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How to DRI Your Professional Development

Credit: Pixabay / Comfreak

If you’re the DRI of your career, obviously that also makes you – not your manager – the DRI of your professional development.

Own your professional development. Your professional development budget is what your employer gives you to invest in your career – take advantage of it. What you decide to invest on top of that is up to you – at times more or less depending on the demands of life. Having a sense of what you’re working towards both within and without your workplace helps you prioritize time (and money).

Being the DRI of Your Career

Probably you have a development budget, but that can be the least of it (not that you shouldn’t use that budget – hello, it’s November, you’re just in time for 2021). The truth is that often people think opportunistically, not strategically, about their budget. That is still better than when a manager sees it as a box to check, but falls far short of what it could be.

A development plan usually covers the following:

  • What
  • Why
  • Resources
  • Support
  • Opportunity

Now a bad one of these looks like:

  • What: Demonstrate ownership of a complex feature.
  • Why: To get promoted.
  • Resources: $TeamLead will do code review.
  • Support: Manager, team lead.
  • Opportunity: Feature X in Y stream of work.

Why is this bad? Well it’s not developing anything (except maybe this feature). It’s a structured way to say “do this and maybe get promoted” that hides the subjectivity and unpredictability – what if $TeamLead says that the code review was too much work? Or what if the team lead quits? Or that stream of work gets cancelled?

Development plans like this make people consider these exercises worthless – which is fair, because they mostly are. But if we step back from checking boxes to understand the why behind each of these aspects, we might just create something useful. Let’s break it down.

What

The what is what you want to develop. A good what looks like a “proximate objective” – a next step that seems totally possible from where we are now (this concept comes from the book Good Strategy / Bad Strategy – which I love and highly recommend).

As such, a what is not a task. A what is the growth.

Let’s say you want to “improve your public speaking”. A reasonable topic for professional development, but the what of the next step depends entirely on where you are at. Do you want to give a talk in front of 100 people? 1000 people? Do you want to feel comfortable presenting to your team? These will yield entirely different plans.

I’d encourage you not to frame these things as a task that can be checked off. If you present to your team once, and feel so bad afterwards that you vow never again, you could check a box (“presented to team”) but not achieve the underlying goal. Similarly, if you deliver a 5 minute sponsor presentation marketing put together for you, whether it’s to 100 people or 1000 people, it’s likely that hasn’t really moved the needle for you either.

A good what is specific enough that you know when you’ve achieved it, but broad enough that reaching for it demonstrates a genuine expansion of your capabilities.

Why

The why is your underlying motivation, and a critical counterpoint to the what. The why should remind you, when you read it, why it’s worth the struggle and the work to take the what on.

As such, the why needs to be something that genuinely matters to you. Maybe “I need to do this to get promoted” is it, but if you’ve read Drive you’ll know that “if-then” rewards rarely motivate us, and instead we do better with things tied to autonomy, mastery and purpose.

Let’s come back to the goal of being comfortable presenting to your team. What might be a bad why here?

  • “Because everyone else does it.”
  • “Because I got feedback that says I need to do this to get promoted.”

Neither of these hits autonomy, mastery, or purpose. Probably — even worse — the opposite of all those things. Find a why that makes it worthwhile to you.

“So that I can explain concepts, answer questions and get buy in for my ideas.”

Much better.

Resources

This is what you have to facilitate meeting this goal. This might include:

  • Your professional development budget.
  • In house training.
  • Online training.
  • Company resources or subscriptions (e.g. Coursera, audio book library).

In our public speaking example, you might have:

It’s easy to skip over this part, but I bet there’s more available to you than you think there is. Asking other people for other resources they recommend can be a nice (and easy) way to connect with someone around your goal, too.

Support

These are the people who can support you meeting this goal. Hopefully, your manager is on the list. By doing all this work, you’ve made it super easy for them to help you, so I’d really encourage you to at least open the conversation.

Other people who can potentially help you:

  • Your teammates.
  • A coach.
  • A mentor.
  • Your professional network (even if you just ask for recommendations on LinkedIn or Twitter, you never know where the conversation will go!)
  • Your friends and family (even just for emotional support / accountability).

Opportunity

Opportunity is where you will accomplish this goal. This can be the most loaded aspect. Sometimes it can seem like there’s no opportunity, or that the availability of the opportunity depends on our manager giving it to us.

I think of opportunity as being like flowers: given, planted, and picked.

