If you’ve never thought about your professional toolkit before, then here’s how you can get started. Make a list of all the things you’ve learned so far in your career. Again, this should include technological capabilities you have, tools you’ve used, and skills you’ve developed.
This may seem daunting, but I promise there is value in the exercise. Most of us dismiss what we know as “commonplace” – or assume we know less than we do. This exercise enables you to really understand and see how much knowledge expertise you’ve acquired over your career. Don’t dismiss anything you did or learned as being too trivial!
Some examples could be that you lead and/or participate in brainstorms, keep teams on track in meetings, excel in pivot tables, organize office happy hours and other social functions, do regression analysis, client management, and so on. See how varied this list is? Yours should be too. Combine your soft and hard skills so you can get it ALL down.
Give yourself some time to do this. I recommend at least a week – though you’ll want to always keep updating this list as you grow, expand, and improve. I like keeping a Word Doc, you can also use a Google Doc or even pen and paper. Just choose the method that you’ll most likely keep good track of and that you will remember to update.
The way memory works (in spurts) is the reason it helps to work on this over an extended period of time. You might have trouble thinking of things to write down when you start the project, but as time goes on things will randomly pop up in your head. You may be driving to work, in the middle of a lunch meeting, or working on something when all of a sudden another skill or tasks comes to you. I promise you one thing: you know a lot more than you think. We’re just not used to thinking about these things on a regular basis.
Once you have your core list down, review what’s there.
Look for gaps. Are there missing items you’ll need to learn in order to move up in your career? If so, what are they? If you’re not sure what’s missing or if anything is missing, this is a great time to look at professionals or senior leadership members who are now where you want to be later. It’s helpful to learn as much as you can about how they got there, either through internet research or through requesting an informational meeting.
The goal here is to have a clear picture of where you’ve been and how to move forward. View your current professional toolkit as a baseline that you can expand. This is the most important step of securing your career.
Maintaining Your Professional Toolkit
Next, you’re going to focus on honing your skills. You’ve identified the “tools” you have in your toolkit. You’ve identified the “tools” you need to get to where you want to go. Those are the skills, experience, or expertise you’ve identified in those professionals who are where you want to be. So, now it’s time to fill in the gaps.
Where do you need to improve? What can you bolster? Don’t do this just for the sake of having more tools in your toolkit – be strategic. What skills (that you don’t currently have) will help you get to where you want to go?
Believe it or not, this doesn’t have to take up all of your free time. You can maintain your professional toolkit by focusing on one small thing per month: choose one skill to learn more about. Do you want to go deeper into a particular topic? You can take one online course (there are free options on Coursera, for example). Do you want to sharpen your speaking skills or subject matter expertise? Attend one conference. Read one book. Take one (new) fellow professional to coffee or lunch.
By doing just one thing every month, you begin to supplement and grow your toolkit without feeling like you’ve completely lost your work-life balance.
Another way to “sharpen your tools,” is to take advantage of the opportunities that exist within the activities you are already doing.
For example, do you have to ride a train to get to work or fly often for your job? Your commute is a great time to get some reading in (or, listen to audiobooks or podcasts).
Are you out at local parks often to walk your dog or play with your kids? Try engaging with the other adults you run into with a simple, “Hello, my name is…” and start some banter. You’d be surprised what kind of professional contacts you can make by simply being cordial to everyone you encounter. (we’ll go deeper into this strategy in another post – but connecting with people is a large part of your “toolkit.”).
Everything is an opportunity. You don’t have to sacrifice your personal life in order to build your toolkit and secure your career. The more open and aware you are of your surroundings and potential ways to learn or connect – the more you will see the opportunities that already exist in front of you to build and grow your toolkit.
The goal here is to shift your mindset from one of just getting things done and “putting in my hours” to one of curiosity. You don’t want “just” a job – you want a career. A career you don’t hate. A career that is secure and full of opportunities for growth. This is the first step in getting there.