Keeping your career on track : Continuous learning

In my 23 years at IBM, I went from being a bi-lingual secretary to being a Director of Marketing. It was a hell of a journey. I won’t call it a ride because it sure never felt like I was sitting down and letting someone else do the driving. While not every career move I made was orchestrated, the most important ones definitely were.

I’ve been thinking hard about what made the most difference and came up with 5 things which I think are critical :

  • Continuous learning

  • Career goals

  • Sponsors

  • Mentors

  • Attitude

Whether you are happy in your current role or looking to change, nothing is more important than continuously improving your skills. No matter what your work environment is and how much discipline training is thrown at you, your employers’ training plan should never be your sole guide to continuous learning.

When my husband started his own company back in 1996, I got a couple accounting certifications to make sure I could keep his books properly.  When I moved from being a secretary to doing market intelligence, I leveraged IBM’s learning opportunities to the limit.

First I used all the online content I could find.  Then I started signing up for programs (vs courses) and ended up with two precious Chartered Institute of Marketing certifications.  There was hot debate amongst my colleagues about the usefulness of the certification.  Would IBM recognize it’s value? Pay people more? Prefer them for promotions?  And much discouragement due to the resounding “nope”.

Sometimes, education and certifications are required, but very often your credentials are looked at when you are hired and then that’s it. But the things I learned in that deep domain education were a very solid foundation to build on with experience.  The value of a certification in the market in general is, of course, important.  But the value of the learning you get with any program is the most important benefit.

From there, I continued to focus on improving my soft skills.  The resources available to employees at IBM for continuous learning are profoundly broad and deep. I used online and face to face courses to learn more about influencing, being effective, negotiating and I’m sure I’m forgetting a few.

When I became a manager, I had several face to face, in depth management training courses.  The same when I became an executive. These were fantastic foundations to be an effective manager.  If your company doesn’t offer them as a matter of course to new managers you might consider looking for one on your own.  It’s worth the investment.

I decided in 2011 that I needed to get onboard with social.  I studied up on it. I asked several of the smartest experts I know to teach me over the years.  I started with internal communications. Eventually, I got to Twitter and LinkedIn. Further down the road, I decided I had enough expertise to share and forced myself to do some public speaking.  (I ended up having a blast with that despite some deep set fears about it.) I spent tons of time of the last 20 years honing my presentation skills – both creating and delivering them.

I could go on for a long, long time but I have probably already bored you to tears. I’ll get to the point. Without having a constant learning plan and delivering on it, I could never have had the career progression I did.

Next up, the importance of career goals.