Career Coaching Questions:
Understanding Professional Development
What is professional development? How is professional development work different from basic career coaching? Why does professional development matter, anyway?
Think of it this way: It’s one thing to choose a career, but it’s another thing to figure out a career trajectory that evolves over time and keeps you moving forward. Sometimes professional development means figuring out which step to take next (taking a different job, or going back to school). But more often, real professional development requires a personal growth process of figuring out how to become the person who can achieve the things you want to do.
To get to where you want to ultimately go, you need a professional development plan to get there. For example, do you have a big, ambitious vision for the kind of career you’d like to have? Maybe you’d like to own your own company, shape public policy, or bring some creative project that’s close to your heart into existence.
Whatever your career goals, reaching them will require a process of professional development. No matter how smart and talented you are, no matter your college GPA or your extracurricular accomplishments, once you choose a career you’d like to pursue and land an entry-level role, you’ll need to continuously develop yourself both personally and professionally in order to move ahead.
Professional Development vs Professional Disappointment
Of course, this makes sense on an intellectual level, but the reality of what’s actually involved with authentic career growth can throw some early-career professionals for a loop, especially if they excelled in school and are used to things coming easily. They can grow impatient with the slow pace of progress, insecure about their own professional value, (hello imposter syndrome!) and overwhelmed by the thousands of little actions required to make their big, overarching career vision a reality.
One of the biggest myths of career satisfaction (kind of like relationships, actually) is that if you figure out “What should I do with my life?” and find the “right” career, you’re going to be golden — the rest of your career is going to feel as easy as slipping down a waterslide into a fun pool of money. Just like it’s also not true that if you find “the right person” you’re going to have a smooth-sailing, effortless relationship for the rest of your life, actualizing a truly satisfying career means that you need to continuously evolve and grow.
Professional development is a personal growth process, and growth is always a little messy. In fact, our greatest personal growth spurts often come out of terrible experiences, like going through a job loss or layoff, suffering from burnout, or feeling disempowered in a toxic workplace. While learning hard lessons about what is and isn’t good for us at work is well worth our time in the long term, in the short term, it can feel absolutely demoralizing.
If you’re feeling stuck and don’t know why, or are struggling to move ahead at work in the way that you want, the answer may be found in the professional development process. This type of personal/professional growth work can be tough to crack into: We all have blind spots and we don’t know what we don’t know — especially when it comes to ourselves.
A good Denver career coach or online career counselor can help you assess the obstacles in your path and strategize the best route forward. By understanding the dual process of professional development and personal growth and embracing the work they entail, you can reach your fullest career potential, make sure it’s in alignment with your holistic, whole-life goals, and learn a lot about yourself in the process.
Professional Development: Sharpening Your Skill Set
Here’s a story about what the professional development process can look like, and feel like, and how it can impact your life in ways that are hard to imagine when you’re in the soup.
When I met Jake, he was a 27-year-old software developer, frustrated that all of his hard work and technical skill hadn’t yet translated into a big, cushy job at a top tech company.
He told me that he could code laps around his coworkers and that he suspected a few of them were even jealous of his evident talent. He wondered if that was why, despite his excellent performance, he felt stuck in his present role at a middling startup, and had already been passed over twice for promotions.
As I listened to Jake, I had a hunch that his coding ability was genuinely top-tier, but that his “soft” skills needed a little work. I noticed that, as Jake spoke to me, he didn’t send many signals that he was interested in what I had to say. He would spend long stretches of time glancing down at his cellphone, rather than looking at his computer’s camera while we chatted. (Especially when I was the one talking!)
Jake told me about his frustrations in working with his team. Because of his skill and ability, he’d been tapped to help supervise some junior developers, but (according to him) they were contrarians who were impossible to work with. Despite working in a small office, I noticed that he sometimes struggled to remember his coworkers’ names. While he could be quick and even charming, his ability to hold the floor seemed lightyears ahead of his ability to listen.
