Professional development is defined as acquiring skills and knowledge for personal development and career advancement. This includes things you do to grow as a person and an employee—learning choices that determine the direction and success of your career. I personally include developing and maintaining a professional network under the “umbrella” of professional development. In addition to developing new skills and competencies as you advance in your career, you also need to form connections with other professionals—both within your company and beyond—to support your career advancement.

You may think, “I have a degree” or “I have a professional certification,” so you should be all set. You may think that you don’t need to spend time taking courses, listening to webinars, or making new connections because you have a good job at a company that you like.  But professional development is still important and it’s important at every stage of your career. The pace of change in business has never been more rapid, and new technologies are constantly being introduced. A commitment to continuous learning is the baseline for being an effective and impactful professional.

Don’t Give Professional Development Short Shrift

Different skills are required at each stage of your career. Let’s just focus on communication skills as an example. When you first start your career, your focus will be on interpersonal communications, presentation skills, and verbal and written communications. As you progress in your career, you may have a few employees or even teams of professionals reporting to you, and as a result, you need to develop skills related to motivating, influencing, and inspiring employees. These skills aren’t taught in university programs; instead, they’re developed over time in an intentional way.

Focusing on your professional development could lead to new opportunities. Your newly acquired skills and new professional connections may lead to new projects or advancement within your company or industry. Your professional development endeavors may also expose you to new areas within your company or in your industry. Taking a course in data analytics and visualization techniques, for example, could help you to identify a new interest or talent that you have. Professional development experiences can also add “line items” to your résumé and could differentiate you in a competitive employment market.

During my career, I’ve met professionals who work in a variety of industries and are at various career stages. Right now, the economy is strong, and the labor market is tight. There’s a lot of competition for high-quality talent in accounting and finance. It’s easy to think that you don’t have to focus on your professional development when you know that demand is strong for professionals with your skills and abilities. But what we’re experiencing right now isn’t likely to last forever.

During the economic downturn in 2008-2009, I remember meeting a very seasoned financial professional who had lost his job. This individual was a highly qualified, experienced professional who had held a senior-level role at his company. He lost his job because of the economic downturn, not because of poor performance. He had been out of a job for about six months and was considering pursuing the CMA. He confided in me that he hadn’t focused on his professional development for many years because he had a good job and felt comfortable with his career. He hadn’t maintained his professional network during this time either. He discovered IMA during his job search and felt that IMA membership and the CMA certification could provide him a well-needed “boost” to get his career back on track. While IMA and the CMA can be great ways to support a career, I had to think that this individual would have been much better prepared for the job loss if he had given thought to his professional development and network before getting laid off.

Here are some ways that you can focus on furthering your professional development, which have worked well for me:

Pursue a Graduate Degree

Choose a degree program that complements your undergraduate degree. For example, pair an undergraduate degree in accounting with a master’s degree in finance.

Consider selecting a school other than your undergraduate school, as it could allow you to gain a new perspective on education and to create a new network of professors, students, and alumni. In my case, I’ve benefited from staying in touch with professionals from the alumni networks at my undergraduate alma mater, the University of Michigan’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business, and my graduate-school alma mater, the University of San Diego.

Take Skills-Development and CPE Courses

Enhance your technical skills and knowledge, with a focus on subject matter that’s relevant for your current job (e.g., new regulations), learning new skills that are in demand (e.g., data analytics), and preparing for future opportunities (e.g., blockchain, AI, etc.). IMA’s Education Center has a continuing professional education (CPE) course catalog, exam prep courses, a schedule of webinars and events, and the Technology & Analytics Center.

Continue to develop your soft skills, which are extremely important in mid- and late-career stages but often underemphasized by students and schools. The most important types are communication (written, oral, and multimedia presentation) skills and leadership/management skills, including listening skills, self-awareness, interpersonal relations, communications with direct reports, self-regulation, emotional intelligence, social skills, and empathy.  In addition, continue to hone your analytical and strategic thinking skills.

Choose courses strategically. You may select certain learning opportunities in order to fulfill CPE requirements for a certification, but don’t limit yourself to the education you’re required to do—go beyond your comfort zone! Try something related to your core competencies or planned career path but new to you. It may change your career direction. And remember to treat each group learning experience as a networking opportunity.  Meet new people and make connections. The bottom line here is that you should consider value, not just cost, when selecting courses to develop your technical and soft skills. Consider this an investment in your career and your future.

Join a Professional Association—and Be Active!