This analogy makes some of the contention around “opportunity” clear. The concept of “exposure” being an opportunity, but y’know, people die of exposure. If you have a bouquet of roses and someone offers you a daisy, feel free to tell them to GTFO. But if you have a handful of daisies, and someone offers you a tulip, it might be worth making some space for it. The point being: there is an aspect of reconciliation in what’s on offer versus what we have, what should be accepted, what could be regifted, and what is suited only for the garbage. Often the mismatch in expectation shows up in what people think they are offering, and what they think someone has (here’s a great example).

Given: The most straightforward opportunity. Someone says “do you want this” and you say “yes please”.

Planted: The work you do to create opportunity down the line. In the public speaking example, maybe you submit a bunch of CFPs. At work, maybe you work to define a significant project in the hope it positions you to lead it. In this space, it’s about creating options, and accepting those options may or may not pay off.

Picked: The opportunity you’ve worked to take advantage of. E.g. you write a bunch of interesting articles, and get invited to give a talk. Or, you did a lot of mentoring / onboarding and get the opportunity to lead the team.

A mismatch of expectations that can happen with respect to sponsorship, is that people can think that having a sponsor means the sponsor gives them the opportunity they want. In reality, there’s often work to build trust on both sides. Sponsorship more often looks like the opportunity to plant some seeds, and then pick a resulting opportunity.

A totally hypothetical example.

Ana and Bob work in data analysis, putting together reports and are managed by Carolina. Bob is more tenured, but Ana is an enthusiastic recent graduate. Carolina asks Bob to take on more responsibility, editorialize the reports. Bob says no, he and his husband have a new baby. How can he possibly do more work right now? As the most tenured employee, he has all the most complex reports to generate. Carolina doesn’t like to push, so she lets it go.

Ana, as she’s new, is doing the easiest analyses, and sees how she can use some simple scripting to make them faster. With all her work done, she asks Carolina if there’s anything else she can do. Carolina gives her a rough idea to investigate that she hasn’t had time to dig into herself. Ana looks into it, pulls together some analysis, and finds some other questions to look into, and puts together some editorial on it. Whilst it’s missing some key pieces, Carolina sees a way to get the help she needs whilst also developing someone who seems to really appreciate it.

A year later, Carolina gets promoted. Ana takes over her role. Bob is pissed. Why didn’t Carolina tell him what was at stake? He starts looking for a new job.

This scenario could have gone differently. Carolina could – should – have asked Bob what he would need to take on that additional responsibility, coached him through handing off some of his work to Ana. In an ideal world, Carolina would have found a way to grow both her employees and make more opportunity for everyone, rather than creating a situation where one left, and the other was overwhelmed and immediately thrown into hiring a replacement.

But we live in reality and the unfortunate fact of reality is that most of our managers fall short of the ideal. They don’t always ask enough questions or offer enough support. This situation could also have played out differently if Bob had asked for what he needed to make the opportunity viable for him within his constraints (not increasing his working hours). Being the DRI of our professional development also means being the DRI of available opportunity.

Putting it Together

Try it out, put together a professional development plan for a proximate objective (or two, or three). Find someone – your manager, a coach, a trusted teammate – to talk it through with, and encourage them to challenge your thinking, question your assumptions, and suggest additional resources or opportunities (including those to plant).

You wouldn’t start a large scale development project without some kind of plan (or would you…?), so why wouldn’t you do at least as much for your career growth? Thinking critically and deliberately about what you want and how to get it can help you be more effective with your time and resources. The less time you think you have for professional development, the more reason you have to plan.

Even if you’re lucky enough to have a good manager who thinks about developing you, they are constrained by the needs and options of your current environment, whereas your career expands way beyond that. Don’t expect your manager to be perfect – they’re busy, stressed, overwhelmed, and not getting the support they need. You’ll get more useful help if you make it easier for them to help you.

One reply on “How to DRI Your Professional Development”

> Even if you’re lucky enough to have a good manager who thinks about developing you, they are constrained by the needs and options of your current environment, whereas your career expands way beyond that. Don’t expect your manager to be perfect – they’re busy, stressed, overwhelmed, and not getting the support they need. You’ll get more useful help if you make it easier for them to help you.

Great article, Cate! I think one of the most difficult and courageous things that someone can do is to decide when to leave a company. For example, when there is a lack of opportunity and/or a lack of support for what they’d like to do next in their career. Do you have any thoughts on what tech companies could do to keep more of these folks around and continue to harness their professional growth, while not losing sight of business needs and current environment/constraints? As a lead, when is it the right time to let go of someone?

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