What’s the Best Way to Build Personal Expertise?

Most of my clients understand that their work future and long-term employability is tied to the quality of their expertise.  As a result many continuously work to build that expertise.  Although gaining new opportunities, working in stretch settings and working with cross-disciplinary peers offer fine ways to develop your expertise, those situations don’t always come on a regular basis.  If you’re a fairly new employee, you’re liable to stay in the same job for three or four years.  If you’re like me, between 18 and 24 months into a new job, I had learned most of what that job offered and I was looking for a new opportunity.  It was often six or seven months between the time I believed I was ready to move on and when I actually gained a new job.

But there is one very personal way to keep building expertise in most any setting.  Primarily the way to build expertise is to recognize mistakes and successes, remember them and incorporate those memories into your thinking.  That’s why making the process of debriefing, a subject I wrote about in an earlier post, is so very important.

Studies show that expertise is largely acquired not only by practice, but by receiving feedback that helps you understand your technical errors and misguided actions.  That’s only one side of debriefing and building expertise.  The other orientation is figuring out why you were highly successful in a project, and incorporating those practices into your toolkit.  And it can be just as important to go after concrete, specific feedback on your successes–as well as your failures.

What’s driving this blog is a conversation with one of my former clients this morning.  Recently he sold several million dollars worth of projects (yes, even in this economy).  I called to congratulate him on his performance, and then asked how he had gone about gaining the projects.  He was initially silent, then said he was unsure.  Finally he said that “maybe” it was just luck.  I suggested that two sales like that might have some luck involved in them, but I was unwilling to believe that was the sole reason for his success.  Finally he came up with the notion that he was becoming more strategic.  I wanted to know what he meant by that, but again, he wasn’t certain.

Educator/consultant that I am, I asked him to think through the entire client development processes, and the strategic changes he’d made.  I thought they might be valuable to him, and I knew that the information would be  valuable to him and the firm in the future.

He promised to think more seriously (debrief them), and I promised to get back to him in a couple weeks.  My client has a lot of smarts, so when he puts his brain in gear, we’ll get some good stuff–useful for the future.

My point: You can learn as much, even more useful stuff, from your successes as from your failures.  That’s the most basic method for developing personal expertise.

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