Covid-19 has a lot to answer for. Not only are people losing their jobs, but many companies have put staff development on hold. This is not surprising: the trend has been for companies to spend less on training for some time now. Overall investment in training by employers went up from £43.8 billion in 2011 to £44.2 billion in 2017, according to the Employment and Skills Survey. However, in that time the size of the workforce grew too. So investment in training per employee actually fell by 23% between 2005 and 2015.
One in three UK businesses don’t offer any training or personal development time at all, according to research conducted in 2019 for MPA Group. Half of those blamed a lack of budget, but almost one-third said that staff development was “not a business priority”. So what can you do if your manager has no plan for your development? How do you take charge of your future?
To get some answers, we spoke to Michael Serwa, the self-proclaimed “no bullshit” career coach, who arrived in London from Poland at 22 with little formal education and barely able to speak English. After nine years, he now has a thriving coaching business working with everyone from homemakers to chief executives, though not children or “sensitive people” as he can be blisteringly honest and often profane. Here are his top tips for charting your own career course.
1. Set personal goals
Setting goals is one of the most valuable exercises you can do for your own self-improvement, according to Serwa. Write them down too. Those who put pen to paper or write up notes on a computer are more successful at achieving them than those who don’t, according to a study by psychologist Dr Gail Matthews at the Dominican University of California. “By taking control of your own goals, you are taking a proactive step in your career’s development, carving a professional future that is entirely to your benefit and not tailored to the interests of your manager or your company,” said Serwa.
It’s worth talking to your manager to make sure that your goals align with those of the company. There’s no point aiming to increase new sales leads if the business wants you to focus on customer retention. What are your key performance indicators? If you don’t know, then you should find out.
Once you have established your goals, it is important to review them regularly. “By charting your progress towards all your goals, you can see relatively quickly when one approach isn’t working as well as it could be—and that it might be time to go about things in a different way,” said Serwa. “On the other hand, if things are working and we can clearly see that, it empowers us to keep going.”
2. Create your own opportunities
Be the first to put your hand up for new projects or difficult tasks in your company rather than hoping to be asked. “Don’t wait for your manager to create opportunities for you—create them for yourself,” said Serwa.
It’s also worth getting to know your colleagues and making the effort to network, despite the pandemic. Just because you are working from home doesn’t mean you have to hide away. The next person you meet, virtually or otherwise, could change your life, according to Serwa. “Be proactive, we are sometimes only as far away from making a big difference in our lives as meeting someone new or even visiting a website we wouldn’t normally go to. Some will look at successful people—successful in any area of life—and say that they must have got lucky. I don’t believe in luck as such, I believe we make our own and the harder we work the luckier we get.”
3. Know your strengths and weaknesses
Huddled up in front of a computer alone at home, it’s easy to feel demoralised if you make a mistake or are struggling at work. Serwa’s advice is to stop wasting valuable emotional energy. “We tend to dwell on our weaknesses, which can often inhibit our growth. I would recommend you only work on your weaknesses if absolutely necessary, because you’ll be much better off using your time and energy to enhance your strengths instead,” he said.
Don’t be afraid to ask a manager for feedback, as that can help you to identify your strengths, as well as nip any issues in the bud. “Build on your strengths so you can excel in the areas that got you hired in the first place,” said Serwa. Check out what courses you can take to build your knowledge. Then go for it.
4. Build on small successes
Keep the big picture in mind at all times: the vision, the end goal, advises Serwa. Just don’t let yourself become overwhelmed by how much you want to do. “If you’re feeling as if you have been left to your own devices and are overwhelmed by the prospect of taking your career progression into your own hands, it may help to focus on the tiny step right in front of you, and then the next, and the next,” he said.
“Massive success is built on small successes and wins: the hundreds and thousands of things we do every day, the decisions we make, the people we talk to. Small wins lead to leaps, leaps lead to quantum leaps, and quantum leaps lead to that massive success.”
Own those wins, too. Are you an expert in digital marketing? Then let the world know about it. Keep your LinkedIn page up to date. Position yourself as the expert in your area of expertise by writing for industry publications or giving talks.
5. Seek outside help
If you are not getting enough support or guidance in your company, then seeking the help of a mentor, coach or senior in the industry can be effective. The biggest reason is accountability—it’s one of the main reasons why coaching can be so effective, according to Serwa. “You could have spent hours cultivating the most comprehensive plan and detailed list of goals imaginable, but if you don’t have the drive to actually implement them, then they are not going to do you much good,” he said.
In her study on strategies for achieving goals, Dr Matthews found that more than 70% of the participants who sent weekly updates to a friend accomplished their goals or got more than halfway there, compared with 35% of those who kept their goals to themselves. Serwa points out that a friend may be a bit soft on you. “Of course you can ask your partner, friend, or colleague to hold you accountable, but it’s not the same as having someone objective on your case once a week or 24/7, especially if you pay that person a lot of money for it,” he said. “Not doing the things you’ve committed to do comes with the sense of wasting that money.”
If it all seems a bit difficult and you don’t know how to start, Serwa advises looking at what those in your industry who are at the top of their game are doing. “Whatever you want to do in life, whatever industry you’re in, modelling yourself on the top people in that field will help you succeed faster,” he said. “Someone has been there and done that; you can follow their steps but avoid the mistakes they’ve made.”
There’s no need to stick your head in the clouds though. “Keep one eye on the top person in your industry, but keep the other eye on the person just above you. If they are doing what you would like to be doing in a year or two’s time, they will be easier to access and therefore to model.” There’s no better time to formulate a plan and get going.
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