As Senior Advisor and Executive in Residence at Arizona State University, I get to spend some quality time on the university’s campus.

I always find it so refreshing because it's an environment set up for learning and development. It’s an ideal situation for anyone interested in personal and professional development.

In contrast, once we get into the work environment it can be difficult to keep learning and developing ourselves. There’s no instructor providing a syllabus and no set curriculum we're supposed to be learning. We don't have a major that we've chosen to help direct us to know which courses to take.

This absence of guidance means you have to be much more intentional about your self-development if you don’t want to fall behind or get stuck in your career.

In fact, there are two common challenges we all face that can keep us from continuing to learn and develop while we’re working.

Two Challenges for Developing Yourself on the Job

When it comes to developing yourself while you’re working, I’ve found there are two main challenges. Once you face up to them, you’ll be freed up to take action to keep moving yourself and your career forward.

Challenge #1: What to learn?

As a self-proclaimed “life-long learner”, I know how overwhelming it can be to sift through the vast amounts of information available to hone in on the right areas to focus on.

I’ve also learned that it’s important to tie what you’re learning into your goals. That gives your learning a purpose which makes it much more likely you’ll stick with it.

To figure out what topics to learn about, think about the following three areas for development. To what extent would you benefit from:

  1. Working on Your Self
    This is about your self-awareness. Notice your presence. How are you coming across? How's your mental game?
  2. Working with People
    Are you being a good leader? Are you communicating well? How are you relating to stakeholders?
  3. Working on the Business
    Are you being strategic? Are you making good decisions? Growing the set of opportunities?

Working on these three key areas will always stand you in good stead in your career. But to get the biggest pay-off for your efforts, it’s best to focus on one at a time rather than try to work on all three of them at once.

So, choose the one that will most help you become more successful if you work on it right now. Focus on that area first.

Challenge #2: How to learn?

Once you’ve identified what you want to learn or develop, then it’s about finding the best way to go about it. As in how to do that learning.

For some, it might be taking a course or even getting a degree. But for those of us who can’t or don’t want to take time off work to study formally, the easiest and most effective way to learn is to develop a reading habit.

Recommended Reading

To help feed your reading habit, there are three books I highly recommend – one for each key development area (working on your Self, working with People, and working on the Business).

Start with the one that intrigues you or that will help you the most right now or both.

1. For Working on Your Self and Your Self-Awareness

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success
Mindset: The New Psychology of Success

by Carol Dweck

In Mindset, Carol Dweck talks about the difference between having a growth mindset and a fixed mindset. Guess which one will serve you better in your career? Yes, it’s the growth mindset of course!

My biggest takeaway was how to think about failure. I've always had this huge fear of failure. That fear drove me to achieve and accomplish in my chosen field. But it also kept me from playing bigger and being the very best I could be.

Early in my career, I was offered an opportunity to become a product manager which would have given me a new area of expertise as well as exposure to all the regional coverage bankers. But I turned it down because I was afraid.

I feared I wasn’t technical enough to become a product expert. Maybe I wouldn’t be able to answer clients’ questions about the product. What if our market share dropped because I couldn’t do the job properly?

My mindset kept me in my comfort zone, and it was only when my boss moved on that I (as his deputy) was forced to find a new role. But it was from a position of weakness. Unfortunately, this is just one example of how my fearfulness got in the way of my career.

Reading Mindset has helped me see failure as a learning and growth opportunity, which has taken a lot of the pressure off for me.

If only I had this book back in the day to keep my fear of failure from holding me back!

2. For Working with People

The Coaching Habit
The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever

by Michael Bungay Stanier

The Coaching Habit is about being an exceptional leader by using coaching techniques.

My big take away from this book is that as a leader, you don't need to have all the answers. Which is a relief because none of us can know all the solutions. Often, the most important thing is to ask a good question.

Asking a question can really empower your team and allow them to shine. Plus, as a leader you always have the option to share your input after they've given an answer.

I’ve used this technique in my own team meetings with great results.

We were in planning mode for our upcoming strategy session and I was all set to tell the team about the agenda I had put together. After all, I’m the one “in charge”. So it felt natural that I should “do my job” and “take charge”.

At the start of our weekly team call, I was about to launch into, “Here's what we're going to do…”

But when I looked at my team, I suddenly realized that I was surrounded by A players with diverse and relevant experience, including people whose backgrounds ranged from:

  • COO for a $250mm business unit
  • Member of a corporate strategy team
  • Founder of a digital marketing business
  • Analytics guru for a $1bn organization

That’s when I put aside my planned script and said, “I want to tap into the wisdom of the group here. In your experience, what’s been effective in these kinds of strategy sessions?”

This one question led us to a lot of great ideas that I hadn't thought of myself. Thank you, awesome team!

3. For Working on the Business

The 4 Disciplines of Execution
The 4 Disciplines of Execution: Achieving Your Wildly Important Goals

by Sean Covey, Chris McChesney and Jim Huling

The Four Disciplines of Execution is about getting your most important strategic priorities accomplished and keeping the whirlwind of urgent daily tasks from knocking you off course.

This book has been super helpful for me because I indeed work in a whirlwind – some that I create, and others that just happen.

In my world, there are always deadlines, lots of things going on, and attractive shiny objects to chase! Sometimes, I wonder whether all my activities are the equivalent of splashing around in the swimming pool but not getting to the other side.

This book has really helped me focus on the most important 1-2 big goals that are important but not yet urgent, and to make time to get them done. This includes getting my team to buy into them too so that we're all working together.

That’s how we were able to plan ahead and deliver our Career Mastery™ Kickstart Summit in January with 50 experts sharing their best advice to help over 14,000 professionals get their careers off to a great start in the new year. All while doing our “regular work”.

What’s on Your Nightstand?

I hope these three suggestions give you some food for thought in your ongoing self-development journey.

Whether you’ve got a reading habit already or need to make a fresh start, spending just 5-10 minutes a day can go a long way.

Start by getting in touch with why you’re doing the reading. Link it to something important to you, whether that’s improving your skills and confidence so you’re able to get promoted to the next level, having more interesting things to say to your clients, or something else entirely.

Then figure out what kinds of things you want to learn about to help you achieve that purpose. An easy way is to think through which of the three key development areas would most help you if you worked on it right now. Is it about working on your Self, working with People, or working on the Business?

Then you’re ready to choose a book to start with, whether that’s by asking people for recommendations (a great way to connect with your network!), doing a few searches online, going to your local book store or starting with one of the three books listed here.

So, what are you going to read next? What’s the book that you’re putting on your nightstand?

Leave a comment and let me know.