When it comes to personal development, you can definitely grow just by doing your day-to-day work and getting experience. But if you really want to accelerate your growth, adding in a few other elements can help transform your practices much faster than you could on your own.
“Why do you spend time hosting meetups, or speaking at conferences? What real benefit does any of that give you or your company? Doesn’t it just take away from time you could be thinking about your work?”
This was not the response I expected to get from the founder of a startup that I was interviewing for when I talked about the things I did within the product community alongside my day-to-day work.
I had never had to justify why personal development and involvement in a professional community was worthwhile before. As I left that discussion, I started reflecting on the question again. I spent a lot of time reading articles, going to conferences, mentoring other product managers, and running a local meetup. Why did I consider these things to be important?
Over the last three and a half years at Mind the Product, I have had many opportunities to refine my thinking on the different elements of growth and development, and how they fit together. I’ve realized that growing in your craft is a lot like exercise — sure, you can make some progress in your fitness if you just do cardio. But pair your cardio with some strength training and a balanced diet and you can really make changes to your overall health.
4 components for growth
So what does a well-rounded growth plan involve? I find a mix of four different elements work well to help you refine your thinking and develop your craft: exposure, practice, inspiration, and support.
Particularly in large organisations, it’s easy to stay internally focused, and only learn the way that your company currently builds product. But by looking outside the four walls of your company, you can see what other people are trying, learn from their experiences, and bring new ways of thinking to your work.
Getting exposure to new practices can be self-guided and fairly low-effort: reading books or articles, watching videos of talks, doing online training, subscribing to some interesting podcasts…there are so many resources out there at your disposal. You don’t need to dedicate hours every week, but even a few minutes of exploration can spark your curiosity and make you look at how you work in a different way.
Exposure is important, but until you actually try the things you’ve seen, you can’t get the full benefit. Practice allows you to dig into the skills you need to develop in a more focused way. This is where I look to things like hands-on training and workshops that let you dedicate some time to working on your craft. And of course, your day-to-day “doing the work” provides plenty of opportunities to practice and refine your skills.
Be intentional in trying new things as you go about your normal work. Discover what works for you and tweak things that don’t. This will let you integrate new techniques and (hopefully) improve the way you practice product management.
Learning new concepts and practising your skills is great, but over time can leave you feeling drained. You’ve read the articles, seen the videos, listened to the podcasts, but when you try to put it into practice, things don’t always come easy. You encounter some resistance from internal stakeholders. You test several iterations of a new idea and are just not getting the results you were looking for. Your CEO comes in and blows up your roadmap with their pet project. It’s time for some inspiration. For me, this typically comes in the form of conferences and other bigger events. Having a day or two to step out of your regular work, hear some new ideas and stories from interesting speakers, and meeting other people who are facing the same challenges can give an infusion of excitement and re-energize your spirit. You’re likely not going to walk away with new, deep knowledge on a subject, but you will probably at least pick up a concept or two to go back and try with your team. And most importantly, you’ll be inspired to keep pushing forward!
Product management is a team sport, and so is personal development. Sure, you can do a lot of the initial learning on your own, but you will grow so much more if you have ongoing support from other people. Whether they’re helping you work through challenges as you encounter them, or celebrating successes as they happen, you need others surrounding you, keeping you accountable, and helping you on your journey.
Support can come in many forms — I encourage you to look beyond your manager to give you different perspectives. Professional coaches, mentors and peer groups, internal communities of practice in your company, local meetups, and membership communities are all great ways to get support.
Learning is a journey
Creating a balanced development mix is only the beginning. None of these elements are one-time efforts, and they’re not things to check off a list and consider “done”. You need the occasional injection of inspiration, regular practice sessions, continued exposure to new ideas to keep your curiosity alive, and strong relationships with your network of support to keep the momentum. The more you put into it, the more fun the journey will be. It’s exciting to grow, and it’s even more exciting to grow with others!
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