Jake is very bright and quite young. Jake has no idea what his professional development obstacle is yet. He thinks maybe he needs to learn a new coding skill, but if he goes that route, he’s going to remain frustrated. He may be feeling “stuck” in his career, but in reality he has just come up against an area he’ll need to grow in order to advance to a leadership role where he is now, so that he can someday land the big, cushy job at Google that he dreams about.
Professional Growth = Personal Growth
To take his career path where he wants it to go, he’ll need to develop his interpersonal skills, specifically his emotional intelligence. Even though he’s outwardly polite, his coworkers are picking up on the fact that Jake isn’t genuinely interested in them, doesn’t value their contributions as much as his own, and views them as his competition rather than his collaborators. He’s not giving off the respect, humility, and team-oriented attitude that make someone an effective leader, and so he’s being passed over for promotions, despite all his talent.
Unlike a technical skill deficit, the need to develop “soft skills” is typically hard to see for the person who needs to do the development. If Jake was making mistakes in his lines of code or failing to complete projects on time, his areas for professional growth would be obvious to him. But when you need to raise your emotional intelligence, you may only experience it as confusion about the reactions you’re getting from others, or about why you’re not moving up despite working hard.
Working with an online career coach or counselor can help you see your blindspots, note the skills that need some work, and make a plan to strengthen them. Discovering an area where you’re falling short at work doesn’t have to be defeating. You can choose to view it as what it is: An opportunity to become an even better version of yourself, and in doing so, to move one step closer to your ultimate career goals.
Jake has a long career ahead of him. If he can adopt this growth mindset, he can improve his emotional intelligence, become a better listener, and cultivate a genuine interest in his coworkers that will aid his career and add richness to his life. Developing his soft skills will not only help him win at work, but it will also make him a better software developer, capable of a deeper level of teamwork and collaboration.
The greatest accomplishments — the kind that Jake would like to someday be a part of — are only possible when groups of highly talented people work together. That takes interpersonal skills and genuine respect for viewpoints outside of your own. By working on himself, Jake will ultimately grow into the genuinely good leader he aspires to be.
Perhaps even more importantly, although Jake is currently motivated to work on himself to advance his career goals, the personal growth work he does with me is his to keep and use in many other areas of his life. It’s going to be the foundation of his ability to build healthy relationships, have a long and happy marriage, and if he wants to have kids, be the kind of loving and connected parent they’re going to adore.
The rewards he reaps from working on himself at this point in his life are going to pay off in ways he can’t even fathom yet. He thinks he’s going to have a great career and be well-off financially (all true, given his trajectory) but he’s also investing in things that are priceless, and much more valuable than money.
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Professional Development: Cultivating Grit
Here’s another story for you, about how professional development can be an entirely inner experience. Nothing changes… but it changes everything.
When I met Emily, she was 28 with a degree from a prestigious law school, working hard at her first job at a big corporate firm. She was well-dressed, driving a brand new car, and had recently put down a downpayment on her first condo.
From the outside, Emily appeared to have it all together. She was smart, successful, and evidently thriving. But internally, she was not satisfied. She felt envious when her colleagues were assigned to important cases, and insulted when she was assigned tasks that felt “lesser.” When she did get juicy assignments she threw herself at them 1000%, going far over and above what anyone expected (or which was helpful), putting in long hours, exhausting herself, and wrecking her health in the process.
She was doing well financially but constantly compared herself to others, and told herself that other graduates of her law school program were doing better. Even though she had achieved the career goals she had set out to achieve by her young age, she often felt like a failure and had anxiety that, if she wasn’t number one now, she’d never reach her ultimate goal — becoming a partner at the firm.
To make matters worse, Emily’s boyfriend was threatening to dump her because her constant complaints and stress about her job were ruining their relationship. In some ways, Emily had “arrived.” She was on her career path, she was doing the things, and she was making progress. But she was miserable and riddled with angst.
Professional Development = Self Awareness
When we’re not happy with the current state of our careers, it can be hard to identify the true cause. Professional development always requires self-awareness and personal exploration. Sometimes, we come to realize that we’re genuinely in an environment where we’re not getting the opportunities to develop our talents and move ahead. Or sometimes, even worse, we realize that after all the school and hard work our chosen career is out of alignment with our values or holistic life goals, or that we just plain don’t like it. (Check out Quarter Life Crisis for more on this subject).
