The Difficult Challenge of Professional Development

People tend to look at professional development as being skills-based or educational in nature. It’s true that improving skills and competencies is critically important—and tremendously valuable—to professional development. But new skills are only part of the goal: professional development must also address personal character traits, which drive a great many of the challenges that prevent better performance.

The difficulty lies in addressing what an individual needs to improve their results. Reducing this challenge to “skill or will,” a mutually exclusive choice that suggests the person either doesn’t know how to do something or is just not willing to do, overlooks a third possibility: the person might not know how and where they need to change.

What You Can’t See Yourself

There was a sales leader who was unhappy with the number of client meetings one of his team members generated. He had spent little time with the salesperson himself, but he decided the rep needed training in how to effectively prospect and book meetings with his targeted clients. The salesperson, however, was a wizard when it came to booking meetings—he just didn’t spend any of his time prospecting. What the salesperson lacked wasn’t skill; it was self-discipline. The real problem was that the salesperson was unaware that he lacked self-discipline, believing himself to be a hard worker.

The opposite problem is also possible. A salesperson may be supremely disciplined around their work, creating a weekly plan and carefully blocking their time. But they could still fail at prospecting despite all this effort, becoming increasingly frustrated by their inability to command a meeting with their prospective client. In this case, they need to change their approach to prospecting, but the root cause of the problem may not be a technical skill. They might be conflict-averse, apologetic, and lack confidence, a difficult blend of challenges that depend more on character traits than on knowledge of sales techniques.

Unless you are super introspective, you may not understand your true nature, and you may not see the root cause of the gaps in your performance. This is why you need a coach, or if you are a leader, why you need to be a coach.

Awareness and Humane Candor

The first challenge, then, is identifying the truth of the matter, the real obstacle to better performance. The second and sometimes more difficult part is making your colleague or employee aware of what is preventing them from improving their results and moving closer to their full potential. If you find it tough to tell someone they are not good at some part of their work, then it will be even more challenging to tell them that they lack the will. Both sides of that conversation can be painful, especially when a character trait or a missing virtue is the root cause of someone’s poor results.

When I was teenager, a woman who worked for the same company took me to lunch. She very gently explained to me that if I was going to take clients to lunch, I needed to have much better table manners than I had at the time. Without making me feel that I was a Neanderthal, she explained to me not only how to behave but why it was important. She was candid, but in such a way to make me feel like I was learning a secret that would help me in the future. I left lunch grateful for her instructions, but more so that she cared enough to help me.

Telling someone who has worked in a role for a long time about some skills-based deficiency is easier than sharing the fact they are missing something more personal in nature. But whatever the specific problem, there is no reason to make a hard conversation more difficult by criticizing the person or making them feel as if they have to defend themselves.

business woman coaching a business man and both looking at a computer

Why Do You Want to Be Liked?

As much as you might not want to think about it, as a leader or mentor you are faced with two choices. You can want to be liked for not forcing a person in your charge to grow and improve, allowing them to keep having problems so they can avoid growing pains and awkward conversations. Or you can want to be loved for being the person who isn’t going to allow a member of your team to do mediocre work, with mediocre effort, and produce mediocre results.

When you care about a person on your team, show it by being willing to address the areas that prevent them from getting closer to their full potential. Give them the chance to unlock all the rewards that will accrue to them, by helping them discover something inside them that they hadn’t recognized. That’s the real benefit of professional development: by addressing the real obstacles to success, you unleash the latent potential that leads to better results.

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