Tips on developing a plan for professional development

There’s nothing quite like a graduation ceremony. The work has been done, the exams graded, and the air is full of pride and promise as the next generation is unleashed upon an unsuspecting world.

For the newly minted graduates, their long years of study have finally paid off. This is their moment to embrace the future and to imagine, almost without limit, what they will be able to accomplish during the course of their careers. There’s a good reason that graduation is called “commencement”. It may be the end of one chapter, but it is just the beginning of another. The smartest graduates will realize just how much they still have to learn. In a surprisingly short time, the GPAs, the awards won, and even which school they attended will fade into relative insignificance. School is merely the rehearsal, not the performance. What really matters is what comes next.

In Hollywood, it’s said that you can never be too rich or too thin. The same notion applies to education — you can never get enough. The real goal is not to accumulate facts, but to forge a lifelong habit of learning how to learn. This is particularly true in the A/E/C industry, which is undergoing profound changes. Traditional building types are being transformed even as new ones are being invented. Technology has ignited a burst of creativity, enabling designers to explore new forms and structures that were not previously in the playbook. Process innovation, both in terms of documentation and delivery, is making it possible to execute projects with a much higher degree of precision and predictability. Big data is making us smarter about how buildings can adapt to the changing needs of the occupants. New materials are being invented that are highly sustainable, energy efficient, and recyclable. Building codes are constantly being updated. An emerging appreciation of the total cost of ownership over the lifespan of a building is changing the way decisions get made and reformulating the basic value proposition of design. In other words, no matter how well we’ve learned how to play the game so far, the rules keep changing.

This phenomenon is not confined to the A/E/C industry. Advances in just about any field (medicine, manufacturing, finance, information technology, and even agriculture) are just as profound and far-reaching. We live in a turbulent world which is continually being jostled by the emergence of new ideas, technologies, processes, and expectations. The more things change, the more we expect them to keep changing. What passes for “expertise” today has a rapidly diminishing shelf life, so if we don’t stay current, we risk getting stale in a hurry, regardless of where we are in our respective careers.

This creates a lot of pressure keep up. It’s simply not possible to read all the books in the library or attend every conference. If we waited until we knew everything we need to know, nothing would ever get done. However, it is possible to adopt strategies for filtering signal from noise and for developing a knowledge network that will keep us abreast of the most important new ideas and trends. This is where lifelong learning comes in.

The only thing that is certain is that the future is unknowable. As our careers unfold, the need for information will change. For those just starting out, the first step is to realize just how much remains to be learned. It’s simply not possible to absorb all the basics in a few short years of schooling, which is why the Intern Development Program was devised. In the formative stages, the focus should be on acquiring the additional fundamental knowledge and experiences that are necessary to become fully licensed. This process is not perfect, but it does have the benefit of providing some structure, and the exams force emerging professionals to focus on the critical aspects of practice. They may never again need to size a duct or calculate a beam, but it is important to understand the basic underlying principles. It’s very telling that for the majority, it takes as much time to navigate the IPD process as it does to get through school.

While the rigors of licensing are being navigated, young professionals can actually start doing useful work. The A/E/C industry is extremely diverse, so it takes time to sort through the options. It’s not unlike medicine, where the question is not so much “Do you want to become a doctor?” but rather “What kind of doctor do you want to become?” There is a natural tendency to gravitate toward areas of personal interest, but circumstance also plays a huge role. It helps to get exposed to the widest possible range of experiences. Like climbing a tree, the higher you go, the farther you can see.

Then there is another graduation of sorts, a natural inflection point when the focus begins to narrow and deepen. For some, design will be the primary driver. For others, it could be technical documentation, project management, or perhaps business development. It’s very rare for one person to possess all these different skill sets in equal measure, which is why at this point in a typical career, specialization begins to take root.

The trend toward specialization underscores both the value and the necessity of collaborating with others. It takes many different skills to design, document, and deliver a project, which puts a premium on teamwork. The cleverest ones figure this out early, and they consciously seek to develop their communication skills. True leadership requires a mix of confidence and humility. Leaders must inspire a sense of authority and respect even as they seek to empower their subordinates to achieve extraordinary results. It’s a delicate balance, not easily achieved or sustained. Leadership is generally not taught in school, but it can be learned.

Eventually, leaders are called to perform the most difficult task of all, which is turning over the reins to others. Times keep changing, no one lives forever, and what may have worked brilliantly in the past is has become outdated. Leaders constantly mentor others, because that is the surest (and only) way to safeguard the long term health of the organization. The wisest among them will not seek to replicate their past successes or promote their clones; they will seek out others who will be able to handle the unexpected challenges and changes that are sure to come their way.

Each stage of professional development has its own unique aspects, but all of them share one basic characteristic, which is the need for continuous learning. It helps to have a plan. Here are a few tips:

Strengthen your core knowledge: Strive for continuous improvement in your chosen specialty. Aim to achieve “expert” status in at least one area of professional practice.

Follow your ignorance: Choose an area you know nothing about, then do some reading or attend a conference. Continuous exposure to new ideas helps keep the mind nimble.

Be a mentor: Helping others learn is a great way to strengthen your own knowledge base. It invites us re-examine and re-evaluate what we think we know.

Become a mentee: Younger members of the firm bring new ideas, attitudes and skills. Find out what. You will be surprised by how much you can learn from them.

Seek criticism: Make a presentation, write an article, or start a blog and ask for feedback. It’s amazing what you discover when you invite others challenge your assumptions.

Create your own knowledge network: Clients, consultants, and contractors all have different ideas about what works. Create and nurture your own brain trust.

Get away: Travel is a great way to break your regular routine and become exposed to new places, faces, and foods. It forces us to see things differently.

Unplug: Make it a regular habit to get to the theater, symphony, or a museum several times a year. Or just take long walks. No cell phones, Google, or e-mail. This is fertilizer for the mind.

We live in a world where credentials carry a great deal of weight. Degrees, certifications, and CEUs are all a necessary part of professional practice. However, they should not be an end in themselves. Mere access to information doesn’t make us smart; these days, anyone can Google anything in a matter of seconds. What really counts is creative problem solving and an ability to think critically about a wide range of issues. This requires adopting a strategy of lifelong learning. It’s a bit like river rafting: you can let the current carry you along, but to get to where you really want to go, it’s up to you to do the paddling.

Scott Simpson is a senior fellow of the Design Futures Council and a member of its executive board. He is a Richard Upjohn Fellow of the American Institute of Architects. With James P. Cramer, he co-authored the books How Firms Succeed and The Next Architect.