Use Education Wisely to Advance Your Career

Seeing kids boarding buses to go back to school at this time of year reminds me of the value of education.  Taking advantage of developmental and educational opportunities is one of the best ways to advance your career.  Sadly, most of the benefits offered by employers, universities, and communities are not used effectively.  Generally, colleagues are at the extremes.  The “Minimalists” at one end of the spectrum take only the required training (annual compliance training or required continuing education to keep their professional certification).  The “Perpetual Students” at the other end enroll in multiple courses and believe pursuing undergraduate and graduate degrees is the best path to promotions and money.

The best development strategies are tailored to your situation and career goals.  I’ll share some common scenarios.  Which approach works for you?

  1. Happy with Company, But Want to Advance

In this scenario your development strategy should focus on job education requirements, skills, and exposure.  Only pursue a degree program if it gives you the required amount of education to apply for the job.  Many job descriptions will read, “a bachelor’s degree required, a master’s degree preferred.”  Do not invest in an advanced degree to qualify for a specific job.  Invest in formal education to open a new pool of job possibilities.  If you are on the succession plan for a role and it is recommended that the degree would make you a finalist candidate, then consider it.  Otherwise, stick with the minimum requirement.

Take internal, virtual training that improves your business acumen, and develops skills directly related to the job you seek.  Talk to people currently in the role to get course recommendations.  Finally, take in-person training that exposes you to colleagues you will work with in the future.  The most valuable component of in-person learning is not the coursework, it is expanding your internal network of contacts.  Take courses, regardless of their long-term skill value, where you get to interact with the right people.

  1. Not Sure What You Want

In this scenario your development strategy should focus on turbo-charging your job exploration.  Create your job exploration summary by reviewing my video (LINK), then use my Job Exploration Toolkit to identify target industries, companies, and roles (LINK).  Take formal courses taught by professors or industry experts to discover if you are attracted to, have a passion for, and ability in a new area.  Did the concepts come easily to you, or were they difficult?

Take informal or virtual training to learn more about an industry and roles.  Take a diversity of offerings.  Don’t worry about degrees or developing advanced skills.  Your goal is to uncover how people in a given field think, approach problems, make money and add value to customers.  You’re on a mission of personal discovery.  Do you like manufacturing or design?  Leading people or working alone?  For profit or philanthropic work?  Once you determine what you want, network with people to determine if you need a technical certification, college degree, etc. to break into the industry.

  1. Making a Career Transitioning

Guidance from an expert in the target industry is your first step.  You need to network with people who can help you understand the industry, and identify the experiences, knowledge, skills, and education hiring managers seek.  Watch YouTube videos, or comb company websites.  The next step is seeing experts in action talking about your target industry or role.  Luckily, the internet and social media make this easy.  These platforms connect you to YouTube videos, podcasts, blogs, TED Talks, TicTok, and other sources.  Your job is to listen for common approaches or “schools of thought.”

Other resources include chambers of commerce and local continuing education.  Chambers have gatherings led by retired and senior leaders.  This is an excellent way to get access to knowledge in a smaller setting.  Continuing education courses advertised by your local library are also good connection points for experienced professionals.

  1. Positioning Yourself for Senior Leadership

In this scenario, you are a seasoned, accomplished professional, probably on track to becoming a vice president or above.  Seek the advice of mentors and sponsors to see if you need an advanced degree.  If so, what kind and type.  In some organizations, just having the degree is what matters – so going part-time may make sense.  If prestige is important – perhaps an executive degree or going to a particular university is important.  Investigate your financing options.  Will your organization pay for the entire degree, or does it have an education benefit?

At this level, exposure outside your company is also important.  Look for industry conferences, leadership development programs and other programs where you can interact with senior leaders across industries.  The goal is to build your external network. 

Bottom Line

Whether you are looking for a promotion, not sure what you want, transitioning to a new industry, or positioning yourself for senior leadership, taking advantage of developmental and educational opportunities is one of the best ways to advance your career.

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