You are human capital. Your knowledge, skills, and know-how, spanning everything from your formal education to the experiences you’ve picked up in your life are worth a lot. In fact, research from McKinsey says it’s this accumulation of skills that’s responsible for two-thirds of your wealth—and they estimate that your work experience is half of that.
Every day you show up to work—virtually or in person—you share that capital with your employer and colleagues. As your human capital grows, part of the (mostly unspoken) agreement between you and your employer is that they agree to help you learn and grow. But it’s often over-promised and under-delivered. According to Gallup, we’re feeling a lack of learning and growth opportunities in the workplace, especially if we’re younger.
Perhaps you were disappointed to learn the training you were promised turned out to be the two annual, mandatory trainings on sexual harassment and implicit bias. Or you just want more tailored offerings than Communications 101 provides. This is your chance to take your growth into your own hands, looking past the formalized training offerings to expand your skills—and network.
Your experience: Getting intentional with your opportunities
While on-the-job experience may be one of the most frequent alternatives to traditional training, it’s not always the most intentional.
Imagine your leader assigns you a project. Their knowledge of that task will range from expert to just passing along the message. They’ve got their own to-do’s, which likely command much of their attention throughout the day—even when assigning tasks to others. They’re also likely assigning it based on an immediate need and availability rather than tailoring it to your skills and experience.
It’s time to reclaim the small and large opportunities that on-the-job experience can bring. Seek out the experiences that will strengthen your skills for whatever comes next. Ask for an opportunity that can align for both. For example, if you’re a project manager, ask to manage one of the ERG’s next events to get both a change of pace and event management skills. Stretch these on-the-job assignments for all they’re worth. It’s not selfish; it’s strategic.
Author Jenny Blake calls these pivot points and told Quartz we’re always in a state of determining what’s working. To explore our options, we can ask, What can I do more of? How can I double down on that? What can I try?
Your exposure: Watch and audit
To tap into the diversity of opportunities in front of you, there will be times when you can’t get the direct experience of doing something. You might have a skill gap, or maybe the project team was full. When this happens, you can ask to be added to the team, process, or project as an observer. Even if you’re not actively leading, you’re still gaining exposure.
Think of this like auditing a class. When I audited a project like this at work—I was in HR and asked to support an IT project—I had access to their process and tools, learned a lot, and managed to find ways to contribute whenever possible.
It also allowed me to learn from and interact with people I don’t typically work with, expanding my internal network. For example, if you auditioned to be your company’s internal podcast host, but weren’t picked for the gig, ask if you can observe a future taping. You could even inquire about learning how the production side of things works by observing there too.
This exposure allows you to watch others apply their skills to a task or a project, which is a different kind of development—and a valuable one. While observing others, don’t hold back your curiosity about what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and how it will impact the company, teams, and individuals. This will build context you can apply in your own role and emerging opportunities.
Your environment: Curating the company you keep
I still remember my mom’s advice in junior high, and it’s something that still holds true today: Be picky about who you spend time with, as they influence who you’ll become.
Assessing your environment, including who is in it, is the last growth alternative to traditional training. At first glance, this alternative to conventional training seems out of reach. Yet, in my seventeen years of HR work, I’ve watched many master shifting where and with whom they are spending time to pick up more skills. Many just don’t think broadly enough with their current set of work friends, and merely by opening up their circle, they can gain new perspectives and skills.
This is not your time to be a hero and try to change the whole system. Instead, seek out micro-communities that are doing something you admire. Look to ERGs or other club-type groups that you can join. I’ve found the most value in splintering off from the larger groups and getting to know the work and world of one person in a different department or team.
Perhaps they live out the company value of radical candor differently than your team does, or their approval process has three steps instead of six. You can bring back and apply these observations on your own team and in the other groups you belong to, expanding both your learning and your network.