Maximizing the Value of Your Professional Development

business professionals speaking in a circle

I recently attended a conference and was struck in conversations by just how busy everyone is in their lives and work. The term ‘crazy-busy’ definitely applied. The fast pace of our modern lives and juggling of multiple roles—professional, student, family, hobbies—can make ongoing development seem like another task to squeeze in. As I heard time and again about how busy everyone was, I began reflecting on whether these experiences really do add value for the time we spend away from our families and other responsibilities. And, if they do add value, how to realistically prioritize and get the most out of them.

Does professional development add value?

I have spent my career working in professional development, first in leadership development within corporations and later in higher education teaching about talent management and leadership development. In my field, it is assumed that professional development is valuable. But every so often it is vital, I find, to question personal values and the manifestation of them in how and where we spend our time. I, like many of you, have a very busy career and family life, with four young children. So I often have to consider whether I am using my time well.

Thinking back on 20 years of professional development experiences, it is certain that some have been more valuable than others. Why? Perceived value has been relative to my interests at the time. It also has been influenced by the connections I found with people. Sometimes, an experience just doesn’t resonate, and we don’t connect with the people there. Overall, though, I can say that I’ve had more positive experiences than not. I’ve also had some great, unexpected professional relationships and projects spin out of these experiences. Like most activities in life, the more present we are the more connections we tend to find.

Here are a few insights I’ve realized from this reflection, based on my experiences and from those of colleagues. Whether you are a student, new to your profession, or quite seasoned in your career, these tips may be helpful to you to get the most out of your own professional development.

Find your tribe…then stir it up periodically

Over the years, I have been a member of many different professional associations and have attended a diverse array of conferences. There are some I return to year after year, because I feel a connection with the people and the content. Others have been a one-time trial. I just didn’t find that ‘spark.’ However, I have found tremendous value in identifying new associations and events to attend periodically, even if they are one-time engagement. They stretch my imagination and connect me with people I may otherwise not meet. So my advice is to keep looking for your ‘tribe,’ if you haven’t found it yet. If you have found it, then continue to branch out occasionally to stir up your circle.

Be fully present in your professional development activities

Attending a conference or event is a common professional development activity. Attendance is a good start, but there are myriad opportunities to maximize value while there. Submit a proposal to present, moderate, or volunteer. By being a presenter, you’ll engage further in the conference and contribute to your field. Attendees will also be more inclined to actively network with you. Additionally, as a presenter, your organization or school may provide you with funding to cover your costs. Even if you are not accepted, the feedback you receive on your submission is a valuable form of professional feedback for improvement. By improving your work, you will be better positioned to be accepted to present in the future. As a moderator or other volunteer position, you will create strong connections within the association.

While you are at the event, actively introduce yourself to new people and connect with them. Be sure to attend the reception and break activities to mingle. It can be difficult to remember people’s names after the event is over, so whether you ask for business cards or digitally connect with them you’ll be actively building your network. Over the years, these connections have provided me with some unexpected and very fruitful professional endeavors, such as research partnerships, publications, and friendly insider tips while in a new country.

Create a longer-term plan to look forward to these opportunities rather than be stressed by them

Stephen Covey’s example of big rocks (priorities) and pebbles (daily tasks) applies. It’s nearly impossible to cram in big-rock priorities when you fill up your days with pebbles. If you aren’t familiar with this concept, it’s a classic and worth a view.

Once you’ve identified your preferred professional associations and events, I’d suggest mapping out a 6-12 month schedule. If you haven’t attended professional events, you’ll find that they often involve advanced registration and travel arrangements. If you are seeking reimbursement from your work or scholarships from your school, these often take a month or more to process, as well. If you would like to be a presenter, the submission deadlines are often 6 months or more in advance. Planning for the long term will help minimize stress in arranging your life around the events, as well.

Stay active and stay reflective

Even if your motivation right now is driven by a workplace or degree program requirement, I’d encourage you to play an active role in seeking out associations and activities that you look forward to. If you don’t feel engaged, use the experience as an opportunity to reflect on your true interests and then seek out a new group to meet or new event to experience. For ideas, look to your colleagues, faculty, or fellow students to see where they have found value. When you find the connections that inspire and energize you, you will be able to maximize the value of your professional development.

Written by Jennie L. Walker, PhD, PHR, Lead Faculty for M.A. in Organizational Development and Leadership at Ashford University, Forbes School of Business.

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