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Perspectives on Personal Development
December 22, 2016

Welcome to this quarter's edition of Perspectives. In this edition, I offer two different perspectives – the first on personal development and the second on what to seek in terms of job satisfaction. In each case, I hope to provide not just a different way of looking at things but also a strategy for improving the desired outcome.

The Personal Development Equation

Earlier this fall, I had the opportunity to present to a group of Professional Engineers from the City of Calgary. In thinking about what I wanted to share with the group, I decided to present personal and professional development as an equation and I have been pleasantly surprised at how well this simple model has been received both during the presentation and subsequently as I have walked various people through it.

The equation itself is very simple and can be represented by:

(K)*( S)*(PD) = Sustained Personal Growth

K = Knowledge, the acquisition and accumulation of knowledge,
S = Skill, the actions necessary to translate knowledge into value,
PD = Personal Discipline, the personal commitment required to continue to deploy that skillset so that it becomes a regular, habitual or routine part of who you are as a person.

The first thing to notice about this equation is that each element of the equation is multiplied to produce a product, namely sustained personal growth. If any of the three elements is zero, then I would submit that sustained personal growth does not happen.

While the accumulation of knowledge may be seen as growth, without use or regular application, that knowledge will decline over time. As an example, I offer people who know more than one language but have experienced a decline in their proficiency in those languages they no longer use on a regular basis.

The second thing I want to call your attention to is that most individuals and organizations focus on the accumulation of knowledge when considering their personal and professional development, almost to the complete exclusion of the second two but equally important elements. In my experience, most personal development plans are centered around courses, conferences, workshops or lunch and learns such as the very presentation I made to the City of Calgary Engineers! This not to suggest that these things are not valuable, but rather on their own, are completely insufficient to achieving the desired outcome.

There are a number of examples that demonstrate the power of this equation in ensuring that sustained personal growth occurs. One such example is Toastmasters, which helps people develop their public speaking skills. Not only does the Toastmaster approach teach the “how to” of public speaking, participants in the program are expected to develop the skills necessary to create value from that knowledge and there is an accountability mechanism built into the process to ensure that the skills are used on a regular and ongoing basis. The bottom line? It works.

Weight watchers follows a similar process of knowledge, skill development and accountability and I can argue that most learning institutions follow a comparable approach though lectures (knowledge), laboratories and projects (skills development) and ultimately examinations (accountability). Professional coaching works for the same reason.

So how can this equation be used within the context of an employee/employer relationship? I think the ultimate objective is to have a more holistic conversation about personal development – one that includes more than just selecting a conference out of a brochure.

Specifically, the conversation should include the employee and/or the employer asking:

  • What knowledge will be acquired that will benefit the employee and the organization?
  • What are the opportunities within the role to translate that knowledge into meaningful change or value creation activities?
  • How can we (the employee and employer) work together to ensure that this skill set is used on a regular basis until such time as it becomes habitual and reflective of the kind of growth both parties are interested in seeing?

That conferences and courses can inspire people to see things in a different way is not in question. I think most of us have seen people return from various development opportunities full of vim, vigour and excitement about their experience. And…a month later, most if not all of that learning has been overwhelmed by the inertia of day to day role requirements, never to result in any ongoing improvement in personal capability or sustained personal growth.

My challenge to you, is to bring this equation into your next employee development discussion and see if a more comprehensive development opportunity results.

Job Satisfaction

A number of you are aware that I support students at the University of Calgary through a contract with the Maier Student Leadership Program at the Schulich School of Engineering. As a result of this work, I regularly get asked about career options and have the opportunity to discuss career aspirations with students.

Not surprisingly, much of the discussion concerns getting “a job, any job” but in cases where there is more than one option on the table or decisions are being made about carrying on to grad school etc., it is interesting but not surprising that the evaluation process is centered around the tangible elements of the opportunities in question, e.g. salary, vacation, benefits.

Yet it has been my experience that these tangible elements rarely contribute to career satisfaction once a certain minimal threshold has been reached and therefore represent a poor basis for assessing one opportunity over an other. Instead, I encourage students to think about the following four components.

