Taking your chances: pointers for your personal development
Here’s three pointers for you to consider when thinking about your personal development.
Learn about things you don’t think you need to know about
When I started my consultancy, having worked in ‘proper jobs’ within the HE sector for the best part of 25 years, one of the early things to think about was how to set a fee. This is an interesting question – it’s not only about how much you’d like, it’s about how much the market can stand, and how little you can charge. You have to learn about how to properly cost things, how to do market research, and all sorts of other aspects of working more commercially.
It was an interesting exercise. And it struck me how helpful it would have been to do this thinking – understanding how much my time cost, and was worth – when I was employed within universities. Not for any selfish reason, but as a way to think about the value of activities. For instance, if you’re in a meeting, what is the cost of the people in the room (and the room itself, or if virtual the infrastructure involved) for the length of the meeting? And what do you estimate the value of the meeting to be? Compare the two and see if the meeting is worthwhile, or whose absence would make it worthwhile. (And yes, you did read that right! – absence reduces the cost, and maybe makes the difference to the value of a meeting – are we working towards a way to understand the cost and benefits of delegation?) You’ll need to estimate salary, but don’t forget about the additional National Insurance and pension costs; you’ll also need to think about how much space they each occupy, and the cost of that space. All of this you can estimate – salary scales, NI and pension are knowable (use your judgment about grades people are on); office space can be estimated by looking at rental costs in the area.
Once you know your cost, it can have a profound effect. You know how to tell if time is wasted. You know the cost of pointless meetings (or meetings where your attendance, or that of others, is pointless.) You have a powerful tool in your armoury.
And that’s just one example of good things that can come from learning unfamiliar (and unexpected) material. I would also put a value on:
- Learning how to read a set of accounts – here’s some useful guidance from the British Universities Finance Directors Group
- Learning about the history of your university – search your university’s library to see if there is a written history, or a section of the webpages
- A basic understanding of statistics. ‘How to make the world add up’ by Tim Harford, is an accessible book which doesn’t ask you to do any sums, but helps in how you think about statistics
Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.
This is one of my favourite aphorisms. And it matches my experience of life.
For example, I was working earlier in my career at City, University of London. I was an Assistant Registrar with responsibilities for governance and academic quality, a to-do-list a mile long and an email inbox which gave me nightmares. And we had a new Vice-Chancellor, who was keen (as new Vice-Chancellors often are) to create a new strategic plan for the University. He wanted this to be an inclusive approach, so selected a group of staff (mixed ages, genders, roles) to develop and draft a plan, and was looking for someone to co-ordinate and facilitate. The Academic Registrar suggested me – which was great – and explained that it would take about 10% of my time, and I’d be doing it on top of my existing work.
I said yes. Rationally, I should have said no; or asked for some remission from other workload. But I was fortunate – I had the flexibility in my life to do this. And it sounded fun!
It was a transformational experience for me. I met many more people within the university, so formed a larger network. I learned a lot about strategy and the role of strategic plans in higher education. And the opportunity led to another: this time, to act as secretary to the Vice-Chancellor’s Senior Management Team, which met weekly, first thing on a Monday. Again, this expanded my horizons: I learnt a lot about the sheer breadth of issues involved in running a university, and got to observe a lot of senior management behaviour (some good, some bad, and no I’m not telling). All of this helped to develop my skills and capabilities, and I put it to good use in later jobs.
Opportunities arrive less often than problems. Its often hard to know which are the best ones, so my advice is to say yes and find out as you go!
Think about when you might learn
Not all development is formal training. I’d go further and say that not even half of development is formal training.
Think about it. You acquire knowledge and experience all the time, whether at work or at home. You learn new skills fairly regularly – maybe how to use Pivot tables; maybe how to bake bread. Nearly all of this happens outside a classroom.
What if you could make more of this informal learning? What if you could consciously choose situations which would maximise your learning?
This is one of the things which we cover in the AUA PG Certificate. A good approach is to create a Personal Development Plan (or PDP). This is a document which sets out what you hope to learn (whether skills, abilities or behaviours), how you will learn it, and what resources you will call upon to do so.
You may already have one of these, as part of your institution’s approach to staff development, but if not, it’s a good idea to think about this. There are many different templates – a quick search of the internet will give lots of examples. A friendly guide to working through the process is here, but this isn’t meant to be prescriptive: you’ll find lots of other examples.
The great thing about a PDP is that it – and the process of writing it – helps you to think explicitly about how and when you might learn. And this might be through taking on a new role, or being part of a project team. It might be about volunteering to speak about a topic to a staff meeting. It might be through work for a charity in your personal time.
A PDP is good tool to have personally, but also a useful aid to conversations about your development. If you feel comfortable sharing it, and it doesn’t contain anything that might be difficult, you could use it as part of your appraisal or performance review process at work. Many managers will be really interested to see a colleague with structured plans for their development, and keen to help if they can – by providing opportunities, by recommending you for activities.
This is all part of being conscious about your learning, and being proactive about your development. It’s a good habit to develop!
Hugh Jones is a consultant supporting higher education. You can find him at www.hughjonesconsulting.co.uk; and @hughjconsulting on Twitter. He is also programme lead for the AUA PG Certificate.
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