you’re reading Atomic Habits, decide at the beginning that there’s a specific habit you want to change, and “work along” with the content of the book to do exactly that.
Your Professional Development Journey
In my own agency and at Spin Sucks, I consider my team pretty darn lucky.
They get to have all of the training we provide to the communications industry.
They can take all of the courses, attend all of the group coachings, get an instant review of their homework, and, best of all, have access to our coaches, their content, and their brains. It’s professional development on steroids for them.
I’ve experienced all levels of professional development throughout my career—from watching my boss read every morning and use that knowledge to help our clients through one-on-one coaching with some of the best business coaches out there.
Combine that with the experience of providing professional development and there are a few things I know will help in your own journey:
- You need someone to hold you accountable. If you’re doing self-study, ask a colleague or friend to hold you accountable for the work—and the results. Or, look for group coaching, if one-on-one coaching isn’t in the budget.
- Having homework and someone to send it to for review will enhance your learning experience. That may be through an online course, or you could also do the exercises found in many business books and ask a friend or colleague to look it over for you.
- Have a goal. If it’s wanting to learn one to three things from every breakout session you attend at a conference, writing a blog post from a book you read, or using what you learned to unstick an idea at work, have a reason why you’re doing something.
I have an eight-year-old and I often marvel at how much she loves learning.
She is constantly saying to us, “Did you know…?”
Adopt that same attitude to your professional development.
Not only will you stay ahead of trends, you’ll evolve your career, help everyone around you, and perhaps even inspire a colleague or peer.