Two articles appeared in this weekend’s New York Times that served as a reminder that the secret to success is never stop learning. Whether employed with a company for many years or just launching your career, it’s always a good idea to continuously be learning new skills. As Randall Stephenson, the chief and chairman of AT&T said in one of the articles, “There is a need to retool yourself, and you should not expect to stop.”

With today’s more complex and evolving business environment where technology and best practices can change quickly, learning is not just a nice thing to do—it is essential for staying on top of things. None of us can afford to remain stagnant in our knowledge.

You are responsible for shaping your learning.
Yes, organizations must create a culture of self-directed learners who are excited about learning and incentivized to advance knowledge and skills. (I hope during your interviews you learned about the organization’s culture.) And for years, many organizations provided employees with the training needed, but the recession and technology have greatly reduced these programs and the funds provided for outsourced education. While it was always the employee’s responsibility to learn new skills, now, if you need classes for example to move from the assurance practice to the tax practice in an accounting firm, those classes are taken on your own time and likely paid for with your own money.

Create your development plan
As a new professional, learning your job and developing skills to do your job effectively is your priority. It’s important to stay focused on what you are doing now. Your best preparation for moving up is to do what you are doing now really well. But, you should look toward your future.

Step 1: Identify your destination
You don’t need to overly complicate this task. The following questions are helpful in thinking out your destination:

  • Where do you want your career to be in two years?
  • Where do you want your career to be in five years?

Your two-year goal is merely a step in an overall direction; a five-year goal helps to define a career path. Sometimes it’s difficult to see that far out in time, as life and opportunities present themselves and can cause you to reset your plans. That’s okay, but it’s good to be looking two steps ahead.

Don’t set goals just for the sake of doing it. You need goals that help to motivate you into action. If you’re making a goal based on what someone else wants, it isn’t going to be that compelling for you. Being clear on your direction means being clear that this direction is inspiring and motivational, and you know what is driving you to it.

Step 2: Assess your current situation
Determine how far you are from reaching your goal. If you want to move from sales into marketing, think about the steps and skills necessary for achieving this goal. An understanding of product development, budgeting, branding or stronger management capabilities are examples of necessary competencies.

Acknowledge your strengths and highly developed skills. Strong computer skills, analytical ability and marketing knowledge are examples of strengths. List all of your highly developed skills, even if you do not utilize them in your current work situation. Review your work to date and recall feedback from supervisors and co-workers to help you develop this list.

Step 3: Do a gap analysis
You want to figure out the differences in the skills and qualifications between where you are right now, and your two-year goal or next step.

  • Review job descriptions for the positions you are targeting is a good way to get specific information about the skills and experience that are expected.
  • Go through the job descriptions to compare your current state of skills, education or experience to what is listed and rate yourself.

Once you have completed this exercise, identify all of the items where there is anywhere from a fair amount to a substantial amount of development that is needed. Look for commonalities and put those together as a category. You will discover that there will be themes to your gaps.

  • Where are your gaps?
  • How and where can you gain the experience? Can you learn these skills on the job, through an employer program or do you need to take a class or go back to school?
  • Do you have to do X before Y?

Step 4: Create your action plan
You now have a plan with the details of where and what you need to develop to get you where you want to go. Assign a time line for the development of each skill. Be realistic. Some skills require extensive study and practice before they become strengths, while others you can pick up in your current position with the help of your supervisor or human resources team.

You need to keep yourself accountable to your plan, and the best way to do that is to give yourself a start-by-date. You can’t predict how long or how much work you will have to do in order to develop the skill at the level you need, but you do have control over the action you take to get started.

Keep track. This will allow you to stay focused on your progress and remind you of your next steps.

For more information on starting your career, read...