If, through your exploration and self-awareness process you discover that your current career just isn’t suited to your personality, interests, or talents, you may decide that you need to keep looking to find a career you love. In these cases, professional development involves imagining the stepping stones that will take you in a different direction, and confidently moving along them one by one.
This was not the case with Emily. Emily was made for this. She loved the logic and process of the law. She loved to write, even in legalese. She loved the power her legal acumen gave her, and the ability to be helpful to people who needed her guidance and protection.
Emily just had this idea that her career trajectory should be different than what it actually was. She was prepared to excel and succeed. She was not prepared for the extremely long game that she’d unknowingly signed up for. She felt like something was wrong. Through our work, she discovered that the story she was telling herself about what should be happening was creating unbearable stress and anxiety for her, damaging her wellness, her relationships, and her enjoyment of her chosen profession in the process.
This is often true for smart, highly motivated young professionals just starting out in their careers. The slow pace of professional development, after a lifetime of classes and hobbies that came easily, can make them impatient to get to where they want to go.
We don’t graduate from college or a master’s program, land our first job, and immediately have the careers we envisioned for ourselves. Building a career takes time, and some of that time, especially in the early stages, will likely be spent doing work that is less glamorous or exciting than what we had imagined. We’re not the only people who want prestigious, well-paid jobs, after all. To land them, we not only have to develop our skills, we usually have to put in the time.
In Emily’s case, she needed some help making a mental shift to see the work she was doing now as worthwhile, and a necessary step along her career path to becoming the top-notch attorney she knew she could be. She needed some help finding areas of her work that were genuinely interesting to her, and that gave her opportunities to learn new skills that would come in handy in future roles.
Emily’s professional development involved learning different cognitive skills and rewriting her story. Nothing changed with regards to what she was doing day-to-day at work (except her backing off a little which was a good thing). But her feelings of satisfaction and enjoyment returned.
Emily also needed a little help, as many of us do, untangling her professional success from her personal worth. Because of messages she’d received from her family growing up, she had tied her value to material success and her job title, and so she couldn’t help but feel threatened and question herself when she compared herself to others.
Not every career counselor can work with you on this level. But working with a career coach or counselor who is also a therapist can help you get to the bottom of whether you’re unhappy in your career, your current job, or if you just need to reevaluate your thoughts about where you are now to find greater satisfaction. More on how to find a good career coach here, if you’re interested.
Professional Development: Break Big Dreams Into Little Tasks
Big dreams are great. Big plans are terrible.
We all grow and evolve throughout our lives, and our careers too. Who you are when you are just starting out is very different than the mature professional you’ll grow into. I’ve even worked with founders of extremely successful businesses who were looking towards the end of their careers (or their cash-outs) and trying to figure out what, how, and who they wanted to grow into next.
When you’re pursuing an ambitious career goal, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the little things you’ll need to do to attain it. How many years of school will you need? How many skills must you learn that you don’t have now? How will you build the network, the body of work, and the professional reputation that it takes to rise to the top of a competitive field?
When you’re mid-career it can feel mystifying about where to go next, how to increase your mastery, how to grow as a leader, how to shift your boundaries around your changing personal circumstances, or even how to stay fulfilled mentally and emotionally in a job you’ve done for years. Without a path forward, we flounder.
Feeling flounder-y, stuck, or frustrated is not a great feeling when you’re in it, but it’s truly a good thing. These are the feelings that motivate people just like you to think, “Okay, I need to do something,” and they reach out to a career counselor for support. This first action is the first breakthrough.
Sometimes the ensuing path of development carries you in different directions, and different situations. Sometimes the path of professional development takes you on an inward journey of growth. Occasionally it invites you to do both at the same time. But it’s always interesting.
I hope that this discussion of what professional development is, what it involves, and why it matters was helpful to you as you’re thinking about what you need and want out of your career (and life!)
Your partner in growth,
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self. She is a licensed psychologist, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and a board-certified coach, as well as the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.
Meet a Few of Our Professional Development Experts
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