Self directed learning is probably the least appreciated career skill out there. If you want to advance in your career and certainly if you have hopes of getting to the executive level, you need to build learning into your daily routine. In this blog, I outline the Learning Calendar which is a tool i introduced in my book, Stealing the Corner Office.
The Learning Calendar is a tool I use to force myself to actually work on broadening my skill set. It’s closely connected to many of the other tools I reference in my book. Without a Learning Calendar I find it too easy to de-prioritize this vital aspect of my career plan. It is not enough to build deeper expertise in a single subject matter area either. Being a specialist doesn’t lead to career advancement – career security perhaps – but definitely not advancement.
It’s vital to document your learning curriculum and agenda at least a month at time and to align it to your promotion and influence plans. I like to start by selecting three themes for the quarter and focus in on one per month. At least two of the three learning themes will be outside my established area of expertise.
The tendency is to keep going deeper and deeper into subjects we’re already good at. It’s easier that way, but it’s a mistake. If you’re already an expert in pricing models, don’t invest your valuable time becoming the world’s greatest pricing guy – it won’t pay off for you in the end. How many CEO’s out there were promoted to the top because they were pricing experts? So if you have pricing expertise already I suggest focusing your learning themes on adjacent areas like licensing, channel models, distribution mechanics. This way you are broadening your skill set within adjacent subjects and painting an image of someone who could manage larger team and hold wider accountabilities. By building this broader set of skills and creating an image of competency around several subject you’ll get shortlisted for more promotion opportunities which ultimately will translate to advancement for you.
Once you’ve identified the learning themes you’re going to tackle for the quarter and connected them to your promotion goals, the next step is to actually assign time to learning. This is harder than it sounds. In my experience many managers actually assign zero time to skill set expansion because they are so burdened by delivering on objectives and completing short term projects. So you have to find a way to force yourself to learn something every day that will improve your skill set. I like to do this first thing in the morning because I have more energy and I can find fewer excuses not to do it. I’ll set aside 30 minutes each morning to read up on my subject themes. If I’m particularly busy or tired I’ll watch videos or listen to podcasts instead. I recommend setting up your blog RSS feed with the top bloggers in each subject area you’re pursuing. You’ll have a permanent library of reference material for as long as you need it.
The last point to make with respect to the Learning Calendar is that you need to tell people you’re doing it. Learning and not telling people about it is pointless for you career strategy. Sure it’s great to broaden your skill set but if nobody knows, you’ll just be the smartest low level manager in your company. I look for opportunities to tell my influencers about things I’ve learned recently as a topic of conversation. It’s always a great approach to mention what you’ve recently learned and ask for guidance or advice from their experience or from what they know of the subject area. That way you’re not just bragging about how smart you are and rather asking for help or perspective.
Here’s what a simple learning calendar looks like: