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July 2016
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The Public Manager

You Can Teach an Old Dog New Tricks

It's never too late to take charge of your professional development and learn new things to advance your career.

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We've all heard the various adages: you're never too old to learn; strike while the iron is hot; he who hesitates is lost; the early bird gets the worm; nothing ventured, nothing gained. Adages are adages for a reason—they typically translate some truth that has come out of human experience. What message do these adages have in common? They can all apply to training and development and opportunities that you should consider taking. Never before have so many possibilities existed to take charge of your federal career development.

What does the current state look like? Most employees expect that their supervisor will let them know about training, or they may be in an occupation that requires training periodically, such as procurement. That model doesn't work. Supervisors are incredibly busy, and employee development, though the noblest of causes, is not always on top of their priority list.

The Best Places to Work in the Federal Government, published by the Partnership for Public Service, has a Training and Development category. Made up of questions from the Office of Personnel Management's Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, this section "measures the extent to which employees believe their development needs are assessed and appropriate training is offered, allowing them to do their jobs effectively and improve their skills."

The Best Places index of employee satisfaction with training and development has been variable over the past five years, with a high of 60.7 in 2011 to a low of 55.7 in 2014. The current score of 57.5 shows a modest increase over the previous year, but it still indicates that there is a long way to go. So, is it time to take responsibility for your own professional development? Another adage notes that you have to take the bull by the horns! If you don't, who will?

What is out there for those looking for development opportunities? Just look around online—there are webinars and digital books, learning planning templates, competency-based learning tied to closing specific skills gaps, and training to support various career paths. With all of the available resources and low-cost options, the sky really is the limit.

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How can you take charge and grow professionally? Hemsley Fraser offers some useful recommendations for you to consider:

  • Have a development conversation with your supervisor. Actually use your performance planning discussion to talk about what you want to do professionally and what you need from your supervisor to get there. You might be pleasantly surprised that if you take on the load of your own development, your supervisor is happy to sign on the dotted line and provide support and resources. This isn't a one-time discussion and should be revisited at least annually.
  • Get it down on paper. Create an individual development plan (IDP). Even if your agency doesn't require one, you will find that if you write it down, you are far more likely to actually do it. It also will help you develop goals for your development from a current and future perspective. You won't go from entry level to the Senior Executive Service without some significant development along the way.
  • Consider the world of development beyond the classroom. One of my first federal supervisors encouraged me to try a new assignment, even if it was considered a "tough" job that no one wanted to do. Often, these are the assignments that provide the greatest opportunity and the greatest professional growth.
  • Look for digital books or other online solutions. Online books, online articles, subscriptions to learning and development services, more than you can download onto your portable devices—it is "just in time" learning at its finest. Take advantage!

So, with a little careful consideration and some thoughtful exploration of resources, you can take the lead in your professional development. I've offered a few things to think about, and there are many more opportunities out there. One of the oldest sayings is that you can't teach an old dog new tricks. I would counter and note that clearly the dog who wouldn't learn wasn't engaged and invested in its career.

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