ATD Blog

2 Things You Can Start Doing Today to Develop Your Career

Monday, August 18, 2014

Ultimately, you’re responsible for your own professional growth, no matter what kinds of learning and development programs your company may have in place.

Here are two ways to set yourself up for long-term success in your career.

1. Master Core Skills

You’ve probably invested a lot of time and money in your education and learning the technical aspects of your work. And you’ll certainly stand out by becoming an expert in your field. But that’s not enough.

To have the greatest impact on your career, you’ll also need to develop your abilities in two “core” areas: communication skills and personal strengths—the ability to interact effectively with people and the willingness to do the hard things when faced with challenges and adversity.

Communication skills are critical to building relationships and getting results with people inside and outside your organization. How well do you listen to understand what another person is trying to say? Can you resolve conflicts when two parties disagree? Do you engage in dialogue to understand another’s point of view?

Personal strengths are behavior patterns for responding effectively when the going gets rough. By noticing how you act when you face difficult situations, the people around you can tell whether you have self-confidence, initiative, courage, composure, integrity, and other strengths vital to success.

Business books and articles are filled with examples of people whose careers were derailed because they fell short in one of these core areas. If you commit to improving just one skill that’s creating problems for you at work, you’ll make major strides with your development.


To create a new behavior pattern, you literally have to rewire your brain. Your current way of doing things is like a well-established road, where you know all the twists and turns. Establishing the new pathway is like a construction project, in which you are turning a dirt road into a superhighway.

It takes plenty of practice for the brain to establish strong connections for the new skill to become comfortable. You need to be willing to experience discomfort as you move from conscious incompetence (knowing what to do) to unconscious competence (being able to do it automatically). You’ll need to be patient because, initially, your old habits will kick in. The key is to persist past discouragement. Just stick with it, keep trying, and eventually your brain will rewire itself.

Like learning any skill, the key is repetition. Each repetition should involve three steps.

  1. Focus. You may have several areas you’d like to work on, but you’ll experience greater success by focusing on just one skill or habit at a time. Then stay focused on the best practice model so you find out how to perform the skill the right way.

  2. Action. But knowing what to do isn’t the same as doing it. Improvement comes from taking action—implementing what you learned in the real world. And you will need to take action more than once or twice, perhaps even dozens or hundreds of times, depending on the complexity of the skill. With enough repetitions, the behavior will become a comfortable, automatic response.

  3. Reflection. Experience is the best teacher, but learning to perform a skill correctly doesn’t happen overnight. You can accelerate the rewiring process by taking time to reflect after you implement it into your work or life. Instead of simply repeating the behavior, think about what happened and why. The lessons you take away from your experiences will refine your skill.

With many cycles of focus, action, and reflection, your brain will gradually rewire itself.

2. Create a Support System

It’s the rare person who can change a habit or adopt a new skill without the aid of a coach or support system. It helps immensely when you have the active support of people who care about your success.

Your group of “support coaches” could include your boss, mentors, co-workers, clients, or colleagues—people who observe your behavior first-hand. They’re affected by your words and actions, so they can tell whether you’re making progress.

You’re likely to hit some rough spots, so choose people you can trust—preferably, those willing to listen, give feedback, offer encouragement, and make suggestions based on their own experiences.

Ask one of them to serve as your accountability coach, someone who will hold your feet to the fire and keep you focused on your goal. This person’s main job is to contact you regularly and ask whether you followed through on your commitments. Knowing you’ll have to face this person’s questions will help you stay on track.

If you’re serious about taking your career to the next level, put in the work to improve one specific core area. And start by enlisting this network of concerned individuals who will support you during the cycles of focus, action, and reflection.

About the Author

Meredith Bell is president and co-founder of Performance Support Systems, a software company that has published award-winning assessment and development tools since 1987. Meredith is a major content contributor to Strong for Performance, a unique virtual coaching system for personal and professional development. This online technology combines resources for developing the two core areas and a proven process for building new success habits using a group of support coaches. To learn more, watch a brief overview video and download the free ebook, The Dark Secret of HRD, at: You can reach Meredith at [email protected]

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