Get involved with other professionals in your field by joining a professional association like IMA on a local, regional, national, or even global level. IMA’s Volunteer Service Leader Framework includes questions, considerations, guiding principles, and IMA Leadership Academy resources to help you find the best fit based on engagement level, activities, time commitment, and skills required.

Potential benefits include learning more about current trends in your professional field and meeting people who can become part of your professional network. Don’t seek out a professional association only when you need a job. Build sufficient time for this commitment into your ongoing career management activities.

Pursue a Professional Certification

Choose professional certifications such as the CMA (Certified Management Accountant) and CSCA (Certified in Strategy and Competitive Analysis) that align with your career goals. Some certifications such as the CMA and CPA are broader in nature, while others such as the CFE (Certified Fraud Examiner) and CIA (Certified Internal Auditor) focus on a more narrow body of knowledge.

Perhaps you’re not sure which certification is right for you and don’t know where to start. Take time to consider and develop short- and long-term career goals, then spend time researching certifications and connecting with professionals who hold the certification you’re interested in.

Practice Public Speaking

Put yourself in front of people. There are various ways to get more comfortable interacting with—and even presenting to—large groups of colleagues or strangers. Examples of how to gain experience in this area include:

  • Write an article for a newsletter, blog, or publication;
  • Serve as a speaker on a webcast or a panel discussion at an industry conference;
  • Become an IMA Campus Influencers Program volunteer;
  • Teach a course or present to colleagues at an all-hands meeting.

Remember that you don’t have to start out by delivering a keynote presentation. Start with something that’s easier—like writing an article for a newsletter or serving as a panelist in a discussion—and work your way up to doing larger presentations.

There are several potential benefits of pursuing the above opportunities to put yourself out there. If you make sure that you’re well prepared, then you’ll likely be seen as an expert in your field. You’ll meet more people to expand your professional network. It’s also a way to build confidence in yourself, which, in turn, will provide your public speaking capabilities with a boost.

When I speak to students about the importance of public-speaking capabilities, I like to share a story I read about former U.S. President Ronald Reagan, who earned the nickname “The Great Communicator.” His rhetorical skills propelled his political career, contributing to his gubernatorial and presidential election success. Some people may think that his communication skills were merely the result of his experience as an actor. And while that may be partially true, I learned that before his political career, Reagan was employed by the General Electric Corporation as a representative who would travel across the United States to deliver speeches to employees. This was before video-conferencing, Skype, and Zoom. During an eight-year period, he visited 135 research and manufacturing facilities and spoke to a quarter of a million people. Before he entered politics, Reagan had delivered thousands of speeches and used those experiences to hone his communication abilities. Yes, he may have had an inherent talent for communicating with people, but these speeches provided him with hours and hours of practice.

Volunteer for a Service Organization

Service organizations are always looking for new volunteers, especially those with financial skills. Accountants are always needed and in high demand. Find an organization whose mission aligns with your interests and values.

Potential benefits of volunteering for a not-for-profit organization include opportunities to gain leadership experience, establish professional relationships with people who can provide referrals or personal references, and expand your professional network. It’s definitely something to strongly consider, as you’ll reap rewards for the time that you dedicate to a worthy organization.

Develop a professional network

Effective networking involves having conversations with many different people. Networking is ongoing, not event-driven. You aren’t too busy. Make time for it. This is an important part of your career-development plan. To become an effective networker, you need to learn how to work a room. Networking suggestions include:

  • Don’t stay with the people you know.
  • Practice excusing yourself gracefully so you can meet more people.
  • Don’t ask people for things/favors while you’re getting to know them.
  • Hold up your end of the conversation by asking questions and listening carefully to the answers.
  • Show empathy and be nice to someone who is alone… Imagine if it were you.

Identify your purpose for attending an in-person event or virtual networking opportunity and be prepared: Are you trying to meet a particular person or trying to meet as many people as possible? Think about possible questions or conversation starters, a.k.a. icebreakers, ahead of time. Do research on a particular executive, company, or industry, if relevant.

Be strategic at networking events. Arrive early so that you can work a smaller crowd. Hand out your business card to people with whom you’ve shared a conversation, jot down notes on the back of cards, and request to connect on LinkedIn and/or follow up via email.

Don’t make it all about you. Adopt a more selfless approach to networking; ask questions about the person’s background and company, find ways to connect on a personal level.

Maintain your network. Stay on your professional contacts’ radar with an occasional email, text message, LinkedIn message, or quick phone call.

As Abraham Lincoln once said, “The best way to predict your future is to create it.” Follow the above advice to take charge of your professional development!

About the Authors