The Essence of Personal Improvement


One of my favorite topics in professional life concerns the things we do to develop ourselves. The most interesting part of this topic is realizing that it is not complex. The ideas you need to master are well known and quite simple. The only question is whether or not you will become committed to building the relevant skills. When I boil down personal improvement to the most fundamental topics, I think of two things immediately: understanding your strengths and weaknesses and personal goal setting.

Professional Strengths

Let’s be honest, you have a particular skill set. Some skills are real strengths. Others are better described as not-so-strong. Your objective is to identify and build upon the strong skills while reducing any challenges associated with the not-so-strong skills.

First, what are your main strengths? They might include great writing ability, speaking skills, diffusing conflict, mathematical ability, knowledge of finance, creative problem-solving skills, facilitation skills, etc. There are endless possibilities. You can identify your main skill strengths several ways:

Self-Observation. Time spent thinking deeply about one’s professional performance. Think about your big wins and losses and those of the teams of which you have been a member. Most of your best strengths (and vice versa) should be evident.

Professional Outcomes. These are hard indicators provided by others that reflect on your professional abilities: jobs/roles assigned, promotions, raises, awards, and formal workplace evaluations. Together, when considered relative to your peers, they should begin to paint a picture of where you stand.

Feedback. Informal performance-related information provided by your direct supervisor, peers, direct reports, mentors, clients, significant others, etc. Seek modest amounts proactively from others whom you trust to be bluntly honest and whom you feel have good insight into your performance and personality.

Assessments. This refers to instruments and activities designed to provide insight into your characteristic ways of behaving. Check your Human Resources department, or purchase them on your own. These include everything from popular books, surveys, facilitated and/or observed mock work activities (e.g., role play), computer driven activities and assessments, and observation of you on the job by relevant experts.

Next, what are your weak skill areas? Maybe you hate public speaking or will never for the life of you understand accounting. So what – we all have weak skill areas! Identify them using the sources listed above. To focus on a weak skill area, consider three main strategies. First, you can dedicate time to improving these abilities. If you have trouble with public speaking, for example, join Toastmasters. Second, you can work over the long-term towards roles that rely less on your weaker skills. Finally, you should attempt to build teams of people who possess skills you do not possess.

Here is a great personal challenge you can begin immediately: Identify your top three skill strengths and at least one main skill weakness.

Personal Goal Setting

Once you have completed your skill assessment, it is time to engage the most powerful process in the world of professional development: goal setting.
I am not referring to formal goals created with, or by, your boss at work. I am referring to goals you set for yourself which may, or may not, overlap with your formal work goals.

Goals are the single most important tool for improving individual and group performance. They direct attention and focus limited resources towards desired ends. As a result, they increase the odds of reaching the outcomes you target. The three major types of personal goals are: performance goals, leadership goals, and life goals.

Performance goals are focused on the “hard side” of the organizational equation – the actual tasks and projects to be completed. They concern your work accomplishments over a specific time period. As you grow in your career, be sure to consider these different forms of performance goals: functional goals (related to one or more of the major business functions of the organization such as accounting, marketing, operations, sales, etc.), task/process goals (related to core processes and their components within one function such as Accounts Payable within the Accounting function), and level goals (concerning how high you wish to clime proverbial ladder).

In general, look at the first third of your career as primarily focused on becoming a financial professional (functional goal) with strong capital budgeting and investor relations abilities (task/process goals), while mapping out a path towards becoming a Vice President of Finance (level goal).

Your approach to the remainder of your career depends entirely on your personal interests, need for achievement, and tolerance for stress: either gain new functional and task/process abilities or focus more heavily on level. There is no perfect path!
You must define a path forward that will maximize your chances of being happy.

Next we have leadership Goals, which are focused on the “soft side” of the organizational equation – the areas of professional expertise and knowledge that either help or hurt your pursuit of performance goals. The most important leadership skill areas include effective communication, goal setting, problem solving and decision-making, and motivating others. Goals in this area also include any and all educational objectives achieved via educational institutions, various forms of training, mentoring, or self-study.

Finally, and most importantly, we have life goals. These specifically concern your long-term happiness. It is monumentally important to include life goals in addition to performance and leadership goals. They include major financial milestones, work/life balance, leisure needs, geographical preferences, family considerations, and any other important life matters you wish to address. What good is spectacular career achievement without equally amazing life achievement?

Here is one more great challenge: Can you articulate your 2-, 5-, and 10-year goals? Think through the ideas above and get to work. Don’t be afraid to be just a little audacious. I will leave you with this great piece of personal improvement advice: if your goals aren’t occasionally audacious, I promise you that your performance will not be audacious.

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