  • Belief – How passionate are you about what the organization does? Do you believe in the value proposition of the organisation? Will you be proud to tell people where you work and why or why not? Quite often as students try to convince themselves to take a job because it pays so well, it is readily apparent in their body language that they are seeing the role as a “means to an end”. This rarely ends well as trying to buy yourself happiness while working 50-60 hours or more a week at a job you can’t stand is a self defeating proposition.
  • Contribution – How comfortable are you that this is a role where you can make a meaningful difference? Being a pen designer in a pencil factory may represent a huge challenge worthy of all you have to offer, or it may mean being regularly relegated to the “back burner” where even your best work won’t really matter. Knowing that what you contribute actually matters to the organization you are working for can be critically important in defining your level of job satisfaction.
  • Growth Opportunity – What is the alignment between your aspirations for growth and the organizational opportunities? I am always intrigued to hear people speak of their interest in international work or leadership or multi-disciplinary/lateral growth only to see them consider roles that offer limited opportunities in these areas. At the very least, this should come up in the interview process so that both parties understand the expectations and realities around continued growth.
  • Culture – I think culture can best be defined by the question: “To what degree is this a role or an organization where you will be allowed to be you?” Organizations vary greatly in the day to day execution of their work. Some environments are fun and free flowing while others are very structured and “buttoned down”. Some have regularly scheduled employee engagement activities while others can’t afford or don’t believe in such things. In any case, you are going to want to feel like you are accepted and belong based on who you are and not based on who you think you need to be. Pretending to be someone you are not is exhausting and stressful – hardly a recipe for career success.

Examples of Coaching

Coaching remains one of those “you have to experience it to understand it” sort of things and because all clients are different and all coaches are different, each client-coach relationship is different. So what exactly happens in a coaching relationship?

A coach friend of mine once told me that the most powerful path to personal growth and development starts and ends with “Personal Truth Telling”. This seemed like an awkward phrase to me but I have to admit that in the eight years since she shared that with me, I have come to believe that she was absolutely correct.

Many of course assume that coaching is about the coach providing advice to the client and there is no doubt that this often does happen, particularly when the coach has relevant experience to share. However, this is more mentoring that coaching. The power of coaching comes from creating a safe space where through thoughtful open ended questions, clients articulate the truth of their situation and then decide to do something about it. Sometimes the coach will offer a “truth” as he or she sees it and the reaction of the client will define how close that truth is to hitting the mark and where it needs to go from there to be resonant.

So to reinforce what this experience can be like for people, I thought I would share some examples from my coaching experience both as a client and as a coach.

Example 1:
Client: I am really struggling with Bob. He is aloof, self-absorbed and pompous.
Coach: How would you describe your interactions with him?
Client: I end up just ignoring him for the most part because he bugs me so much.
Coach: So in your interactions, you become how he is?
Client: I…Oh…crap.

Example 2:
Client: I feel my staff are taking advantage of me.
Coach: How is it that you see them?
Client: Well, we work hard together and I see us as friends.
Coach: How is it that you think they see you, as the Owner of the company?
Client: Well I….oh….crap. They think I am pretending to be something I am not and cannot be. I am their boss…and I need to honour that relationship in a consistent way. How did I not see this before?

Example 3:
Client: My business is failing.
Coach: What is the work you truly love to do, that got you into this in the first place?
Client: I just love working with young professionals. They inspire me.
Coach: What is keeping you from focusing on that work?
Client: There is no money in it and most don’t see coaching as something of interest.
Coach: So lots of assumptions coming from the voice of a victim. Where is the courageous client I know and respect? What would he be telling his clients in this situation?
Client: He would ask them what has to happen for them to get out of their own way, declare their intentions and aspirations and to start creating the future they want for themselves.
Coach: Now we are talking. I challenge you to declare this as your niche market. What are you willing to commit to?
Client: Oh…crap…I commit to declaring this as my niche and pouring my heart and soul into it.

Example 4:
Client: Now that I am out of job, I have to decide what to do next and I have no idea.
Coach: I think that is the wrong question.
Client: What do you mean, I need a job.
Coach: The better question is not “what do I do now”, but rather “how is it that I wish to live?”
Client: Oh…that is a much different perspective to take…


Thanks for reading this issue of Leadership Perspectives and please feel free to forward it to anyone you feel might be interested. Should they wish their own copy, they can sign up at:

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Please accept my wishes for a very Merry Christmas season and for a safe and prosperous New Year.

Cheers, Gord Aker, PCC

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